By: Jose Angelo C. Tiglao
De La Salle University
“We all want to change the world for the better. But the person who prayed must be emulated. He said, ‘God, preserve this country, and begin with me.”
– Miriam Defensor-Santiago (2016)
If there is one lesson in life which I kept close to my heart, it would be that if one would dream to change the world, the change must begin with him.
What is the dream? Well, beyond wanting to become a lawyer, I have always wanted to help change and improve our legal system. I want Filipinos to trust our judicial institutions; I want our citizens to feel that it is the rule of law, not the rule of man, that would always prevail; and most importantly, I dream for the time when we all enjoy justice as a right, not as privilege.
But just like what was mentioned by the late senator, the person who prayed must be emulated. As the Lasallian saying goes, “Let us start the change we want to see. The change that begins in me.”
Through this essay, I will share with you three personal stories in my life which opened my eyes to the struggles of the everyday Filipino – stories which opened my eyes as to the idea of protecting our liberties and encouraging prosperity. It is by way of these stories that I hope to picture out to you my dream, for both myself and our country, in light of the Foundation’s philosophy.
Let me begin by sharing with you my story.
ON EXPERIENCING LIBERTY
Seven years ago, I was a fresh high school graduate looking for a good university where I can take up my pre-law. I was fortunate enough to be given a scholarship by De La Salle University to pursue a degree in Political Science.
My home back then was the College of Liberal Arts – a college that housed students who took up majors in the social sciences and the humanities. Basically, we were coined as the “liberal” college. Please don’t take me the wrong way. When I say “liberal”, I don’t refer to any specific point in the political compass. For us, to be “liberal” was to be free.
Looking back, I served in our student council as the president of the College of Liberal Arts, being ever so passionate about the concept of liberty – about the idea of being free. To be exact, during the Freshmen Orientation in 2013, where I delivered a message to them, I shared with them a short conversation that I had with our Dean, Dr. Julio Teehankee, on my first day on the job as president.
If one is to meet his Dean for the first time, one would normally expect that he would ask those usual questions such as “What is your vision?” or “What is your plan for the student council and for the college?” Surprisingly, those questions weren’t asked. Rather, he asked a very deep question: “What does it mean to be liberal? To be a student of the liberal arts?”
I was struck. I felt like I was in class, unprepared to answer the question of the professor. Pressured, I answered the first thing that came into my head. I answered, “For me, to be liberal is to be free.”
He posed another question, “What does it mean to be free?”. I paused. I honestly did not know what to answer because in my head, all I can think of was, “To be free is… to be free.”
During this moment, I remember how it was obvious in my face that I was struggling to find an answer. This is when my Dean said these very inspiring words: “To be free is to be human – to live without fear and hesitation. That is freedom.”
Liberty. This was the first time I truly grasped the concept of liberty. The state of being free from oppression and injustice; the state of allowing people to be free to make their own choices without others having to breathe down their necks.
New to the concept of liberty, I brought this learning with me during my term as president. I wanted my officers to be free to think of ideas and to cultivate an environment where they are not afraid to make their voices heard. I hoped that the concept of fear and hesitation be replaced with enthusiasm and passion. I did not simply want them to understand what liberty is – I wanted them to experience it.
But how does one experience liberty? To be honest, it was hard for me to picture it out to my officers. How can you make one understand the value of freedom? Thinking of ways to do this, I turned to one of our projects entitled, “Be the Sun”. Started way back in 2012, it was a project where we spearheaded the installation of armchairs in an Alternative Learning Center. Prior to this initiative, the school did not have any arm chairs. The students sat on the floor or used plastic chairs – both of which are not conducive for learning. I thought to myself that if I wanted us to visualize liberty, we must see it, feel it, and live it.
We paid a visit to the school and we prepared an event for the students. We gave out school supplies, prepared food, as well as conducted a program for them. During the program, the principal asked one of the students to give a short message as a way of giving thanks. I remember clearly what he said back then – “Maraming salamat po, lalo na po sa mga upuan kasi ngayon po, makaka-aral na kami ng mabuti.”
