Finn to a Tee: Ambassador Riita Resch of Finland

Like a brisk and bracing breath of fresh Finnish air, Her Excellency Riitta Resch of Finland has a take-charge, no-nonsense mien which is just as effective at the diplomatic roundtable as it is on the driving range.

Amb. Resch 2nd from right, seated. Photo by Pat Dy.

When asked about her favourite pastimes, the inveterate golfer unabashedly admits to spending most of her time off at golf courses. “I travel with my golf bag, it is my ‘family’,” confesses the ambassador. “I play golf around Manila and that takes all day so I really don’t have to worry about my free time very much. I would love to go to movies much more than I do and attend some cultural events, but I’m a little bit lazy in that respect. Golf is really what I do. It’s my priority number two. The first one is work.”

Passion for her profession is just par for the course for Ambassador Resch. “I really like my job and it makes a tremendous difference,” she shares. “I think if you are interested in the job you have then you will be successful, and I’ve been lucky enough in my postings. I’ve always had something to do that means a lot to me, something that I feel is important. Being abroad and representing your own country particularly as an ambassador is such a highlight. This is my first ambassador’s posting so it is the best so far. We’ll see what happens next.”

Envoy Par Excellence

Ambassador Resch began her career climb in business school where she studied foreign trade and marketing. Back then, she just thought of the Foreign Service as a job opportunity that included languages and travelling. But the years in foreign service have opened up many other things too. She has now been very happy in her profession for the past 25 years. “I really haven’t thought of other options than my present profession. I know that there isn’t anything that I’d like to do more than this and that’s why I’m still here,” she declares. “Is is important to make your choices and then live accordingly. It is a waste of life to think that something else is always better. Enjoy what you have!”

Her affection for her posting is in no small part due to the warm reception she has received. “As an ambassador in this country, we feel greatly appreciated. We have access to everybody and everything,” explains the envoy. “Finland had the presidency of the European Union for 6 months last year and then, in particular, I noticed how easy it is to approach the Filipino authorities, senators, politicians, even the President. And when you invite them they usually come. Otherwise our tenure of four years is very short to have any sort of major accomplishments or tangible results. But we try our best.”

At this juncture, the ambassador has been swinging far but true. “I think that the relationship between our two countries is very good but it’s also very remote,” she ponders. “I don’t think that Finland is very well-known in the Philippines and vice versa. It is one of the basic jobs of ambassadors to make our countries better known in our postings. In the case of Finland in the Philippines everybody seems to know about Nokia cell phones and Armi Kuusela, the Ms. Universe winner who married a Filipino businessman and lived here. They have made my job relatively easier. There are only about 100 Finns living here, and there are less than 1,000 Filipinos, most of them married to Finns, living in Finland.”As a small country we are not as well-known as some of the bigger ones, so we try to do a lot of work through the European Union, which is a union of 27 countries and the European Commission. It gives us a much bigger avenue than what we could have individually.”

Ambassador Resch points out the areas in our relationship that could always improve. “More trade between our countries and more investment and more Finnish companies in the Filipino markets would always be welcome,” she shares. “There are a lot of opportunities in this country. The Filipino market is huge, you can sell almost anything and everything here. We are good at planting forests and in the paper and pulp industries. So those are good possibilities for our companies to invest in. Politically I think that President Arroyo’s visit to Finland last September was very important and really helped improve relations and increase awareness.”

Most of the envoy’s previous experience has been related to international organizations like the United Nations. “I love the atmosphere of international negotiations, where you have several countries working together and trying to have some consensus,” she shares. Her first posting consisted of one year in Paris as a trainee at the embassy and also studying French at Le Sorbonne. Then she went to Geneva where she dealt with refugees, human rights, and humanitarian assistance. “I had a really great job in Geneva. Living in Geneva, in a small and very safe town in the middle of Europe, was also very nice. It was easy and very comfortable there. But then at some point I desperately wanted a posting in New York, the cradle of the United Nations. When I got there it  was a dream come true. I still love it,” gushes the ambassador.

New Delhi was her first Asian posting, affording her perspective on this part of the world. “India was very interesting. It’s so huge and so different. It’s not a typically Asian country,” she muses. “The Philippines is even farther away from home but in very many respects it’s like a Western country. We don’t have major problems of getting used to living and adapting to normal life here.” She still has to get the hang of dealing with Manila’s crowds however. “We have a big country with a small number of people, while you have a big country with a lot of people. So what is still a little bit difficult for me is always being surrounded by people.”

Surpassing Handicaps and Hazards

Regardless of differences and challenges, it has been smooth putting for the envoy so far. “Since I don’t have a family to take with me, making decisions is easy. I’m very quick to move around,” she asserts.

The ambassador posits: “Maybe women bring a little bit more passion to our profession. I am sometimes asked how it works in our embassy because all of us are women. I really don’t understand that question because for us it really doesn’t make any difference. We are gender-blind to the extent that my staff, particularly the Finns, don’t pay any attention to whether I’m a woman or a man. My predecessors have all been men and I think that my local staff may have been a little bit surprised about a female ambassador because they were not used to that. Now they are and we are a great team my small Filipino and Finnish staff. I really owe them a lot ” “Sometimes, even in my own country where there is equality of genders, being a woman in this or almost any other profession means you have to work a little bit harder to prove yourself.  That’s probably something we’re demanding of ourselves, too.” “I would not like to think that women and men bring different things. I think that we are still all individuals and bring what we individually can into the profession.”

Finland has, however, been always in the forefront of gender equality.  Finland was the first country in the world to allow universal and equal suffrage a hundred years ago, and the envoy easily upholds that noble legacy. However, even Finland still has work to do to attain full gender equality.

“Diplomacy might not be for everybody though”, the envoy attests. “If you don’t like travelling abroad, moving from one country to another, this is not the right profession for you. I think that in some respects what you maybe have to sacrifice are long term friendships. Because if you are four years in a country you might not even make friends because you know you’ll have to leave them at some point. But again now that we’re so globalized and it’s so easy to move around and be connected, even that’s not such a problem anymore.”

Ambassador Resch only hopes that at the end of her career and at the end of her life she can say that she has had a good life and that if she has regrets it’s for something that she has done and not for something that she hasn’t done. On the envoy’s pending agenda is to be able to do more travelling to different parts of the Philippines. “I’ve been around a little bit. I have now decided to go to Boracay so I don’t have to answer to people that I haven’t been there yet,” she teases. “I just went for a couple of days to Tawi-Tawi and then I’m going to Vigan. So I’m trying to catch up with my travelling a little.”

