Making the world a better place is a never-ending task. Just as every generation experiences a need, there will always be people who see that need and commit themselves to filling it.
This was the sense conveyed by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF) during the online program announcing the 2022 winners of the prestigious award named after the 7th Philippine president on his birth anniversary on Aug. 31.
Before each winner was announced by RMAF chair Aurelio R. Montinola III, a member of the board of trustees recalled past winners who had pioneered or made inroads in a similar field or advocacy. The manner of presentation thus underscored continuity in and dedication to public service.
The winners of the 64th Ramon Magsaysay Award are Sotheara Chhim of Cambodia, a mental health advocate; Tadashi Hattori of Japan, a sight-saving humanitarian; Bernadette J. Madrid of the Philippines, a children’s rights crusader; and Gary Bencheghib of Indonesia, an anti-plastic pollution warrior.
‘His people’s healer’
Chhim is a psychiatrist who himself suffered trauma as child during the Khmer Rouge regime. Surviving his difficult past, he studied medicine and went on to provide psychological care to Cambodians at the grassroots level through the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO) Cambodia.
“He is recognized for his calm courage in surmounting deep trauma to become his people’s healer,” said Montinola.
Chhim is credited for his nuanced approach to healing mental health issues, particularly baksbat (broken courage), a trauma-based cultural syndrome akin to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Board trustee Ernesto Garilao cited past winners in a similar field: Phon Sangsingkeo of Thailand (1965), Gethsie Shanmugam of Sri Lanka (2017), Kim Jong-Ki of South Korea (2019) and Steven Muncy, an American humanitarian working in Southeast Asia (2021).
Garilao said there remained a need “to de-stigmatize and demystify mental illness and the social context in which mental health thrives.”
‘Skill and compassion’
Japanese ophthalmologist Hattori worked in various hospitals after graduating from Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine. In 2002, a Vietnamese doctor invited him to visit Hanoi. Moved by the severe lack of specialists there, he embarked on a personal mission, treating thousands of Vietnamese with cataract blindness, shuttling between the two countries.
The RMAF recognizes Hattori’s “simple humanity and extraordinary generosity…his skill and compassion…and the inspiration he has given by his shining example, that one person can make a difference in helping kindness flourish in the world.”
Earlier laureates have similarly proven that “goodness is truly borderless,” said RMAF board trustee Cielito Habito. He cited another Japanese doctor, Tetsu Nakamura (2003), who was made an honorary citizen of Afghanistan for helping nearly a million people through medical and agricultural missions.
British doctors Sir Henry Holland and his son Ronald (1960) also restored sight to thousands of nomads in Pakistan, and American educator Welthy Fisher (1964) trained teachers in India and other Asian countries.
Champion of abused children
Madrid, this year’s awardee from the Philippines, is a pediatrician who is recognized for her “competence and compassion in devoting herself to seeing that every abused child lives in a healing, safe, and nurturing society.”
She has been at the forefront of providing medical, legal, and psychosocial care to children and women who are victims of abuse, the RMAF said in its citation.
Madrid attended the University of the Philippines Manila and took a postgraduate residency fellowship in ambulatory pediatrics at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, which had a child abuse program. She tried to set up a similar program at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), but with little support, it was short-lived.
A few years into private practice in her home province, Iloilo, she was called back to Manila in 1996 to head an emergency unit for abused children in PGH, “at the insistence of UP Manila and American child protection crusader David Bradley and the Advisory Board Foundation (now CityBridge Foundation),” according to a profile furnished by the RMAF.
The PGH Child Protection Unit is the first such facility in the Philippines. With Madrid at the helm over the next 25 years, it would be regarded as “the best medical system for abused children in Southeast Asia.”
RMAF board trustee Emily Abrera named other individuals who have shown the same kind of “courage and tenacity to advocate for the rights of children”: Prateep Ungsongtham-Hata of Thailand (1978), Kim Im-Soon of South Korea (1989), Shanta Sinha of India (2003) and Chung To of China (2007).
Abrera noted that particularly during the pandemic, the rights of children, the most vulnerable sector, have been overlooked.
“We need to create compassionate systems that would combat this embedded viciousness in homes, schools, communities, societies. And we need people who courageously push for opportunities to help young girls and boys, so that they can fight their own battles without fear and build a future for themselves,” she said.
Anti-plastic pollution warrior Bencheghib is recognized for Emergent Leadership, for “combining nature, adventure, video, and technology as weapons for social advocacy… truly a shining example for the youth and the world.”
The French-born youth was 9 years old when his parents decided to move to Bali. Being a nature and adventure lover, he soon saw the not-so-postcard-pretty side of the popular tourist destination. As teenagers, he, his siblings and friends started a weekly beach clean-up. The activity evolved into the “Make a Change World” organization, which would produce educational multimedia content on plastic pollution and environmental protection.
The RMAF began giving the award in the Emergent Leadership category in 2001 to individuals 40 years old and under, or organizations 10 years old and below. Board trustee Randy David said it was an affirmation of the importance of the work of the youth and their potential to accomplish even more.
Previous recipients are Oung Chanthol of Cambodia (2001), Arvind Kejriwal of India (2006), Ananda Galappatti of Sri Lanka (2008), and the organization Watchdoc from Indonesia (2021).
“Our Emergent Leadership laureates continue to prove, year on year, that leadership and greatness of spirit know no age or borders,” said David.
Greatness of spirit
In the past 65 years, 340 men and women across Asia have been uplifting the lives of their communities through selfless service, from the Dalai Lama of Tibet (1959), Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1962) to Filipino fisherman Roberto “Ka Dodoy” Ballon (2021), as noted by RMAF president Susan B. Afan.
They exemplify the “greatness of spirit,” the character trait inspired by former President Ramon Magsaysay, whose credo states in part: “I believe that the President should set the example of a big heart, an honest mind, sound instincts, the virtue of healthy impatience and an abiding love for the common man. I believe that government starts at the bottom and moves upward, for government exists for the welfare of the masses of the nation.”
In a tribute opening the awards announcement program, Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr. hailed Magsaysay as “a true servant leader who earned the respect, admiration, and affection of the people.” He recalled that 68 years ago on his birthday, Magsaysay travelled around Central Luzon talking to people amid a heavy downpour.
While foundation members and staff are hard put to define “greatness of spirit,” Afan said, “we know it and feel it when we see it.” She draws from the words of American public historian James Rush, the RMAF’s resident biographer for three decades. Interviewing over a hundred awardees, Rush discerned their “heightened sense of the common good and capacity for sustained moral commitment.”
The RM Award ensures that “greatness of spirit” will live on.
Angelina G. Goloy is a former newspaper editor and PR consultant. She edited AwardeeLinks, an e-newsletter of RM Award laureates in the 2000s, and is one of the writer-editors of the RMAF nine-volume book series, “Great Men and Women of Asia.” —Ed.
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