[PHOTO AT LEFT - GK Chairman Tony Meloto thanks Peter Heng, director for corporate communications of SingTel, at the Raffles hotel for their generous contribution to the relief efforts in the Philippines. Also in the picture are Aileen Ong, GK Hope Initiative chairman, and Jeff Tarayao of Globe Telecom.]

MANILA, NOVEMBER 2, 2009 (STAR) By Tony Meloto - Singapore is showing Filipinos true friendship in action. They were quick to the rescue in our last moment of need without being asked for help, a classic case of family helping one another.

I am here frequently because it is second home to me aside from being the emerging hub for social innovations in the region, wanting to help other nations by promoting exchange of development ideas, and to teach students how to be caring in a world where there is concern that IQ has outpaced EQ. We have received almost a thousand students since last year from NUS, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, SMU and LKY School in our Gawad Kalinga sites in the Philippines for immersion.

My fascination with Singapore is in the Herculean achievement of a small Asian country with scant natural resources to gain prosperity and influence through effective patriotic leadership, while a resource abundant country like ours has remained poor because of lack of it. You found the answer not in foreign aid but in strong citizenship, in Lee Kuan Yew’s clear vision and your people’s passion to build it with hard work and honor. Although our situation is compounded by natural disasters that visit us regularly which Singapore does not have, I believe however that our problems are not insurmountable nor our people less determined to find solutions to them. This is the faith that drives me and many others to pursue our cause of nation-building.

Calamities often aggravate poverty and count the poor as the first victims. Sometimes they can be social levelers and opportunities for people to discover hidden strengths in their moment of weakness, find answers to age-old problems within themselves after searching elsewhere or blaming others.

What happened to us recently was our road to Damascus experience.

The worst calamity in the last half century hit the Philippines barely a month ago. Typhoon Ketsana, named Ondoy locally, dumped more rain on Metro Manila than hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans. Within a week, another super typhoon with killer floods hit us in the northern part of the country. Despite vast destruction to life and property, however, unlike any tragedy before nearing such magnitude, our people were back on their feet again in a short time. No looting, no shooting, no prolonged depression despite the dire prediction that floodwaters will take three months to recede in some areas. Our people got back to the business of living, hard as it was.

We rose from the mud, buried our dead, cleaned up the debris, rebuilt our communities and resolved to cease being perennial victims to natural and man-made disasters.

We did not wait for Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey to unleash global aid as they did for the tsunami victims and the hungry in Africa. I’m sure they would have done so with their generous spirit if our needs were a priority to them given the numerous causes begging for their attention. Not out of false pride but due to extreme urgency, we decided to help ourselves and discovered that we were not helpless as a nation after all. It seemed as if the self-reliant Filipino woke up from a coma; the hero in us came out of the closet.

That calamity, tragic as it was, gave us a sense of dignity and wholeness because we chose to act rather than beg and wait for mercy. Global philanthropy came later as icing on the cake of human kindness, after we acted as our brother’s keeper in a country whose dominant religion places the highest value on love of neighbor next to God.

While generosity abounds, we may see it finally as a bridge to long-term solutions, not as a means to perpetuate present problems.

Our government agencies were overwhelmed by the immensity of the challenge, but ordinary citizens chose not to indulge the blame game and instead, engaged in acts of heroism, big and small, unseen before on a massive scale. Some lost their lives rescuing others unknown to them, exclusive villages for the rich were opened to poor evacuees, plush homes were converted into kitchens to feed the hungry, supermarket shelves were emptied in a mad rush for supplies, not to hoard for self but to help those in greater need.

The mood was not survival of the fittest, but rising together through caring and sharing. A time of doom and gloom became our shining moment. We had it in us to help ourselves all along.

Making the weak strong

This is how we built Gawad Kalinga (GK), a development movement with an Asian heart. It recognizes the tremendous capacity of even the poorest slum-dwellers for self-reliance, and the infinite potential of those who control wealth and power to give... and to understand that investing in making the weak strong is good politics and good economics. Development in our thinking is a numbers game – restoring the dignity and growing the capacities of the most number of voters and consumers. This fundamental understanding of the power of partnership for the common good between the rich and poor, public and private has allowed us to change lives on a massive scale peacefully and, hopefully, sustain over 2,000 GK communities in 400 towns supported by nearly the same number of corporations and schools. Mayors particularly of underdeveloped towns in remote areas often come to us for assistance and provide counterpart value of land, site development and water system.