As a parting shot, Ambassador Resch would like to thank everyone, Filipinos in particular, for making their expat life so pleasant in the Philippines. “I think it’s a great place to live. There are some obstacles and problems like pollution and overpopulation. And at some point rather sooner than later Filipinos have to do something about them too” she contends “I think that if people would do a little bit more to keep their own environment clean it would help the whole country. Environment is not about beautification but leaving the cleanest possible environment to our children.”

Salamat and Mabuhay. They’re unfortunately the only two Filipino words I know.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2007

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Standing Tall for Sweden: Ambassador Annika Markovic

Her Excellency Annika Markovic’s imposing blonde presence reminds one of no less than the Valkyries of Scandinavian legend. But her warm smile and gentle manner quickly melted through any feelings of intimidation during our conversation. And it was an enchanting process indeed to see past the dignified diplomat’s statuesque form and discover the idealist’s heart and adventurer’s soul that beats and stirs within.

Amb. Markovic 3rd from left, seated. Photo by Pat Dy.

Unlike the abovementioned battle-maidens however, Ambassador Markovic is a passionate pacifist, which is appropriate considering her role as the representative of the country which gave birth to the Nobel Peace Prize. “One thing I’ve been most interested in here is to help with the peace process,” she shares. “I think there is no other singular issue that could affect the Philippines and its development more. If there will be peace in Mindanao, the whole picture will change. In Europe, the general perception of the Philippines is that it’s a dangerous place and you should go somewhere else to invest. I wish the different parties realize that they have a golden opportunity now and that they should really work hard to try to achieve something sustainable. I just hope to see some progress before I leave the Philippines.”

A Passion for Mediation

The envoy readily divulges that her heart is deeply into doing multilateral work. “I find it very rewarding to be working with different countries, facilitating negotiations to agree on something difficult, working to find a common solution that is acceptable to all so we can move ahead and establish something that is a good basis for the future.”

Despite her lofty position, the ambassador remains very humble about the role she plays and the influence she wields. “You try to see what you can do to prevent war from breaking out and supporting peaceful development, to assist in alleviating poverty and to really try to help, make this a better world,” imparts the envoy. “These are big words and I know that what I can do as a human being and as part of the Swedish diplomatic corps is very limited. But at least I can feel like I can make my small contribution to achieve something better for all.”

Ambassador Markovic initially determined and developed her knack for diplomacy during her stints in the Swedish foreign ministry and when she was posted to the Swedish mission to the UN in New York. But she admits to have always been very interested in other cultures and other people. “This job gives me the opportunity to travel around the world, to learn and see things for myself,” states the ambassador. “I’m very interested in foreign policy, how countries relate to one another. What you realize very quickly is we can have so much in common even if we come from different corners in the world. The Philippines and Sweden are very far from each other, but we are very much alike because we have the same basic values. It’s easy for me to relate to what is going on because there is a common ground,” she affirms. “I think my most interesting discovery during my almost 4 years in the country is that our contacts are so broad and extensive: from the grassroots level to political parties and business. It’s been very rewarding to be part of that and to help establish a closer relationship.”

One of the challenges that the ambassador admits to facing here in the Philippines is building a better understanding of the European Union, and the 13 member countries that are here working together as a group. “The individual countries are very well known, but that we form something bigger is not,” she relates. Her embassy has been trying to help explain and promote the European Union to the Filipino people by participating in the Cine Europa Film Festival and in European trade exhibitions.

Nevertheless, the ambassador acknowledges that the challenges are what keep her career interesting and fulfilling. “I’ve been really very happy in this job, so I’ve never had any regrets or thoughts if I should have done other things,” she avows. She does confess that some issues are tougher to sort out than others, particularly those that involve her personal life. “It’s always a challenge to be an ambassador, and maybe even more to be a woman and have a family, and get all the pieces together. You have to cope with your family, to make sure that they are happy, that they also have good opportunities. At the same time you have to focus on your job and do well in it, and still save some little time for yourself so you can also rest and develop. I think that it is something that all women who are in leading positions in society have to deal with.”

Family Matters

Complications aside, the envoy reports that the Markovic family is really enjoying their stay here. The ambassador also hopes that this experience of travelling to and living in different countries affords her kids a broader perspective. “In the future when they have to decide what career path to start and what to do with their lives they would think they’re not just confined to staying in their hometown,” she explains. “They know they have opportunities everywhere. They don’t need to be afraid and think it difficult to move to the other side of the world to find a good job.”

She is proud that her children already possess an advantage in learning languages. They learn English in school but at home they speak only Swedish. “We brought a Swedish nanny to the Philippines even if some people were telling us before that there was no need to,” the ambassador relates. “My youngest was only a year old when we moved to the Philippines but he speaks both fluent Swedish and English. And you cannot tell that he has not lived in Sweden. He wouldn’t have been like that if he didn’t have a Swedish nanny. So that was an important decision we made and I think a very good one.”

Ambassador Markovic would like to think that she has stood as an example for her younger colleagues that it is indeed possible to be a woman and an ambassador and still raise a family. “I think they see that and think that: ‘yeah, if she can do that then I can do it too’,” the envoy asserts, sharing more wise counsel for her fellow female diplomats. “The earlier the better I think you have to realize that you cannot be 100 percent on top of everything. You have to lower a bit your own ambitions so that you can live a healthy life. Because if you want to be the best boss, and the best mother, and the best spouse, I think you’re going to get depressed and frustrated very fast. So you just have to realize that maybe you don’t need to be the best all the time. You can just relax and achieve what’s enough.”

Beyond her dual roles as mother and ambassador, Her Excellency proves how gender should pose no impediment to both professional and personal fulfilment. “A very determined policy of the Swedish government is to promote gender equality and give equal opportunities for men and women to develop and do whatever they want in life,” the envoy contends. “So the different competencies that we bring are really utilized and put to good use. I’m not so sure that you can pinpoint specific areas where women contribute more than men. You can’t say that the either men or women are always a certain way. But it’s always good to have a mix.”

Shared Journeys

Even among this group of women ambassadors, the envoy notes that there are so many interesting personalities. “I think we all are individuals and have our own backgrounds and we are what we are right now for different reasons,” says Ambassador Markovic, who then reveals that they all try to get together once a month or two. “It’s a great opportunity to share experiences, talk about the developments of the country, and learn from each other. Sometimes we also travel together and it’s very interesting to see the Philippines from the point of view of someone you don’t normally travel with.”

