The Search for a Filipino Culture of Quality

This is the text of the speech I gave today at Centro Escolar University’s Quality Awards –

The Search for a Filipino Culture of Quality
Atty. Adel A. Tamano
Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila

Bismillah Hi Rahman Hi Raheem. Assalaamu aliakum wa Rakmatullah Hiwa Barakaatu. Peace and God’s blessings on us all.

I always start my speeches by invoking God’s name for two reasons – firstly, so that I will be compelled to only speak the truth, something that may be difficult at times for a political spokesman, which is my other vocation, and secondly, to remind people that the speaker is proudly Filipino and proudly Muslim. Particularly in the context of the recent kidnapping of media personalities by the Abu Sayyaf, there are some who may have taken an unfairly negative view of Filipino Muslims. It goes without saying, that the majority of Filipino Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding.

I would like to thank the President of CEU, Dra. Ma. Cristina Padolina and Dr. Jim Fernandez for inviting me here today. CEU’s advocacy of quality, particularly within the educational context, is an advocacy that is very close to my heart. As I mentioned earlier, some of you may know me more as the spokesman for the opposition and not as an educator, particularly because of my exposure during the 2007 elections. However, I have been in the educational field for 15 years, first as an instructor in Economics, later a Professor in Constitutional Law, and, finally, as President of PLM.

The grand venture of education, the shaping of minds and hearts through the transformative power of learning is – and will always be – my main passion. A passion that I share with all the educators here, many with better credentials and experiences than myself.

But for those of us with a passion for education, particularly quality education, we cannot help but be saddened by the current state of Philippine education.

In a recent test of English proficiency of our primary school teachers, 70% failed. In the secondary level, 80% failed. This is alarming. How do we maintain our competitive advantage, which is our facility with English, against the other growing economies in the region when our very own teachers cannot even speak or write English properly?

In the realm of Math and Science, in an examination taken by high-school students from 45 countries, ranking from the highest to the lowest, our country ranked 41st in Math and 42nd in Science.

These dismal statistics only consider those who actually have access to education, even a poor one. In the Philippines, of ten school age students, only six will graduate from the primary level. Of the six, only four will graduate from high school. Out of these four, only two will complete their college education.

I refer to these alarming statistics to show how important CEU’s advocacy is. We see, very clearly, from the deteriorating performance of our students compared to their counterparts in other countries, how the quality of Philippine education has deteriorated and why educational reform is now a national imperative.

Unfortunately for us, our fast food, consumer-obsessed, instant-gratification culture is unconducive to creating a culture of quality. Quality demands sacrifice, patience, and, most importantly, time and effort. Quality is never easy because excellence is always forged through effort.

Take for example my being the first Filipino Muslim to be accepted to and to graduate from Harvard Law School. Modesty aside, to be able to study at Harvard, you not only need to pass through a highly competitive application process where only about five per cent of the world’s best legal scholars are chosen but you also need a great deal of money, nearly One Hundred Thousand US dollars for tuition, board and lodging, airfare, living and other expenses. I am not ashamed to say that in order to study at Harvard, aside from the scholarship given to me by the University, I had to work as a librarian – tolerating the, at times, abusive behavior of students and guests many years my junior when I was already a partner in a law firm in Manila – and my wife even had to mortgage her house to come up with funds, not only for my studies but also to support her and my son while I was away. But because of our sacrifices I have now set a standard and a benchmark for all Filipino Muslims that they too can aspire to study at the world’s premier law school. In a real sense, the message that I hope will be obtained from my experience is that even if you belong to a marginalized and disadvantaged group – like Filipino Muslims – with hardwork, effort, sacrifice, and support from our loved ones, you can achieve excellence. You can create quality.

We can apply this idea of quality and excellence to our country. I’m certain that it will be not difficult for us to agree that the Philippines is far from the society that we hope – and know – that it can be. According to the latest SWS Survey, 11.9 per cent of our countrymen suffer daily the scourge of hunger. The Human Development Report states that 36.8 per cent of our population, more than 1 in every 3 Filipinos, live below the poverty line. Poverty, lack of educational opportunities, and misgovernance are fast becoming the hallmarks of our society. But instead of us despairing and giving up hope – perhaps like many Filipinos, both young and old, who have decided to leave our country for greener pastures abroad – allow me to say that with enough Filipinos who believe in, are committed to, and will strive for quality and excellence, like today’s awardees, then we will be able to turn this country around. This is why CEU’s quality awards are important. Today’s awardees are examples for all of Filipinos.

However, it is not enough that our awardees and our institutions be the only ones that achieve excellence and quality. We must create a Filipino culture and orientation towards quality and excellence. This is why I raised the point about poverty earlier: even if we create these pockets of quality and excellence in our institutions, it will mean very little if it does not, in the long run, create genuine change in our country for the better. Personally, I do not believe that personal quality and excellence is enough. To strive for quality and excellence, on a purely personally level without regard to how it affects others, is not only selfish but, given our Philippine context, foolish and shortsighted. On this point, allow me to quote this beautiful passage by Martin Luther King –

All this is simply to say that all life is interrelated. We are caught in an Inescapable network or mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people cannot expect to live more than twenty or thirty years, no man can be totally healthy, even if he just got a clean bill of health from the finest clinic in America. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

Perhaps the real benchmark of success from today’s activities and awarding ceremonies is how our awardees will help transform the lives of others. From their families, to their students, and hopefully, to the rest of our country.

Lastly, we have a saying in Islam that God has enjoined excellence in all things. This is also one of the core values of CEU, “excellence in all endeavors.” I honor you, the awardees and the Centro Escolar University, for your pledge to excellence and quality and I stand here inspired myself, aspiring to become my better self, to live a life of genuine quality.



  1. liling magtolis briones said,

    July 16, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    Thank you for such an inspiring speech. It is very personal, and yet finds resonance with all who have to work and struggle to attain their professional goals and still retain their distinct identity. Your practice of always starting with a Muslim prayer provides a spiritual dimension which reaches out to people of all faiths.

  2. aeediie said,

    July 18, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    A very inspiring speech, nakaka inspire yung mga sacrifices ni atty.tamano, sana hindi magbulag bulagan ang gobyerno sa mga problemang tulad nito sa edukasyon!

  3. alexfelipe said,

    July 20, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    1st Fil-Muslim in Harvard Law? Congrats and represent my Pinoy brother!

    I am a Filipino with a Cdn citizenship that works with Fil groups both in Canada and the homeland. I’m glad to make your acquaintance through this blog. If you have a chance please take a look at the blog I help manage:

    I work for an arts and culture centre in Toronto, Canada and we are doing our best to reintroduce the youth to their forgotten culture through the arts.

    All the best,


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