The value of building intentional communities the GK way became clearer to business partners in the last two calamities. They made us the channel for their contribution to relief operations using our sites, which suffered minimal damage and no casualties, as effective distribution centers to surrounding devastated areas. SingTel, through Globe Telecom, gave a generous contribution to the relief effort, though their GK villages and farms were hardly affected. The community we built with Ascendas and local partner Carmelray in Laguna was spared from severe damage, their residents helping others than receiving it. We credit this to the design of the homes, the alert neighborhood and the strong community spirit of not leaving any one behind.

Other groups in Singapore were quick to help. The Catholic Church of Singapore, CapitaLand Hope Foundation, and students from partner universities gave substantial donations and the efforts to help continue to this day.

Three things attract corporate partners to our work. We bridge, leverage and build – homes, lives and hope. We pursue scale and sustainability through a holistic and collaborative approach to a community-based development.

As bridge, we connect those troubled by poverty with hearts that have the means to ease their pain. Our goals of land for the landless, home for the homeless, and food for the hungry did not only benefit the poor but created societal harmony, triggered economic activities, and increased land values for the good of many stakeholders. Media that described our cause as “radical optimism” created public awareness and opened the floodgates of land and home donations never seen in our country before.

Leveraging is our way of multiplying scant resources to give the most benefit to the neediest. A dollar of donation for house materials triggers added value of as much as three dollars from other partners including the poor who contribute sweat equity in the absence of a regular income. We place value on the dignity of the poor and recognize their willingness to build homes other than their own. We attract the expertise and resources of those with the most for the benefit of the least in society... the best for the least.

Build, and they will come – is not just a line from a Kevin Costner movie but a philosophy that has worked for us. Shelter for cover, farms for food and schools for enlightenment built with active community participation are evidence of presence that change lives, generate trust and gather sustained support. We have a ragtag army of volunteers, mostly ordinary citizens, driven by faith and compassion and a growing passion to build a nation. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) which is philanthropy and profit sharing in rich economies is nation-building for us.

We have slums to rebuild, forest covers to restore, unproductive land to till, children to educate, habits to change, and right now, floodwaters to tread but we will get there ...somehow... if we start to believe that we can do it, together. If Singapore did it, we can do it too.

This is for me Asia coming of age, underdeveloped countries like the Philippines rising from mindsets of helpless slaves from a colonial past, no longer accepting that we are inferior, defining our own destiny based on our dreams and aspirations. We must see western countries as friends and partners, no longer as masters and almsgivers.

Asians are productive citizens in America, registering the highest average household income among various ethnic groups, the lowest unemployment and the least burden to the welfare system. Many of them are reconnecting with their roots to be catalyst of change to the poor that they left behind in their home countries. GK has become a popular channel for this growing mood among Filipinos abroad to give back. It can also be a channel for countries like Vietnam, India and China with their nationals who have left their shores.

We have established GK Hope Initiative (GKHi) in Singapore registered under the Economic Development Board (EDB) to share our growth experiences with other developing countries in the region and to learn from them as well. We look forward to bringing the concept to Goa, India in 2010 in partnership with Tripura Foundation brokered by GKHi. It will be a village built with residents along their cultural and religious lines with support from successful Indians and their friends from the global community.

Singapore, despite its size, is an ideal hub because it is big on synergy and convergence. It also has credibility after licking material poverty in a short period and achieving harmony notwithstanding a population of diverse ethnicities and religions. It is home to caring citizens, many of whom I greatly admire: Ai Lin Ong, who visited us 26 times in three years to help us with our nutrition program for malnourished children; her best friend Su-Chzeng Ong, who is using her influence as former VP for Jardine Fleming to gather corporate support for our cause; Harvard educated Melissa Cui, who is passionate in advocating the interest of Filipino domestic workers in Singapore; and Ju Hu Soh, who has the highest Emotional Quotient among his young peers I have the privilege to meet, working for the poor in my country that he has not even met.

This is a classic case of Asians helping Asians in our corner of the world. We will visit each other’s homes, trade our goods, drive poverty out of our doors and attain peace within our borders by being family and friend to one another.

If Bill Gates comes, we will applaud him for his generosity as we admire Oprah for using the power of media to make this a better world.

In the meantime, please pray for us as we wade through our floodwaters until we learn to take stewardship of our fabulous pearl of the Orient called the Philippines by wiping the mud of poverty that covers the true gem inside the hearts of our people.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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