This is what inspires her message to any newcomer to the country: “Don’t miss out on travelling around the Philippines,” the ambassador emphasizes. “That has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done. You find fantastic people who are very instrumental in their own small communities in trying to be advocates for change. You also realize that this country is still quite poor, that there are many challenges to its development and the alleviation of poverty. It’s only by leaving Manila, travelling to the different corners of the country, meeting with the people, and trying to understand what’s going on with their lives, that you’ll see what this whole country is all about and the opportunities and possibilities that are here.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat magazine, 2007.

Steadfast for Spain: Ambassador Luis Arias

The Spanish Ambassador to the Philippines has always been held in high regard and afforded a lot of attention. As the country’s official link to Spain, the ambassador has to be able to look back on our shared pasts, and also move forward by implementing programs that will benefit our countries’ futures. Modest and earnest, H.E. Luis Arias Romero brings to his position 33 years’ worth of experience in the foreign service.

“At one time I wanted to teach in the university,” admits the dedicated diplomat. “But I decided to remain in the service to represent and serve my country abroad. It was not a difficult reflection.”

He explains how as a diplomat, he is tasked to protect the interests of the Spanish people and to expand the idea of Spain. Fulfilling this function in the Philippines is both a great challenge and privilege considering the more than 400 years of common history and tradition shared between us.

“We have very good relations in the political realm and we do many projects in the cultural realm,” he says. “But there are still many things we can do to improve our economic relations. Spain can contribute so much in the areas of energy, climactic change, and tourism. My government expects many things to be accomplished.”

The ambassador notes that there are many institutions in the Philippines that are very helpful and hospitable, thus lightening his load. And yet he does confess to not having much free time. Rare is the day when he has no social event to attend. But he does try to set aside at least half an hour a day to go swimming for his health and to unwind.

It’s this demanding schedule which has made the busy envoy appreciate the value of time.
“I choose to seize every moment.,” he states. “Everyday is the most important in my life. Every time I’m working in my office, I’m doing something useful for the Philippines and Spain. Every day I feel that I will be able to do more. The possibilities are enormous and the future is optimistic.”

Despite his long years of service, an accomplishment he is most proud of, the envoy remains as enthusiastic as ever. It is his first posting in Asia and he likens it to starting a new career. Costa Rica was his first overseas assignment, and also his first time to go abroad. It was while living in another country that the ambassador professes to having discovered himself. He was then posted to the USA, Poland, Canada, and Belgium. “Each place has its own character and particularities,” he muses. “As a professional, we have to always find the interesting and positive things in any place.”

The envoy remembers encountering Filipinos almost everywhere, especially in the US, the foreign service, and in Spain where there are many who are well-established. His impression of Filipinos is of a very hospitable people, sympathetic and compassionate.

Prior to his arrival, the ambassador talked with many people who had been to the Philippines those with knowledge and experience to share about the country, whether in business or government. He diligently read up on the work of the embassy in Manila for the last 25 years, and began reading the history of the Philippines.

But studying the country in theory was still not quite the same as experiencing the real thing.
“When I arrived here there was a moment to get in touch with reality. Now that you are here you have to start work,” he told himself. I arrived on the 27th of February and on the 28th I was in my office.”

Although he knew beforehand about the country’s 88 million inhabitants, it still made quite an impression on him to actually live amongst them. “It’s very easy to connect with people here. I feel at home,” he declares. “The most obvious influence may be from the US but Spain’s influence goes deeper. It’s a part of your way of life and understanding things. I think another characteristic of Filipinos is that your sense of humor is rather different from other Asians. It’s very familiar for me, a Spaniard. We laugh at the same things. When I talk with somebody or I see the names of streets and places, there are so many things that constantly remind me of Spain or Spanish things. I always have to make an effort to remember that I’m really in Asia here. It’s like being in a Latin American country.”

Despite all that is familiar, there were still quite a few things Ambassador Arias had to figure out and get used to. “One thing I didn’t know about before was Filipino time, the daily timetable,” he reveals. ”Now we are perfectly adapted. I wake up at 6 in the morning then we have breakfast and I’m working by 7:30am. Then at 12:30 we are having lunch. I think it’s a very clever timetable compared to in Spain where we have lunch at 2:30, and dinner past 9pm. Here I feel I have more time to work and enjoy myself.”

The ambassador’s family has also apparently eased into their new situation with aplomb. “My wife is very happy and very positive. There are many activities to do here and she’s collecting many friends,” he shares.

“Our 26 year old son likes Asia very much and is very happy to have us here. He has been working in Beijing and speaks good Chinese. In fact he visited Philippines years before we came. Even now he e-mails me places to go. He wants me to use the jeepney. It’s a bit more complicated and difficult for me than it is for him though!”

The envoy was finally able to carry out his son’s suggestion on a trip to El Nido. “I used the jeepney once from the airport to the port where we rode the banca. I think it’s a very ingenious way of transport,” he concludes. The trip also whetted his appetite to further explore the country. “When we were flying over the islands, I could see the reality of the Philippines. I definitely have to travel more, to go to the Visayas and Mindanao where we have many projects of cooperation, and for me to be able to talk properly about the entire country.”

The envoy is obviously quite dedicated to his work and role. “When I eventually leave the Philippines I want to have quite a bit of knowledge about the country and its many different people. I’d like to be remembered as an ambassador who has done his best to extend the friendship, good relations and brotherhood between the Philippines and Spain.” And even just over the span of a few months, Ambassador Arias has already been receiving compliments for his approach to the job, high praise indeed for a first-timer.

“I feel that maybe I am changing or the country is changing me,” he reflects. “I’m very happy here and I’d like to really know the country from the north in Batanes to the south in Mindanao. That is my horizon.”

-text & photo by Jude Defensor. first published in What’s On & Expat Newspaper, 2007

Converging on Capas: The Bataan Death March Memorial

Bataan death march memorial

Bataan death march memorial (Photo credit: Jeff Youngstrom)

The Second World War remains an abstract concept for most young Filipinos. We learn about the facts and dates from books and classes. We may look at some pictures, browse a museum exhibit, or at best pay a visit to a historical site. But it’s an entirely different matter to actually meet a war veteran, someone who has lived through hell and more. To be in the presence of these warriors and survivors is enough to make history seem real in a way that words never could. Their bodies may be frail, but their spirits are resilient, burning with a fierce pride that cannot be extinguished by age nor neglect. Today they fight a different war, the battle to keep their legacy alive. Taking up the flag of their cause is the Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor (DBC) Foundation, a group founded in 1952 and sustained by those who took part in those legendary battles and their descendants, all without financial support from the government or dues from its members. As the original members dwindle in number due to the inevitable, the struggle to maintain the group’s fervor mounts.