How is this relevant to the concept of liberty? Because of our busy lifestyles, our generation tends to forget and disregard the liberties and the opportunities that we currently possess. If not, we totally fail to appreciate that we are lucky enough that we enjoy these kinds of freedom. Come to think of it – the kids in the school and us, the ones who organized the event, should ideally enjoy the same kind of liberty. But is that the case? Obviously not. In the ideal world, my freedom should be the same as his freedom. Unfortunately, this is not the reality.
And it’s not just with one freedom, but with all others such as the freedom of expression, freedom to organize and assemble, and so many other liberties enshrined under the Constitution. While we are all expected to have these rights, the government has consistently failed to uphold these freedoms across the board. I am privileged that I am given the chance to exercise these rights because I was sent to a good school and obtained a great education. I have a voice. But how about those who feel that they are powerless? Oppressed? And most of all, not free?
It is the duty of government to ensure that no matter one’s social and economic status, that person should enjoy the same freedoms as those of another. The eyes of the State should look in favor of the last, the lost, and the least, because these people need help. They need our support. More than pushing them away, their individual liberties should be encouraged, supported, and protected. To be free is to be human… but the opposite is likewise true. Hence, to be human is to be free, and the government should make sure that those who are at the margins of society should be given the chance to live out the state of liberty through their support, and not serve as the antagonists to their tale of freedom.
ON REDEFINING PROSPERITY
Let me tell you a story when I attended my first jail decongestion project this year with the Humanitarian Legal Assistance Foundation. We went to the Cavite Provinicial Jail where I was tasked to discuss certain areas on Criminal Procedure, specifically the Modes of Release, to the detainees. I joined this project wanting to get a better glimpse of our prisons and gain a better understanding as to why justice in our country is almost always delayed and unreachable.
While I was giving my talk, I had to respond to various questions by the detainees. It ranged from clarifications to the law all the way to them asking possible scenarios that they may encounter. But the most interesting thing I heard during my talk was not a question, but more of a statement. The woman said, “Sir, salamat po sa inyo, alam na po namin an gaming mga karapatan. Pero ang problema din po kasi namin sir, wala po kaming abogado. Wala po kaming pera. Wala pong handang magtanggol sa amin. Paano po yun?”
I was dumbfounded. I had to go to my supervisor and ask what I should say. At that moment, I wanted to be a member of the Bar and take on their cases. Idealistic right? But, it’s true. I realized that no matter how much I try to explain to them their rights, if no one would be there to defend them, what use would it be? The same is true even to those who are not detained. What use is democracy when there is no development? Is there really justice when there is no employment?
Prosperity – the Foundation believes that this concept must work side by side with liberty, and for good reason. It is not enough for the government to ensure that our rights and freedoms are protected. It is equally important to understand that the rule of law is more than just about what is legal or not, but also what is right and just for the people.
The fact that our justice system is not perfect is undisputed. Dockets are full, trials take a long time, and justice is again, almost always delayed. However, we have to give credit to our judges for giving so much of their time and energy to ensure that fairness is applied in all their decisions. They try, at their very best, to safeguard the liberties of both parties, and to ensure that the truth is what truly prevails.
But is this the only role of judges and lawyers? I don’t think so. The role of the judiciary in the progress of our society is more than just interpreting the law. It is also about contributing to the idea of prosperity by ensuring that the economic rights of its citizens are protected.
Sadly, law school does not teach us this. We are taught how to read, interpret, and use the law. But we are not taught how to actualize the concept of prosperity in real life. No wonder judges find it challenging to decide on cases which heavily impact our economy. They have to balance the need to uphold the law on one hand and the concept of social justice on the other. How should they draw the line between acting as decision makers but also being concerned about the country’s welfare?
It is very difficult to balance the scales of liberty and prosperity; nonetheless, both must go hand in hand. My story involving the detainees is an illustration that our courts, more often than not, must work hard to strike a balance between safeguarding our individual liberties and at the same time, ensuring that the general welfare of our country is protected.
