RIVERMAN’S VISTA: For future Mindanao Doctors and Lawyers: Challenge, Mission, Promise

(Commencement Speech by Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Government Dean Antonio G. M. La Viña, JSD,  at the School of Medicine and College of Law, Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan Cagayan de Oro, 24 April 2014)

I have three words to share with you – challenge, mission, and promise.

First, let me throw a challenge to you, future lawyers and doctors: How do you respond to accusation that many in both our professions are tax cheaters and obsessed only with accumulating money, property and power?

Second, let me share my thoughts about what I think is the mission of doctors and lawyers here in our Great Island and beautiful country. I will talk specifically about two challenges we must face head on – responding effectively to climate-related disasters and working for permanent peace in Mindanao.

Third, and last, I will propose that impossible as these missions seem to be, hearts capable of solidarity and eyes of faith open doors that seem impenetrable. Promise is the last word I will ask us to reflect on.

Incidentally, I originally wanted to also share my thoughts on the reproductive health law as it is one issue that interests both doctors and lawyers, but given the complexity of that issue and the Solomonic way the Supreme Court decided the case that came before it, that would have to be a separate lecture I will plan to deliver when I teach at the College of Law starting in June. You might also want to follow me in Facebook or like my Facebook page where I have post regularly my articles about this and other important topics.

Challenge: Are we tax cheaters?

On the first word – challenge – let me go straight to the point and ask you very directly:  Why have our professions been reduced to the caricatures portrayed in the ads the Bureau of Internal Revenue have been running against doctors and lawyers? Are those caricatures justified? Are they based on the truth?

And if any of you here, graduates and others in the audience, are both doctors and lawyers, as the former president of the Philippine Medical Association now facing tax evasion charges, then you are in double jeopardy. And of course if you are boxers also, then you are in triple jeopardy.

Many of us, and I am sure we have a number of lawyers and doctors here, have been offended, even incensed at Commissioner Kim Henares for unfairly portraying everyone in our professions as cheaters and lawbreakers. Of course, it is not right to make such a blanket accusation; of course, it is wrong not to differentiate between good and bad people, between law-abiding citizens and criminals. But as valid as our anger might be, we do have to confront the figures that have been thrown to us. That teachers pay a lot more taxes than most lawyers and doctors. That in fact many doctors and lawyers do not give receipts or even file tax returns. That employees whose taxes are withheld have unduly carried the tax burden in this country. That professionals, along side businesspersons, have not paid their just share while benefiting more from the public services government provides like roads and other infrastructure.

I think that we need to answer those figures with hard facts. Without such facts on our side – and that actually means we see in the years to come substantial increases in filings and paid taxes by lawyers and doctors, we might as well raise the white flag in the propaganda war. In a war like this, falsity can only be won by confronting it with the truth. But if truth is not on our side, then as the motto of this university reminds us, we will not be set free.

Incidentally, the payment of the right taxes is actually inherent in the definition of what a professional means. Doing this properly, which I think also require tax administration reforms in the country, has become more urgent in the light of the looming economic integration of our ASEAN region in 2015. That integration will eventually require professionals from our region to compete with each other. We will be in no position to compete if our tax liabilities and accountabilities continue to be unclear.

Mission: What are professionals for others?

Let me go now to my second word – mission.

The irony about this tax controversy involving doctors and lawyers is that our professions were supposed to be above money. In fact that is why we are professionals.  To be a professional means to profess, to vow to follow a code of ethics and a set of standards laid down by the eminent members of the profession we belong to. We are not traders or laborers, which require skill and honor as well but are not governed, until recently, by as definite a set of ethical rules as professionals is. In addition, we are professionals because “professors” trained us – our knowledge is not self-acquired but are passed on to us our elders. We are not allowed to advertise our services – to be ambulance chasers – precisely because that behavior is supposed to be beneath us.

In all of these descriptions of professionals, isn’t there an aura of nobility of purpose in being a lawyer and doctor?

