In His Own Little Way

RACHEL C. BARAWID, ANGELO G. GARCIA, RONALD S. LIM and JASER A. MARASIGAN

MANILA, Philippines — With his clean-cut hair, ready smile, and soft-spoken demeanor, it’s easy to think of Alexander “Alex” Lacson as your typical, mild-mannered, middleclass Filipino.

But while Lacson may fit that description, it would be a mistake to think that that is all there is to him. After all, this very same mild-mannered man spurred a movement back in 2005 with a dozen tips telling his countrymen about how to make the Philippines a better place.

First published in a broadsheet, Lacson’s 12 tips became a viral hit even before the term was invented – his “12 Little Things Every Filipino Can Do To Help Our Country” was being passed along every Juan de la Cruz’s inbox at the height of its popularity.

Inspired by teachers and students contributing to the Freedom Fund in 2005 – the public response to then President Arroyo’s announcement that the country was undergoing a fiscal crisis – Lacson thought of compiling his tips and turning it into a book.

“I took that call seriously as well, and I thought I could contribute my talent,” he says. “Weeks later I was already thinking of a title for the book, and it took me seven to eight months to finish it.”

The result was a 105-page work that outlined 12 little things — such as following traffic rules and buying Filipino — and how he felt these could change the course of our country.

Just like his list, the book was a hit, reaching far beyond our shores and finding itself in the hands of Filipino communities abroad.

The slim volume even caught the eye of PNoy, who tapped Lacson to be part of his senatorial slate in the last elections.

But while politics may not have been a successful outing, it did not stop Lacson from working for the countrymen that he holds in such high esteem. Lacson leads the Kabayanihan Foundation, an organization that seeks to promote and encourage Filipinos to do small acts of citizenship.

The group has recently launched “12 Little Things Global Filipinos Can Do to Help the Country” in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Chicago. And even after all these years, the reaction to Lacson’s work remains positive.

“I brought 350 books, during my first three days, naubos! Filipinos in 193 countries want to help the country. Marami akong na encounter na frustrated with the country pero mas marami ang positive,” he shares happily.

Kabayanihan has also been working with organizations like the National Dairy Authority, pushing a plan to provide impoverished families around the country with carabaos so as to provide them with a source for supplemental income.

It has certainly been a long and rewarding journey for this man whose childhood was marred by family conflicts. He describes his father as violent and subject to terrible tempers, recalling many instances when his parents would fight. His father even left their family, returning only in the later years of his life.

In 2000, he learned from his mother that his father had initially wanted him to be aborted, a fact that he offers up in the acknowledgments of “12 Little Things Every Filipino Can Do To Help Our Country”. This knowledge, Lacson admits, has affected him a lot, but rather than dwell on it, he saw it as another learning experience.

“I’ve had quarrels with my father during my teenage years. When he left and came back, we were not on good terms, but I tried to mend that relationship with him especially during the last years of his life,” he reveals.

In this 60 Minutes conversation, Alex Lacson proves that even the smallest person doing the tiniest of things can indeed change the future. Whether through encouraging Filipinos here and abroad to give back to the country by simply following traffic rules or taking a vacation here, or by fueling progress in the countryside through Kabayanihan’s support of cooperatives, Lacson is doing his very best to help. He says his happiness these days is hinged upon doing good for his country. And from the looks of it, from the number of people he has inspired with his 12 Little Things, Lacson is certainly a very happy man. (Ronald S. Lim)

STUDENTS AND CAMPUSES BULLETIN (SCB): When did the 12 Little Things book start going international?

ALEXANDER L. LACSON (ALL): When Filipinos from abroad started buying copies of the book. Filipinos here also buy to send to their relatives abroad. Then I would get invitations from Filipino communities abroad. So last May,
I launched the second book “12 Little Things Global Filipinos Can Do to Help the Country”, in New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Chicago. In Las Vegas, it was at the One Filipino Summit and Gawad Kalinga (GK) Hope Ball at the same time. There were four speakers invited including Vice President (Jejomar) Binay, GK’s Tony Meloto, Efren Peñaflorida and myself.

SCB: But what spurred you to write an “international’’ version considering the first 12 things you suggested in the first book are pretty applicable wherever?

ALL: No, kasi things like following traffic rules? Hindi applicable to global Pinoys, because they really follow traffic rules abroad (laughs). “Pay your taxes” in the first book is also not applicable to global Filipinos because they really do.

