A Heart of Gold

A Heart of Gold

Marsha Ledesma
From the book “Living from the Heart”
August 2009
I once read a newspaper article written by the late Max Soliven, a prominent Filipino journalist. He wrote that his car had broken down during rush hour in a busy Makati intersection. He was late for an appointment in Malacañang, desperately trying to hail a cab, his SOS calls not getting through his office. A stranger, who was driving past, pulled over, offered to help, and went out of his way to give him a lift home . A simple act – but in Manila, one of heroic proportions.

On the road, the stranger followed all traffic rules, which impressed Max Soliven even more. He turned out to be Alex Lacson, author of the famous book “12 Little Things Every Filipino Can Do to Help Our Country.” Months later, I received a copy of his book from World Vision. In it, he says there’s hope for the Philippines because “the answer is in us as a people, the hope is in us as a people.”

I featured his book in the “Making a Difference” section of the Manila guide I was writing then. When I met him, I was reminded of one of the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek …” His softspokenness, humility, and unassuming ways belied strong convictions, a deep love of country, and a high intellect.

I asked him about the Max Soliven article. He said that during those days – having no marketing or promotion plan for the book – he’d often lie in bed, asking God to send him the right people to promote the book. When Max Soliven’s article came out on December 19, 2005 – just 6 months after his little book was published – his speaking engagements for 2006 jumped to almost 300. Now, four years later, he still averages 3 to 4 speaking invitations a week.

Alexander Lacson is more than just an author – he is a nation-builder.

He grew up in a small town in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental. He was the second youngest of 8 children. His mother taught second graders for the greater part of her adult life (she retired in 1999) – her pupils being mostly poor children living in the mountains. His father finished high school only. Although not an affluent man, his father ran a reasonably profitable business – until he abandoned his family when Alex was 14 years old. His leaving heaped not only financial burdens on the family but also a certain amount of shame – a shame that was certainly irrational, but nonetheless real, in a small town such as theirs.

Alex witnessed how his mother would cry at night, worried about their future. To find work – and perhaps to escape the shame – the five older children left home, while the younger ones (including Alex) stayed with their mother.

The experience left the young Alex feeling broken. It planted in him a desire to rebuild his family – a desire that could perhaps explain, in part, his passion and determination for his bigger family – the Filipino nation.

After graduating from high school in 1982, Alex was granted a scholarship at the Philippine Military Academy where he studied for three years, until he transferred to the University of the Philippines (Diliman) to study political science and law.

While studying, he worked as a professor’s assistant by day and a bank telemarketer by night. To help with his tuition, he was sent money by one of his sisters who worked in Japan. After getting his undergraduate degree, Alex worked full-time in the day and went to the UP College of Law at night. He graduated in 1996. In 2002, he took postgraduate studies at the Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass. USA.

In 1990, his ailing father went back home. Alex was in his early 20’s at that time and was still in college. It was then that he learned that he has a half-brother, his father’s son with a househelper (who had died when the child was still very young). Alex could see his father’s face in the young man, who was also in his early 20’s, but younger. Sadly, however, his father did not acknowledge him as a son, even until he passed away in 1993.

While reviewing for the bar exam in 1995, Alex went to search for his half-brother, who had gone to live in Palawan, in one of the very poor towns where travel was difficult. He eventually found him – a fisherman who went into the seas everyday, living simply in a bahay kubo with his wife and 3 children. His half-brother was extremely moved that Alex had looked for him. Alex wanted to show and give him the love their father was unable to give.

Alex supported his half-brother’s family and sent the children to school. The eldest is now working in Makati; the others are still in college and high school. Alex also helped his half-brother get a job as messenger at the Palawan State University.

After becoming a lawyer, Alex somehow became the patriarch of the family, supporting his brothers and sisters. They live in different parts of the Philippines, others later migrated abroad.

In 2006, one of his sisters – who was pregnant with her sixth child – was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she passed away, Alex sent her older children to school and adopted the infant (who is now the youngest among Alex’s 4 children aged 13, 11, 9, and 3).

From the time he started working, Alex set aside a portion of his salary, saving up to buy a 3,800-sqm lot in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental which he wanted to divide among his brothers and sisters, wanting all of them to be together. Alex had already bought the property.

In 1999 and 2000, Alex and his wife thought of migrating to the US or Canada, thinking of their children’s future. But after a long discussion, they decided to stay.

In June 2005, Alex quietly published his book – “12 Little Things Every Filipino Can Do To Help Our Country”. With no marketing campaign, it became a bestseller – largely by word-of-mouth – its message striking a chord in many people. Proceeds of book sales have been used for building a chapel in his hometown, as well as for scholarships (with 38 scholars to date).

Alex understands the words of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta – that of being “a small pencil in the hand of a writing God.” He believed it was no accident he was born in the Philippines – the Great Designer had a purpose in making him a writer, and in putting him in the Philippines instead of another country; that the Filipino people are the ones God wants him to call family on earth. As such, no one should be left behind, that those who have much have a responsibility to help those who have less.

In a speech he gave in June 2009 at the Harvard Kennedy School, Alex echoed the following sentiments of Singaporean leader Lee Kwan Yew in a 1994 Time Magazine interview —

Culture is destiny. Your culture will determine your destiny. Your set of beliefs will determine how far you will go in life. If you believe you are a failure, you will be a failure. If you believe you are great, you will be great. If you want to excel, you must build a culture of excellence. If you want to become great, you must build a culture of greatness… [This] applies not only to an individual person. It also applies to a people. A people’s culture will determine the destiny of that people.

Alex believes that we, as a people, should have a Culture of Familihood – that we should truly love, respect and care for one another. Dapat wala tayong dayaan. Dapat wala tayong gulangan. Dapat wala tayong iwanan.

In his book, Alex mentions that little things – such as following traffic rules, adoption of scholars – enrich our culture, polish it. It is this culture as a nation and as a people that will determine how far we will go. Therefore, we need to enrich this culture, polish it.

Together. As a nation and as a people.

Related Articles:
A Filipino of Faith, by Max Soliven
In The Words of A Friend, by Rhoneil Fajardo
World Vision & My Family, by Maureen Miclat