Look back now on your years of medical and law schools and see how even today that is how you have been trained. Even the bar and the medical board exams are designed to shape you to be these professionals.

The oaths you will take once you have passed your licensure exams will also remind you of the nobility of our professions and society’s great expectations.

For you future doctors, you must of course be familiar with the ancient oath of Hippocrates. As I am sure most if not all of you will pass, given the excellent record of your school in the board exams, why don’t you practice and repeat loudly or silently after me this excerpt from that oath: “I will use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgment. I will abstain from harming or wrong doing any man by it. I will not give a fatal draught to anyone if I am asked, nor will I suggest any such thing. Neither will I give a woman means to procure an abortion. I will be chaste and religious in my life and in my practice. I will not cut, even for the stone, but I will leave such procedures to the practitioners of that craft. Whenever I go into a house I will go to help the sick and never with the intention of doing harm or injury. I will not abuse my position to indulge in sexual contacts with the bodies of women or of men whether they be freemen or slaves. Whatever I see or hear, whether professionally or privately which ought not to be divulged I will keep secret and tell no one. If therefore, I observe this oath and do not violate it, may I prosper both in my life and in my profession, earning good repute among all men for all time. If I transgress and foreswear this oath, may my lot be otherwise.”

For you future lawyers, and since you will improve the performance of the College of Law next year, I predict that most if not all of you will also become lawyers, practice and repeat also loudly or silently after me this excerpt of what you will profess before my classmate Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and the Supreme Court en banc next April or May: “I will do no falsehood, nor consent to the doing of any in court; I will not wittingly or willingly promote or sue any groundless, false or unlawful suit, or give aid nor consent to the same; I will delay no man for money or malice, and will conduct myself as a lawyer according to the best of my knowledge and discretion, with all good fidelity as well to the courts as to my clients; and I impose upon myself these voluntary obligations without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion. So help me God.”

How magnificent these oaths are. In these words, you see why we are called professionals. But do we deserve such a title. Or more importantly, what must we do to deserve being called the wonderful titles of doctor or attorney?

To answer these, let me propose that the right phrase that describes what kind of doctors or lawyers you want to be is “professionals for others.” This morning, Fr. Bobby told stories of Pope Francis and from that articulated characteristics of what this university has formed you to become – doctors and lawyers for others. Nearness to others, simplicity, a commitment to the poor, mercy and joy. Let’s deepen that further by looking at what is meant by “professionals for others”.

This is a phrase coined by former Jesuit Provincial Fr. Danny Huang SJ, who is now based in Rome assisting Fr. Adolfo Nicolas SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus. In a 2006 speech at the Ateneo de Manila, when he was still the leader of the Philippine Jesuits, Fr. Danny pointed that “all professions can be oriented towards the values of the Gospel for the redemption of history and for the building of the nation”.

If you asked me, who are professionals for others, I have an easy answer for you. You don’t really have to look far and beyond this university and city to know who they are. Your deans, Dr. Ruth Beltran and Atty. Rocky Villanueva, your faculty members like my Ateneo de Manila classmate and fellow Jesuit Volunteer Dr. Gina Itchon, your former law dean and now Court of Appeals Justice Romy Borja, my own UP Law contemporaries who are now RTC Judges in this city Judge Azon Gaite-Llanderal and Judge Tess Bernales, my friend and alumnus also of this law school Judge Richard Mordeno, my high school classmates Doctors Meneleo Navarro and Raoul de la Serna who were among the first alumni of the School of Medicine, and our very own Mayor, Hon. Oscar Moreno. They are world-class doctors and lawyers and they can be anywhere in the Philippines and the world and yet they have decided to stay here with us, teach you, and serve our communities.