The DBC has been most visible in organizing regular activities and gatherings for its members. At these events, old comrades reconnect, reminisce over their adventures and ordeals, and pay tribute to the fallen and departed. Their activities climax during the yearly commemoration of Araw ng Kagitingan or Veterans’ Day in the Philippines, every April 9, the anniversary of the surrender of the combined US and Philippine forces to the Japanese in 1942. During the week-long tribute to war heroes, the veterans and such notable officials as the President of the Philippines, the US Ambassador, and Japanese Ambassador visit the various shrines erected around the country in honor of those who fought, suffered, and sacrificed their lives.

Remembering Capas

One such memorial is the Capas National Shrine (Paggunita Sa Capas) in Capas, Tarlac. The area of the shrine originated as a cantonment center for military training of Filipino youth in 1941. On July 15, 1941, on orders from US President Roosevelt, it became a mobilization center for the 71st Division, Philippine Army, USAFFE. After the fall of Bataan, the camp was transformed into a POW Camp in mid-April 1942. Renamed Capas POW Camp, an estimated 60,500 Filipino and American POWs were marched here, sick and dying from disease, injuries, and maltreatment. By July 25, 1942 an estimated 30,000 had died here. The camp became part of the Clark Air Base Military Reservation, and then was turned over to the Philippine Government on April 9, 1982.

Wall of names at the Bataan Death March Memorial at Camp O’Donnell (Photo credit: ReverendMungo)

A proclamation by then President Corazon Aquino in December 1991 kicked off the conversion of the site into the shrine it is now. Built and maintained by the Philippine government, the shrine stands as a monument to the Filipino and American soldiers who died in

Camp O’Donnell at the end of the Bataan Death March. Encompassing 54 hectares of parkland, 35 hectares have been planted with rows of trees to represent each of the fallen. Last April 9, 2003, a new memorial wall of black marble and a 70-meter tall obelisk were unveiled. The memorial wall is engraved with the names of the Filipinos and Americans known to have died there,  as well as statistics about the total numbers of prisoners and deaths, and poems extolling peace. The wall is divided into three segments to represent the Filipino, American, and Japanese people. The obelisk’s soaring height is meant to signify all those groups’ great desire for world peace. The tall black structure stands as the shrine’s centerpoint, towering over the grounds of the former interment camp and visible from the entire Capas area. A small monument built by an American group calling themselves the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” honoring the American war casualties, a museum, and meeting area also lie within the area.

English: Battling Bastards of Bataan Memorial ...

English: Battling Bastards of Bataan Memorial at Camp O’Donnell, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Lay of the Land


On the way to and from the shrine, one can follow the path delineated by the Bataan Death March Markers. The final mileage markers of the death march are located outside the shrine, at kilometers 111, 100 and 109. Each marker was donated by a private individual or organization and is listed on the rear of the marker. The front indicates the mileage of the death march, with 0 km being the start at Bataan.

The Esplanade is a wide paved walkway extending from the shrine’s main gate to the central obelisk area, with a line of flag poles stretching on either side. It is reminiscent of the Mall in Washington DC, except that in this case the obelisk is black with striking carved flourishes instead of plain white. Surrounded by lush greenery, the dramatic lines and perspectives struck by the various monumental elements create an atmosphere of both serenity and majesty.

To the east of the Esplanade is a field containing a replica of a POW Camp constructed for the 2003 dedication. The replica includes two guard towers and a prisoner’s quarters building. To the west is the nature park with rows of trees planted as living memorials and also to promote environmental consciousness. A few kilometers from the shrine itself is the new Camp O’Donnell which now serves as one of the headquarters for the modern-day Philippine army.

Underneath the obelisk at Bataan Death March Memorial at Camp O’Donnell (Photo credit: ReverendMungo)

One of our guides around the shrine was Defender Atty. Rafael Estrada, Founder and First Supreme Councilor of the DBC, a survivor of the prison camp and a highly respected driving force among all the veterans. He proudly toured us around the garden planted and tended by the DBC Foundation, nimbly crossing the hanging bridge that dangles over the river from which he and his fellow prisoners took their water. “We owe this river our life,” he stated, pointing out that after the memorial, the bridge is the most visited spot within the shrine. Veterans and survivors come to Capas to look back at an unforgettable period in their lives and bring with them their children and grandchildren to make them better appreciate our current freedoms. Generations have been raised with an ever-fading memory of the war, and it takes a trip to monuments such as these to put history into sharp focus. From around 50,000 survivors after the war, the DBC can now muster only around 400 at each get-together. But even when these hardcore old-timers have been laid to rest, awaiting the low clear reveille of God, the DBC is sure to keep soldiering on, for generations to come.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2007

Windows to Well-Being: Microsoft’s Tep Misa

Image representing Microsoft as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

As one of 12 winners from among 70,000 employees worldwide, Stephen Thomas “Tep” Misa, Small & Mid-Market Solutions and Partners director for Microsoft Philippines, received the much-coveted Chairman’s Award, Circle of Excellence in 2006

His achievement is made more noteworthy by the fact that out of 230 Circle of Excellence Awardees, Bill Gates himself personally handpicks who gets the Chairman’s Awards. “We were just so blessed that the one chosen for Asia Pacific is, for the first time, a Filipino,” Tep relates. “We didn’t expect it. The nominations come from your peers. It’s not something that you gun for.”

Tep planned such innovative Microsoft Partner Programs as the sales-boosting “Kaakbay”, and “IT Ignite” which helped fire up international opportunities for local software houses.

The live awards ceremonies, held at the NBA Arena, were further enlivened by Tep’s far-from-understated demeanor. “The whole court was the stage, all the winners were in the middle,” he recounts. “When I was called we were shocked. I went to the very front, facing the arena that was full of people. The Philippine team was there. All the winners had a red jacket with a badge saying Circle of Excellence Awardee. But we also had a Philippine jacket. And every time we’d go to a global briefing we’d wear that jacket with our flag, Olympics-style. I took off the red jacket to reveal the Philippine jacket. The crowd burst into applause, even Steve Ballmerclapped. Then I threw the jacket to the team. All the other winners just went up to have their hands shaken. I was shouting Philippines! Philippines!”

Aside from work, accepting awards, and caring for his wife Hazel and twins Gio and Chili, Tep channels his boundless energy into triathlons, tennis, and playing keyboards for the Ligaya ng Panginoon Catholic Charismatic Community. “I have 5 mantras to sustain me,” states Tep. “I shall play, rest, work, learn and pray. If I’m a bit lacking in one, my life isn’t balanced. Not even the riches in the world will be enough to compensate for living and enjoying a well-balanced life.”