ON EMBODYING HOPE FOR OTHERS
The first question any law student will have to answer is: “Why take up law?” In this third and final tale, let me run you through you my personal journey, the discovery of my “why”, and my dream – all of which will be discussed side by side the Foundation’s philosophy.
When I was a kid, whenever my parents would ask me what I dreamed to be when I grow up, I would always answer that I wanted to be a lawyer. I do not recall a single moment in my life when I replied differently. It has always been the dream.
But the reason why I wanted to become a lawyer came many years later. Back in 2011, I witnessed for the first time on live television, the action-packed impeachment trial of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona. I was a nerd when it came to the trial – thinking as if it was a hit television series which I had to watch almost every single day. The excitement brought by the exchanges made by the prosecution, defense, and the senator-judges invigorated me. Then and there, I found my “why” to the question – why take up law?
I saw that the lawyers during the impeachment had a standard set of skills – they were good speakers who knew how to think off their feet. They were quick, witty, and strategic – traits which I think I carry until today. I pictured myself that someday, I could be one of them, part of the elite circle of lawyers who I look up to.
Years have passed and I continued to carry with me that “why”. I entered law school so passionate and wanting to change the world – for the better. But just like anything in this world, my reason why I wanted to become a lawyer started to change. The time I spent in law school opened my eyes that not all lawyers are the same. I saw that our justice system was not perfect. I witnessed the last, the lost, and the least become victims of our corrupt society. I became a spectator to all this sadness. I felt helpless and powerless. For the first time in my life, I felt like I can’t do anything.
It is only when I started my legal aid program when I started to feel different. The first case I ever handled was a habeas corpus petition for our client who was detained due to mistaken identity. At the outset, my interaction with the client was very limited. I was tasked to do research, file pleadings, and participate in brainstorming sessions with the team. During these times, I saw the law as a game of chess, one where whoever had the best strategy wins. I won’t pretend to be a saint and say I disliked the feeling of winning – no, in fact, I wanted to win because that is how I saw the lawyers who I looked up to when I was young. They were winners.
But this kind of thinking, that lawyers are supposed to be great speakers, critical thinkers, brilliant strategists, and competitive people – these changed when I met our client. My perspective of the law turned into a different light when I saw our client in the court room, hands cuffed together, and with his face, full of sadness. What made the experience an eye opener for me was that he was in the courtroom with more than a dozen other detainees, all of whom are sad, lonely, and most of all, hopeless.
It is only when our team, led by our supervising attorney, stared talking to him that he smiled. His smile was priceless. For the first time in my life, I never thought how just my mere presence meant something to someone. How I did not have to do anything just for someone to smile. Let it not be forgotten that I am a complete stranger to this man. We have never met. But he smiled, and we went to court – battled it out, together.
Looking back, I remember asking my supervising lawyer afterwards why he smiled. He answered, “Because you gave him hope. When no one was there, we came. In his eyes, we are hope.”
Liberty and Prosperity – these two values are necessarily intertwined just like how my life was intertwined with that of our client. As an incoming senior and a future lawyer, I want to keep these values close to my heart, serving as the reasons why I continue to fight for my dream. I want to work for government – the judiciary specifically, because I see the struggles of our judges wanting to give justice to all of the parties but are greatly disempowered due to the lack of resources and support from the two other branches of government. I dream to be a lawyer who is ignited by passion to give back to those who are at the margins of our society, and at the same time, hopefully to give justice and to seek the truth in all cases. It doesn’t matter to me whether I’m still a student – the journey begins now because the fight has already started, and I want to be there from now on.
To be their bringer of hope – that is the dream, the passion, and the idea.
For the first time in many years, I found a better reason why I am here and why I wanted to practice law in the first place. It was always to give back to the last, the lost, and the least. My seven years of Lasallian education has truly taught me well because it helped me realize that my dreams are not meant to be just mine alone. Dreams are meant to be shared, and that is why I want to share my own dream of becoming a lawyer to them – to those who need me to be their hope, no matter what the odds.
I am beyond humbled for the time the committee has given in evaluating my application. I will forever be in debt for having been provided the opportunity to share my story to you. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Thank you.