I will be remiss if I do not, at this point mention my father, Atty. Gabriel La Viña, who finished his law school in San Beda, and whose class/school mates became Supreme Court Justices, Senators and top practitioners in Manila. My father decided to stay here in Cagayan de Oro, teach a couple of generations of lawyers through the XU College of Law, and had a significant legal aid practice. That is why when my mother, Lourdes La Vina asked me how we could best remember my father, I suggested, and she immediately agreed, that we establish and endowment fund for faculty development at the College of Law. By the way, for the health professionals here, my mother, who was the first woman Kagawad of Cagayan de Oro, sponsored the ordinance establishing the barangay health worker system in our city.

Challenges facing Mindanao doctors and lawyers

How about you? As future doctors and lawyers of Mindanao, today, what are the challenges of being professionals for others in our island and in our country? What big issues are we facing where our talents and skills are in great need? As doctors and lawyers, how can we be true today to the nobility of our professions by doing things that really make a difference?

To me, there are two elephants in the room that require all the knowledge and energy of professionals for others. These are climate-related disasters on one hand and war and conflict in our island on the other. I predict that, like it or not, at some point in your future careers as lawyers and doctors, you will be faced with situations resulting from or the other of these issues.

You are now familiar of course with the challenge of climate change. In 2011, in this city, thousands died because of Sendong. In 2012, in another part of Mindanao, Pablo destroyed many villages and changed permanently many landscapes. And of course last year, in the Visayas, we are familiar with what Yolanda’s storm surges and winds killed and decimated.

We are familiar too with the failures of our government and society, indeed of most of our institutions, to respond adequately to these massive disasters. At the same time, we know that it is possible to make a difference as Xavier University did in the aftermath of Sendong with the world-class relief operations it carried out and with the success of the Ecoville project where we are able to show that communities can rebuild better and safer.

There will be many more disasters to come. And both doctors and lawyers are needed to respond to them. The need for medical services is self-evident and part of first response. But lawyers are indispensable too, even if their services are needed later. For example in the Leyte-Samar area, as I found out last month when I visited, thousands of people need basic legal assistance to restore their legal identity, benefit from emergency and other socio-economic benefits, and ensure the protection of their property. To respond to this need, next month, we are sending a big team of lawyers and law students from the top law schools to the Leyte-Samar area. They will have to live in tents and suffer inconveniences but I have promised them that they will never regret this chance to serve. Besides, as I have found out in my own career path, any professional experience related to climate change, whether you are a doctor or lawyer, is bound to open many opportunities for a young professional. I did not anticipate that in 1990 when I decided to do my doctoral dissertation in Yale University on climate change but becoming a pioneering legal expert on climate change has brought with it incredible professional and economic rewards while at the same time giving you the satisfaction that you are making a difference.

Let me now go to the other big challenge for you, future Mindanao doctors and lawyers: making sure that we have permanent peace in our island and country. Again, professionals with medical and legal expertise are necessary to make that happen.

For me, what is happening in Zamboanga City, with many children dying because of illnesses, is unforgivable. The failure of our public health authorities to address this continuing tragedy is not explainable. There can be no peace if people are not healthy. And so-called peace, where people die like flies in refugee camps, do not deserve to be honored.

On the legal front of course, even with the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, lots of work still needs to be done. Crafting the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro has been challenging and tricky. If not done well, the basic law and the comprehensive agreement itself could be successfully challenged in the Supreme Court and we will find ourselves back to square one.

As someone who saw the consequences of war in the 1970s, when Cagayan de Oro became the refugee centers for both Christians and Muslims alike, this is an unacceptable outcome. Although I have negotiated principally for the Philippine government in the negotiations with the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) in the 1990s and the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) in more recent years, I have always honored and respected our Moro brothers and sisters and believed that justice and peace required recognizing for them the highest form of autonomy and that in my view is what the new Bangsamoro can potentially be. But it must be done right legally and politically.

In sum, both these issues – climate disasters and peace building – will demand a lot from you. They will stretch your skills and imagination as professionals. They will test your commitment to be servant leaders and change makers.