Cover of "The 7 Habits of Highly Effectiv...

Cover of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Tep feels fortunate to have found his mission in life back in 1998 while attending a course on The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He resolved to start making a positive difference in other people’s lives and is grateful that working for Microsoft allows him to do that. “The company encourages people like me to be the best that they can be, to give back to their community, help your country, your partners, big and small companies in big ways and small ways,” Tep affirms. “It may sound cliché but it’s hard to accomplish, to find time for your family, work and community, and time to train for physical fitness. But in the end it’s a very rewarding experience. I perform better at work because of sports. You are sharper, better as a human being, because you don’t win every time. Losing forces you to be humble and bounce back.” But the winner in him busts out when Tep waxes effusive about how he enjoys competing as part of the Alterra Men’s Health team. “Before we were nobodies,” he admits. “Then we started winning. So now people are watching us.”

At a dinner with Steve Ballmer, he asked Tep what he was most proud of for being at Microsoft. Tep replied that it’s not because he’s making good money, not because of the cool technology, but because the company allows him to help other people. “I’m surrounded by great, passionate, talented people who maybe have even more passion than I do,” Tep gushes. “Now the bar is higher. When our country succeeds, as an economy, as a Filipino people, so does Microsoft. We haven’t succeeded if our country has not succeeded.”

Two years ago, Tep decided to just go crazy. He realized how unhealthy he was when he saw an officemate, who weighed over 200 lbs, finish a triathlon. Coupled with the Lance Armstrong story of surviving cancer, this inspired him to do a 180 degree turn in his life in terms of health. He then started preparing for a triathlon, motivated by one major factor: three of Tep’s loved ones, two close friends and his mother-in-law, were all suffering from cancer. Tep thought how fortunate he was to be healthy and have the opportunity to live a good life and not waste it. So he vowed: “From here on, with every step, every swim stroke, every pedal, I’d pray to the Lord that my three loved ones would live one day longer. And that really inspired and motivated me. My two friends are still alive. Unfortunately my mother-in-law, who I love so much, passed away earlier this year.”

And although his wife is still a bit saddened by their loss, Tep has still started to prepare her to be a runner, cyclist and swimmer. “All your frustrations, take it out on the training,” he goads . “Make something positive out of something negative.” Tep hopes his kids eventually adopt his outlook on health as well. He’s already bought them bikes to start them off.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Men’s Health Philippines, 2007

World Pool Champion Mika Immonen: This Finn has Flipped over the Philippines

Finish pool player Mika Immonen at the Mosconi...

Finish pool player Mika Immonen at the Mosconi Cup 2008 in Malta. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mika Immonen is undoubtedly one of the world’s best pool players. Mika was thrust into the game’s highest ranks when he won the World Pool Championship in Cardiff, Wales in 2001 after a perfect week-long pool-playing streak. He was voted MVP at the 2003 Mosconi Cup in Las Vegas and chosen as the European team captain in 2005. At the first ever Philippines Open in 2003, he came in from behind to beat home-town favorite Efren Reyes and emerge as champion.

His many victories include the 1992 Inaugural EuroTour, 1996 Taipei Peace Cup, 2000 Sudden Death 7-ball championship, 2003 Pro Tour Championship, 2003 National Championship, and the 2004 World All Stars Cup.

As it turns out, Mika’s introduction to the cue and table was kind of accidental. “They opened up a pool room just two blocks from my home,” he relates. “And it was conveniently on the way to school. So on the way back I’d be stuck there. We were going to play ice hockey once but it was an exceptionally cold day so we just went to this new place which was warm and cozy and there were a lot of games and a billiard table. At first I didn’t even play billiards that much, like any youngster I was playing video games at that age. And then as soon as I started playing a little bit, I was really fascinated and got hooked easily. I felt like I had natural talent.”

Mika won his first tournament, a small one in Helsinki, when he turned 16 that same year. Alas, no trophy remains as a memento of that fateful triumph. “The winner got a ham because it was Christmas and there are a lot of tournaments in Finland in December,” Mika explains. “But my family is not into ham that much. We prefer turkey. So I sold it. I made over a hundred US dollars at the time selling this huge ham.”

Mika earliest inkling of the Philippines was while following a game played by pool great Earl Strickland. The legendarily temperamental champion was up against a Filipino and was getting really mad and frustrated, even flinging a few memorable vocal barbs. But Mika didn’t get to actually see Stricklands’ nemeses, Efren Reyes and Francisco Bustamante, in the flesh until 1992 when they played the Challenge Cup tournament in Sweden.

Mika Immonen, 2001 WPA World Nine-ball Champio...

Mika Immonen, 2001 WPA World Nine-ball Champion, July 22, 2001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mika first visited our country in 2002, the year after he won the World Pool Championship. “I was really pleasantly surprised about everything, by how many people knew me here, the hospitality and the fact that almost everybody speaks English,” he states effusively (for a Finn). “There was literally no language barrier. It was just a nice place to be.”

Thanks to the unifying power of pool, Mika has sort of become an informal goodwill ambassador for our country. “I like that there are so many nice holiday destinations even just a short distance from Manila,” he states. “Like Boracay, Subic Bay, Tagaytay, Baguio. Palawan. I wouldn’t mind having my semi-retirement in the Philippines eventually. It’s my long-term plan. And I can always play pool here.”

Mika can’t seem to get enough of our warm weather, but also more importantly, of our warm reception of him. “The hospitality of the people here is just amazing. It’s really outstanding, I think it’s the best in the world,” he gushes. “Finns have a lot to learn. In restaurants or any service industry I think that Finns should come here first and see what it’s really supposed to be like. Filipinos are proud of their work but still humble. They always seem to want to make the best of the situation, to make you feel comfortable, like you want to come back again. That culture of hospitality really is a big asset of the Philippines.”

Over his many visits, Mika has learned to accept and admire our distinct Filipino quirks and qualities. “Filipinos like to party. They’re kinda laid-back people,” he observes.

“It’s funny this thing that Filipinos do with their eyebrows. In Finland, that is kind of like a flirtatious thing. When a girl does that it sort of means: Hey what’s up? You wanna do something? So I was a little bit confused.” For sure, the Finn’s fervent Filipina fans were all too willing to set him straight on this. But he just takes this all in stride with straightforward Scandinavian stoicism.