SCB: But why Pinoys abroad, when the Pinoys here have not really done their share yet?

ALL: There are more than 12 million Filipinos abroad, that’s more than the population of Singapore which is 4.5 million. It’s bigger than the whole of Israel today because Israel is only 7.2 million. If only I could tap them, kahit na 10 percent of that, na tumulong sa bansa. So I listed down 12 simple ideas on how to help the country.

For instance, if they want to adopt a scholar in the Philippines for as low as P500 or P300 a month, I listed the organizations that provide the scholarship program. If you could convince one million Filipinos abroad, that would be one
million poor children sent to school. If they want to build homes for the homeless, I listed organizations like Gawad Kalinga, Couples for Christ, Habitat for Humanity. If they want to build public classrooms, public libraries or public toilets, I listed the organizations.

Several years ago, I spoke about the 12 Little Things and I focused on the 11th which is adopting a scholar. I must have delivered a good one because after my speech there was this old woman who told me: “Atty. Lacson, you just gave me an idea on how to help. My company will adopt 100 scholars.” The following day she contacted World Vision and adopted 100 scholars! I felt like I was in cloud nine. Just because of that speech, may 100 poor students na makakabalik sa eskwelahan!

SCB: Are you banking on the fact that every Filipino surely has at least one relative abroad?

ALL: Yes, so you can just imagine the Filipinos here telling their relatives, “O, tumulong ka naman sa bansa.” Ang hope ko, sana what President ‘Noynoy’ Aquino would do soon is to speak in front of the 3,000 Fil-Am organizations
in the US alone, and talk to them about unity, how we can help the motherland. Then gawin niya rin sa US, Middle East, Europe and keep on appealing and ask for their help. If he could convince two million Filipinos overseas, it’s a simple idea but it can help a lot.

SCB: How is the response from the global Filipinos?

ALL: Maganda. I brought 350 books, during my first three days, naubos! Filipinos in 193 countries want to help the country.

SCB: What are the other little things global Filipinos can do to help?

ALL: Number One, help your relatives. I tell them that you are there exactly because God wants you to be a blessing to the people around you, the members of your family. Number Two, livelihood. I discussed about organizations, NGOs who are into livelihood. Number Three, scholarship. Number Four is about public libraries, classrooms, toilets. Number Five is homes for the homeless. Number Six, good governance where I encourage them to join organizations in the Philippines with good governance as cause. Number Seven is on environment. Number Eight is take a vacation in the Philippines. That’s a good thing already, spend your money here. Number Nine is be an ambassador for the Philippines that wherever you are, you can help the country by just being good. You carry the name Filipino. It’s that simple. Number 10 is buy Filipino products wherever you are. Slowly may mga Filipino stores na nagsa-sprout abroad. Number 11, invest in the Philippines. The last one is to have faith in the Filipino, teach your children to have faith in the Filipino. Although nasa abroad sila, they can teach their children about the beauty and greatness of the Filipino.

SCB: Some of the things in your book are very simple to do. But have you met Filipinos who have tried to do these things before but just ended up frustrated? They want to invest here pero ang daming red tape, they want to have a vacation pero sa airport pa lang ginogoyo na sila. What do you say to them?

ALL: Totoo, marami akong na encounter na ganun pero mas marami ang positive. I tell them that we cannot lose hope, we just have to be fit, we have to conquer resignation in our hearts. It’s also important to be surrounded by people who are also positive. I keep on saying that, ako I don’t want to lose hope, everyday it’s a struggle for me, I have to wake up everyday and tell myself I should be positive today.

Why he stayed

SCB: How did you become patriotic and optimistic about the Filipinos?

ALL: Bawat isa sa atin loves this country. It applies to so many of us. The reason why the first book became successful kasi many Filipinos love this country. When we were thinking of migrating abroad in 1999, my wife and i debated on it, but after one year, we decided to stay.

SCB: What would have been the reason for leaving?

ALL: Mga kapatid ko sunud-sunod nag-alisan. Nung 1999, bagsak ang Philippine peso. In 1996, the Philippine peso was only 26 against $1. By 1999 it was P50! There was a lot of panic at ‘yung panahon na ‘yun ang daming umalis.

SCB: What made you stay?

ALL: Una sinabi namin, hindi tayo naghihirap. I think we could survive here and I think we’d be okay here, may trabaho kami. Number two, I don’t want my kids to feel like second-class citizens in a foreign country kasi I’ve seen it sa
mga kamag-anak ko. Third, malungkot sa abroad. Fourth, I didn’t want to be part of the problem na may panic na nga sa society, I’ll add to it pa. And of course, I have so much faith in the Filipino.