You have advantages of course, compared to other generations. You have technology on your side – new medical equipment  for better diagnosis and treatment for the doctors and new communications technology to the lawyers that gives laws and decisions literally at your fingertips wherever you are. And both doctors and lawyers of your generation now have Facebook, Twitter, and other social media that make information and means of communications instantly available as you need them.

Still, the challenges I mentioned are very challenging. They have been described as wicked problems – they are so complex and have multiple dimensions that must be all addressed if they are to be solved. Indeed, the persistence of poverty in our society and the ineptness of our governance institutions exacerbate climate disasters and make more difficult the peace building work and you cannot really overcome the latter challenges without making progress against poverty and successfully reforming governance.

In the face of difficulty, should you then just give up, pack up and leave this island, accept defeat and migrate to another country. Can we really defeat climate change, or at least adapt to it? Is peace really possible in this land?

Last word: Promise of hope

These questions bring me to my third and last word – promise.

And for this final part, let me borrow the words of Pope Francis last Saturday during the Easter Vigil in Rome when he urged us to return to Galilee, which if you recall was his command to his disciples after the resurrection.  Let me quote Pope Francis:

“Galilee is the place where they were first called, where everything began!  To return there, to return to the place where they were originally called.  Jesus had walked along the shores of the lake as the fishermen were casting their nets.  He had called them, and they left everything and followed him.

To return to Galilee means to re-read everything on the basis of the cross and its victory.  To re-read everything – Jesus’ preaching, his miracles, the new community, the excitement and the defections, even the betrayal – to re-read everything starting from the end, which is a new beginning, from this supreme act of love.

For each of us, too, there is a “Galilee” at the origin of our journey with Jesus.  “To go to Galilee” means something beautiful, it means rediscovering our baptism as a living fountainhead, drawing new energy from the sources of our faith and our Christian experience.  To return to Galilee means above all to return to that blazing light with which God’s grace touched me at the start of the journey.  From that flame I can light a fire for today and every day, and bring heat and light to my brothers and sisters.  That flame ignites a humble joy, a joy which sorrow and distress cannot dismay, a good, gentle joy.”

I would like to think that whatever religious beliefs you hold, whether you are Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or any other faith, you can find your way back to that Galilee, that place where you first encountered your God, from which you can always find the strength and the hope to carry on the tasks of being professionals for others.

For me, this university church is actually that place. This is where I did my first confession and communion. This is where I served mass frequently for that great Jesuit Fr. Tony Cuna. This is where our high school graduation was held. And in the turbulent years of the 1980s, when I was a philosophy teacher here in this campus, discerning whether I was being called to be a priest or revolutionary, to join the Jesuits or get married, I found solace in this church and I was assured that everything would be all right because God, not me, was in control.

The famous Jesuit Fr. Horacio de la Costa once wrote: “There is very little peace and justice in the world today.  But God does not want us just to pray for peace and justice. He wants us to bring them about.  He stands by to help; to work miracles, if necessary, but only if we do what we can, give what we have to give. He will fill our nets with fish; but only if we are willing to fish all night, even if we catch nothing. He will make our water wine, but only if we take our jars to the well and stagger back filled not halfway but to the brim.  He will feed multitudes, but only if we are willing to share our limited resources, our five loaves and two fishes, and by using the intelligence he has given us, by hard work, thrift, foresight and courage, try to expand these resources.”

On this note then, with this promise that if we do our part, the Kingdom of God is not very far away, in fact it is here, let me end my speech. I thank you for listening to my three words. Perhaps, you can carry them with you as you review for your bar and board, maybe inspire you to do well in those exams so you can do good as a doctor or lawyer. I wish you good luck, and at this same time next year, or maybe earlier for the graduates of the School of Medicine, I hope I will be able to call you doctor and lawyer – for others.

URL: http://www.mindanews.com/mindaviews/2014/04/27/rivermans-vista-for-future-mindanao-doctors-and-lawyers-challenge-mission-promise/

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