“Filipinos are always late,” gripes Mika (after we were 10 minutes late for the interview). “But it’s cool with me. I’m used to it. I almost expect it,” he says reassuringly. He has gotten so familiar with Filipino manners, he’s even started taking a few of them on himself.

“I noticed usually when I stay here for a week or so, I start speaking like a Filipino, I start emulating how my friends talk, the accent. I don’t even notice it. I use the gestures you do here like the eyebrow thing, pointing with lips. I guess I get acclimatized.”

Although Mika may praise us and put up with some of our foibles, there are still a few things he hopes could be improved. “I wish there would be more awareness about the environment,” he states. “Some of the thinking is very short-term. Creating trash and pollution and maybe throwing them in places that otherwise would be very beautiful. There’s a lot of nature here that is really untouched but people are taking some of it for granted. I hope some political power would start focusing on it because that’s part of the richness of the Philippines.”

This declaration reveals Mika’s sincere affection for our country, beyond just being the place from where his respected rivals hail from. “I’ve always dreamed about having a world championship over here. I know it’s good for the country and it’s good for the pool community. If a Filipino does well here it may boost the national pride and confidence. It may trigger some other things. If I don’t win I hope it’s a Filipino.”

“I think this world championship will give a big boost to an already pool-crazy country,” he predicts. “Maybe there would be a wellspring of new talents. A couple of years down the line I can expect a lot of really good players from here. I can already see a very strong next generation.”

When asked what advice he could share with local cue-men, Mika just smiles and shakes his head “They don’t need advice, they’re too good already,” he yields. This is high praise indeed from “the Iceman”, whose steel-cold stare has unnerved many a champion.

“They tell me I look mean on TV,” shrugs Mika. “But I just say that’s the way I play. It’s serious business. Like in any sport I think you can see many characters that are just really intense when they play. They let their guard up. I think I’m a little bit more relaxed in real life.”

“Finns in general are a more quiet people,” he goes on to explain. “They don’t say much. That’s just a fact. Even I know it. I might be in that category. I would like to warn Filipinos that when they meet Finnish people that they shouldn’t be taken aback by this. Small talk is not a part of our culture. It’s just the way things are. I’ve been traveling the last 14 years so experiencing different cultures has affected me in the way that I’m more approachable, or not that Finnish. There’s still a lot of that rooted in me anyway. Sometimes I can’t help it. Sometimes maybe it’s nice to be quiet,”

As a parting shot, Mika extends his gratitude to all those rooting for him, whether Finn or Filipino. “I’d like to thank the Filipinos for all their support. I’m very touched by it. I even have this fan club with a yahoo group. So I’d like to say thanks to them for hanging in there. They have a lot of great players from their own country but I’ve heard them say if a Filipino isn’t going to win the tournament then they hope it was me. So that’s very cool.” Thus speaketh the Iceman.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006.

Man in a High Place: HP Philippines CEO Nilo Cruz

Nilo Cruz is a distinguished veteran of the wild world of high-tech mega-corporations. A loyal workhorse for IBM who then turned to running Compaq Philippines, a company he had driven to record growth just before its parent company was absorbed into the HP behemoth, Philippine IT pundits had speculated that Cruz’s chances of staying on top post-merge seemed remote, and so his ascension to HP Philippines chief was quite the stunner in an already surprise-filled saga.

Nilo took this all in his stride without missing a beat. “I never stopped looking back, but I kept on moving forward – so one step forward, two steps backward, review, learn, then move again,” is how he puts it.

It’s this continuous drive to improve himself as a boss that probably makes him such a good one. “You want to further grow, maybe there’s something different in the future,” he stresses. “So you want to prepare for it, but since you don’t know yet what’s coming, you just have to really try whatever you can. It may be products, services, competition, management, new approaches, challenges, whatever is new. If there’s any training in terms of management, I’d like to get it. If I can get hold of it, I will.”

Although most people would think that Nilo has climbed as high up the corporate ladder as one could possibly aspire to, he doesn’t believe in resting at the summit. He feels a responsibility to keep working to uplift the team he leads. “Never stop developing people because they’re the ones that will push you up, rather than pull you down. Aside from my family, they inspire me as well,” he acknowledges.

Nilo is the antithesis of the ivory tower CEO holed up his corner office. “I don’t really stay in my room so much. I’m a cubicle manager, I work with the staff, I share jokes with them, I share problems with them.  They know where I’m coming from. I can be nice but I can also be nasty. But of course, that’s the last thing I want to be.”

Absorbing, interpreting, and sharing knowledge is what seems to be key in the IT biz according to Nilo. “You get training from the companies you work with, you learn from other companies, from other countries. They also try to learn from us because we have a more challenging environment. So over the years I try to apply them. I watch the way the competition works, see how I can learn from their mistakes.”

Nilo was able to spin even the notorious Fiorina fiasco into more of a boon than a bane for HP, somewhat proving the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. “Since it didn’t affect our business here, which is my concern, I moved on. But it kept HP in the industry’s mind for a while. So every time I’d go to the doctor’s, or to cocktails and parties, people would come up to me and say that they’d read an article on what was happening at HP, and I’d tell them to check how HP stock moves. And the next day they’d see it go higher. So I’d say: ‘That’s what I’m monitoring more than what I see on CNN or in the press.’”

Nilo remains unruffled by the goings-on at the top ranks of HP headquarters and like all good mentors, is ready to pass on the baton when necessary. “Wherever I am I always try to develop someone who can replace me because I know I won’t be here forever,” he admits. “It’s nice to give back to the company the good graces that they have shared with me and not leave a vacuum. And in fairness to the people who have helped me meet my objectives, I want to make sure that they also look forward to getting a crack at my job. That’s one thing that I’m not going to be selfish about.”

Mr. Cruz’s commitment to HP, or any of his endeavors, really comes across in how he talks about himself and his company. But as the Filipino CEO of a foreign corporation, Nilo’s strongest allegiance is still to his country.

“First you have to remain focused, you have to play a role model, you have to learn how to be a bridge between the country and the regional headquarters,” he explains. “You have to represent your country well, both the business and human resources part.  You have to defend what you believe in, which is unique to thePhilippines.”

As head of the company, he has to make sure that he delivers the company objectives as regularly as possible, quite a challenge given our economic and political situation. But Nilo believes that we all need to rise to the challenge. He relates how at a speech he gave for a commencement exercise, he dared the students to stay here and make a difference. “That’s easier said than done, but you’ve got to make a decision. When you go abroad you either make it or don’t. And if you come back you’ve lost time, you’ve lost momentum.”