Two turning points

SCB: But was there a turning point in your life that led to your present crusade?

ALL: In 2003, I helped Senator Raul Roco for his presidential bid. I was recommended to him by Bishop Antonio Fortich of Bacolod. Tinawagan ako ni Senator Roco and invited me for coffee, supposed to be 30 minutes lang kami but umabot ng hours. He talked about his dreams for this country and I saw his sincerity. He believed so much in the youth and he believed so much in the Filipino. I took a leave for three months from our law office in Makati to campaign for him, spending my own money, helping organize the youth.

Then he got sick and most of the people in his camp dropped him like a hot potato. We saw it, kami ng mga kabataan, nagiiyakan kami, but we continued hanggang sa dulo, hindi namin siya iniwanan. Kinausap ko siya sa phone during the day of the election, I could hear he was crying from the other end nung narinig niya na hindi siya iniwanan ng kabataan.

I was down and depressed but you know, the moment you start getting involved, it’s a point of no return. You will always be bothered to do something more. I started reflecting and realized that I have always been a writer. Since high school, I have always been writing. I became a lawyer in 1996 and I became a columnist for Business World for seven years. I realized I could start writing again.

SCB: But how did the book reach the public consciousness?

ALL: I would like to say that it was when (the late journalist) Max Soliven wrote an article in 2006. There was this company which bought 1,000 copies of the book in celebration of their 50th anniversary. On my way to bring the books, I saw a stalled car and its passengers were trying to get a cab. Tumigil ako. I rolled down my window and asked if it was an emergency. Yes sir, they said. Then the female passenger got someone from the back of the car, it was an old man. Hindi ko napansin na si Max Soliven pala ‘yun, iba ‘yung face niya sa picture. When he gave his card, I asked are you Max Soliven? Sabi ko it’s an honor to have you in my car!

On the way to his house, sobrang traffic. So he was commanding me, Alex, mag-counter flow ka na, kilala ko lahat ng pulis diyan. Hindi ako sumunod. Sabi niya, Alex I will be late for a state dinner in Malacañang. Sabi ko, Sir, malapit na, just wait. Pagdating sa bahay niya, he hugged me so many times. Sabi niya, I couldn’t believe (laughs)!

The following day, he called me to tell me that there was nothing wrong with his almost new BMW X5 at all. He wrote about what happened on December 19 and got a lot of phone calls after that! And then the book sales, the book talks, took off like a plane. No turning back since then. In that year alone, I must have received more than 300 invitations to talk.

The following year in 2007, Mr. Soliven passed away and in his wake, there was this special table for his favorite things- favorite pipe, favorite typewriter, favorite draft of an article. When I looked at the draft, the title was “A Filipino of Faith.’’ Sabi ng wife niya, that was Mr. Soliven’s favorite, because of that ang daming kumontak sa kanya just because of an article he wrote about me.

SCB: What important lessons did you learn from the last senatorial campaign? Not to do it again?

ALL: Hindi na siguro (laughs)! I realized it wasn’t for me. Very traditional pa rin ang kampanya and the way people would vote, kung sino ang napapanood nila, ‘yun ang iboboto nila. We were able to generate about P22 million from small donors. Puro 1,000, 500, 100, 50. Mga pari at madre na nagbibigay sa akin from their own pockets. But I was a weak candidate. I wasn’t that aggressive.

More 12 things for more people

SCB: Is it time for another 12 Little Things?

ALL: We formed a foundation revolving around the advocacy and we were inspired by the phenomenal success of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series. Sectoralized na siya, merong Chicken Soup for mothers, for fathers, for golfers, for writers.

We thought of sectoralizing the 12 Little Things and we have identified five sectors. The one for the youth came out last November. We launched 12 Little Things for Senior Citizens last February in San Pedro, Laguna. Last May, 12 Little Things for Global Citizens. We’re working on the 12 Little Things for Parents on How to Raise Wonderful and Patriotic Children; then 12 Little Things for Public Servants.

SCB: But why the number 12?

ALL: May pagka religious ako eh. Twelve disciples, 12 tribes. The number 12 has been repeated so many times in the Bible.

SCB: What about 12 Little Things for Lawyers?

ALL: Baka mag-fail ako doon eh. They may not follow (laughs). But what I do is lecture to lawyers.

SCB: Why did you take up Law?

ALL: Good question. Hindi ko alam (laughs). Kasi dun sa Association of Political Science Majors-Diliman, lahat ng ka-batch ko, nag take up ng Law, so ako rin (laughs).

SCB: Are there any regrets?

ALL: Wala naman. But I don’t enjoy being a lawyer now. I look for happiness.

SCB: What’s your happiness?

ALL: Ang hirap sagutin suddenly (laughs). I enjoy being part of something that has meaning. I started with my family, helping members of the family, and I find happiness in it. When my parents separated, nag-suffer ang family. Then my father passed away.

SCB: When you were younger, disiplinado na kayong bata?

ALL: Hindi (laughs)! In fact, in fourth year high school in Negros Occidental, I was suspended for one month because I led a rally against the school administration. I was the supreme student council president, and also the CAT corps commander. I wasn’t able to attend the graduation.

SCB: How do you use 12 Little Things in molding your children into becoming good Filipinos?

ALL: I practice it at home. I share it with my four kids and hopefully it will help in making my kids patriotic and wonderful later on. Like, I encourage my kids to save. I also want to introduce the Word of God without imposing or lecturing. So I put a whiteboard by the stairs and nagsusulat ako doon ng favorite verses ko from the Bible. When I started that, they would read it. I would change it every Sunday, nadadaanan nila. Then later on, nag-uunahan na sila to write. I think it’s successful.

Sa labas ng simbahan kung saan kami nagma-Mass, may old beggar na more than 80 years old. Feeling ko inabandon siya ng anak. Naawa ako sa kaniya so noon pa man I would always drop by after the Mass and I would always give something. Later on, mga anak ko na nagre-remind sa akin. I consciously do it because I want them to have a compassionate heart. Simple things.

Another one, I don’t want negativity. Every time I read something positive or hear something positive or see something positive, I would tell them that. You have to build faith in the Filipinos. For the seedling to grow into a giant acacia tree 20 years later, you must water it. You must nourish it and feed it.

SCB: What is Kabayanihan all about?

ALL: We promote a culture of greatness for the Filipino, but we don’t want to call it ideology. What we want is a cultural identity, parang cultural anchor. This is based on my observations, from my readings that most of the great countries in history have a cultural anchor, they know who they are as a people, they know where their strengths are coming from as a people.

I believe that Filipinos have that, hindi lang natin nadedefine. So this is our small humble attempt to define it, that’s why we call it kabayanihan. It is anchored on “kapatiran’’ and “bayanihan’’ which is brotherhood and community heroism.

We also have a LeadCon for the SK youth, the SK Pinoy Youth Leaders Conference (LeadCon). On August 20 and 21, we will gather more than 9,000 SK officials and more than 10,000 campus youth and we will just talk about their challenges. Bring out the greatest generation of the Filipino youth, that is our call.

SCB: What will the youth learn from this?

ALL: We will present to them 10 inspiring stories of 10 successful Filipinos who come from humble beginnings para makarelate sila. The first thing is we must be able to stop that culture of resignation na mahirap lang kami. We will present 10 Negosyo Ideas, with stories to inspire them na kaya din nila. The third is we will present the 12 Little Things the Filipino Youth Can Do For The Country. Tapos may entertainment. Andun si Noel Cabangon. Darating si Boy Abunda, Bam Aquino, Kiko Dee, the nephew of Pnoy. We’ll hold another one in Batangas and in Negros.

SCB: How did you find the PNoy’s State of the Nation Address (SoNA)?

ALL: I like his speech. Kasi when you say utak wang-wang, that’s really a culture of abuse. That’s what he’s trying to fight. He’s trying to dismantle that culture of abuse.

Regarding appointing good people in the government, of course, may ibang questionable but on a large scale, I think he’s doing very well. Largely, if you ask me, he is doing very well in building a good government, fighting the culture of abuse, and appointing good people in government to do that. But you’re only one person and you only have 24 hours in a day. There are so many big problems, you cannot address all these things.

If you ask me now, kulang pa and I hope the more detailed programs, especially social programs on how to provide jobs, how to create jobs, businesses in the country, and how to absorb OFWs that are being displaced abroad, will soon come. Pero hindi pa tapos ang six years. He’s done a fantastic job of cleaning up and making that impression that he is fighting the culture of abuse in this country. That’s a very good start. The most difficult is to break a habit and we’re talking about a national habit that’s been ingrained for so long.