He encourages all Filipinos not to go for the easy dollar, to find simple contentment in those so-called greener pastures. “You can’t have it all. You have to accept that. But you can have something better, or something similar. Count your blessings, that’s what I always say,” he counsels.

Nilo hopes to stir the Filipino youth’s entrepreneurial spirit. “You can start small, from a thousand bucks,” he argues. “Those people who are big now, where did they start? They were working students! If you read their histories, they borrowed money to be able to start their businesses and look at them right now.  So if they were able to do it, what is the difference? What sacrifice did they do that our youths aren’t doing right now?”

Nilo singles out for admiration those people who he finds “more balanced”, who spend their time trying to help the country while running good businesses and practicing good governance and social responsibility at the same time.  He wants to challenge more organizations to espouse love of country. “Rather than loving one’s club, region or family, I want it love for the Philippines.  I still have to see – not tourism ads – but messages of loving the country, of pursuing what Rizal died for, or Bonifacio, or the rest that followed.”

However, Nilo also does have a more down-to-earth and not-so-secret pipe dream for himself beyond the business world.

“I’ve been sharing with my friends that one day I’d want to have a farm. I have a green thumb and I like doing gardens.  But I’m only limited to my house garden now.”

So it may not actually be too out of the ordinary to see this CEO trade in his business suit and PDA for a rake and shovel. “They say my skin color’s like this not because of golf. I got burnt in the field.  It’s a joke but it’s true.”

-text by Jude Defensor, first published in Manual magazine, 2006

The Renaissance Man Returns: Jose Rodriguez, Director, Instituto Cervantes

The Instituto Cervantes Manila has truly grown into a veritable institution in the lives of many Filipinos. Officially tasked with promoting the Spanish language and culture by organizing classes and events, this year has seen many new developments for the Instituto. In January, they moved into their new building located beside the Casino Espanol at T.M. Kalaw St. in Ermita, Manila. Then in July, Manila laid to rest its distinction as having the only Instituto Cervantes in Asia with the opening of Instituto Cervantes Beijing. August bore witness to the despedida for the much-admired Dr. Javier Galvan, who ended his term after five fruitful years as the Director of the Instituto.
When news of Dr. Galvan’s imminent departure first started trickling out to the students and patrons of the Instituto, speculation naturally turned toward the identity of his possible replacement. Whoever it would be, everybody was strongly hoping for someone who would have a great affection for the Philippines and rapport with Filipinos. For these criteria at the very least, the new Instituto Director, Jose Rodriguez, definitely qualifies. He loves Filipinos so much that he married one, then went on to live here for more than 25 years.

“My romance with the Philippines started some 30 years ago when I first met my wife in Spain. I was seduced.” Dr. Rodriguez confesses. “So today we have this total interconnection between a Spaniard and a Filipino.”

To demonstrate, he peppers his speech with Tagalog words and expressions, and even prides himself on his appropriately Pinoy-sounding palayaw, “Pepe”. It was indeed an inspired decision by Spain to appoint as Director of Instituto Cervantes Manila, not a stranger to the country, but an old friend.
Born and raised in the province of Ourense, in the Northwestern region of Galicia in Spain. Dr. Rodriguez’s wife is renowned Filipina portrait artist Lulu Coching. Their two children, Lara María and José Francisco, “grew up as Filipinos,” he asserts.

To get here Dr. Rodriguez has come a long and roundabout way from his Ph.D and M.A. in business administration, and Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural technical engineering. After completing his military service in Africa’s Sahara desert in the 1970s, he shifted to the field of journalism as a correspondent for major Spanish dailies, and eventually joined the Spanish News Agency Agencia EFE where he went on to become regional bureau chief for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It was during his term and through his efforts that Agencia EFE established its English-language world service headquarters in Manila.

He became president of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) in 1992 and was elected president of the Manila Overseas Press Club (MOPC) in 1995. He is also a member of the International Press Institute (IPI) and an honorary member of the National Press Club of the Philippines. He co-founded with the late Secretary Raul Manglapus and a group of Filipino Hispanistas, the weekly Crónica de Manila, a Philippine publication in Spanish.
He has been Honorary Consul of Bolivia in the Philippines (1987-2004), and President of the Academia Filipina de la Lengua Espanola since 1989. Dr. Rodriguez has been awarded the Encomienda de Isabel la Catolica by His Majesty King Juan Carlos I of Spain for his contributions to the strengthening of Spanish-Philippine relations and was recently conferred the Order of Sikatuna by the Republic of the Philippines. He has also been conferred a degree of Doctor of Humanities honoris causa by the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila.

Dr. Rodriguez has spent the past four years away from our shores, and is very happy to be back here in his new role. “It was worth it to wait for this opportunity. This time I will no longer be just reporting on the Philippines. I hope to be able to make things happen in my field of endeavor that will be of mutual benefit to my two dear countries.”

Although he just officially started his term last September 1st, Dr. Rodriguez hit the ground running. In only two weeks his leadership style at the Instituto is already clearly felt. “I come back to the Philippines to assume this new position with something very important: a vision. My mandate is to focus on activities that will further strengthen the social and cultural relationship between Spain and the Philippines,” he explains.

Listening to the director, it becomes obvious that it is this clear vision that drives his enthusiasm. “My dream is to be able to increase Filipino interest in Spain in such a way that they will begin to appreciate that they have to learn Spanish in this day and age. Spanish was very much a part of the Philippines’ past. Having learned our lessons, my dream is that Filipinos will now consider Spain as part of their present and future.”
This dream rests on deep foundations, which the director respectfully acknowledges. “I hope to build on what my predecessors have accomplished and even dare to try to raise the level of awareness of our historical ties,” he states. “We share a great number of things in our culture. Let’s not forget that we have almost 10,000 Spanish words in the Filipino language. But in my own judgment, the Spanish culture is beyond language. It is customs, traditions, food, etc. In short, it is a way of life.”

He is positive that the Instituto’s work and worth will speak for itself. “I want to invite everyone to come visit the IC, to look at the beautiful building with state-of-the art facilities for students, an auditorium for conferences and film showings, and a library with, as of today, some 25,000 books.” The director also invites everybody to participate in and enjoy the many activities the Instituto Cervantes has planned for this year’s ¡Fiesta! the Spanish Festival for Culture and the Arts in October.

For Dr. Rodriguez, the Instituto’s further success lies in those who have yet to learn of it. “The youth, as Jose Rizalcorrectly said, is the hope of the land,” he avows, laying out his grand plan for targeting them. “Our goal is to make the Filipinos come to the Instituto Cervantes, not only for educational and cultural reasons, but as part of their way of life. To thrive, the Instituto Cervantes, or IC, must be a welcome home for everyone. We are committed to bringing the IC to the millions of students around the archipelago. Students are the soul of the Instituto Cervantes. They are the main hope to be able to achieve a dialogue between the two cultures.”The director stresses how the Instituto’s mission entails a coordinated effort. “We will try to achieve this dream by working very closely with my colleagues here, the Spanish Embassy, The Spanish community and the home government, and with the youth of this land through the universities and colleges of this country. But I know that our efforts will be crowned by success only when Filipinos embrace these programs as if they were their own. And I am confident that they will do so.”In all his statements, the consistent theme to the director’s stance is his great respect for the Filipino people and desire to serve the Philippines.

He passionately waxes effusive over our country in a manner that would bowl over even the staunchest militant nationalist or revisionist historian. “The Philippines is one of the richest cultural mosaics in the world. It is a unique window display into the westernization of the Orient. I would like to say to all foreigners who still have doubts, come to the Philippines, try the Philippines, stay in the Philippines, you will never regret it.”

Aside from raising his family and devoting half his professional life here, Dr. Rodriguez has also left a lasting legacy in the form of two books that he has published about the Philippines. “Crónicas is a mini-memoir of my stay in the country, he describes. “You will see all the major protagonists in the political and social life of the Philippines during those years, as well as other stories on themes like the Sto Nino, myths, faith, earthquakes, transition pains, the Spanish language, and prominent personalities.” He is most proud of his most recent book, published two years ago. Featuring portraits of Philippine First Ladies, he co-authored the book with his wife Lourdes, one of the country’s foremost portrait painters. “This is a book of portraits of women who shared their lives with men of power, women who played significant roles in the history of the nation,” he relates. “The book focuses on the first ladies as wives, mothers, and in one singular instance, as daughter, in the midst of revolution, war, tragedies, and political and economic challenges from 1898 to 1998.” Crónicas is available at National Book Store branches, while Philippine First Ladies Portraits is available at all Rustan’s Department Stores.Although the director has already so much to look back upon and be proud of with what he has already accomplished, he believes that it is more cause for gratitude and inspiration than an indicator that he should begin resting on his laurels. “I will never forget my 25 years in this country and the hand extended by the Filipinos, frank and kind, reaching out to hold me with a unique affection and brotherhood,” he concludes. “So now I am committed to everything left in my hands and more, to demonstrate that what has been given to me by the Filipinos has not been in vain.”
-text & photo by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006

Global Guy Gone Native: Peace Corps Volunteer Joe Speicher

photo by Tina Cifra

Joe Speicher was born a native of Rockville, Maryland, but thanks to his two-year stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer here in the Philippines, has now become an adopted son of Valencia, Negros Oriental. The son of an accountant and a child psychologist, Joe is the eldest of three siblings. His brother is in the US Army, while his sister has recently joined the Peace Corps as well.

After graduating from a small liberal arts college, Joe first donned a suit and tie working as a political fundraiser in Washington DC. He then moved to New York Cityto join the rat race. As an employee of the multinational financial giant Lloyd’s, he found that climbing the corporate ladder in the big city was not all it was cracked up to be. He was dispirited by how the daily grind seemed to be all about money, all about profit margins. Rent was high, and he wasn’t really being paid very well. He sometimes didn’t even have enough money to buy food for himself. One time, he was so hungry he stuffed his bag with the crackers that were left out in the office’s snack area. But he got caught by his boss and was forced to put them back. Joe soon realized how unfulfilled his work environment was making him feel. He wanted something more out of his life. He then started getting involved in volunteer organizations. It was in 2003 when he made the decision that would transform him forever.

logo

logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I applied to the Peace Corps because I wanted to change my life and do something worthwhile,” says Joe. “I didn’t really like what I was doing inNew Yorkand started to look for a change. I was planning to work overseas, and the Peace Corps recruiting office was near my building. I started going to recruiting events and decided that this was for me. After 9/11, I was absolutely certain it was something I wanted to do. I watched those planes hit the twin towers, and I immediately decided that life in a cubicle under the phosphorescent lights slaving away for cash was not for me.”

It was a huge decision and Joe was vacillating up to the last minute. At first, he thought he would be sent to Africa, so his assignment to the Philippines came as a bit of a surprise. His batch of volunteers began their training in Bohol, where Joe first experienced living with a Filipino foster family. From there, Joe then began working in earnest at his assigned site at Negros Oriental.

“The problems in the Philippines are terribly overstated by the Western media,” he asserts. “Once I got here, I felt safer in my barangay than I did in my office building in New York.”

Because of his business background, he was given a position at the Department of Trade and Industry office, where he conducted workshops for farmers to teach them useful livelihood skills, and participated in the writing of a business skills training manual which is now being used in Local Government Units and organizations. He also worked with the local zoo and nature preserve.

Palinpinon Geothermal power plant in Sitio Nas...

Palinpinon Geothermal power plant in Sitio Nasulo, Brgy. Puhagan, Valencia, Negros Oriental, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I lived in a nipa hut, helped out a few local entrepreneurs and taught English at the local elementary school,” Joe recounts. “I lent a hand to USAID and the Peace Corps for a few trainings, wrote for a local newspaper and lead an environmental camp for kids,”

Joe spent most of his time deeply involved with the community in the town of Valencia where he worked at the plant nursery and where his host family lived. Joe was such a cherished member of the community that one of the townspeople even named her baby Josephine after him. It was in Valencia where he was able to develop his amazing mastery of the Visayan language, which he speaks as well as a native.

“Joe’s command of Visayan is what I think really separates him from a lot of other foreigners in the Philippines,” shares Richard Finke, Joe’s friend and Peace Corps batch mate. “He also acquired incredible singing abilities while in the Philippines.” This remains a debatable opinion after experiencing Joe’s videoke stylings, which is apparently a necessary skill to survive the Negros countryside.

Along with many other achievements and adventures, Joe appeared in a Visayan telenovela playing the role of the US Ambassador and participated in a mini-marathon around Dumaguete.

“I got into diving and camping and even won a Peace Corps photography contest. I learned how to climb the coconut trees and wield a bolo. I watched Extra Challenge and Mulawin and listened to F4 and the Eraserheads with my friends,” reveals Joe.

After his stint in the Peace Corps ended in October of 2005, Joe went back to the States where he embarked on a cross-country tour, then worked in a camp supply store for a while to earn some money.

In January of this year, he began studying for a Masters degree in International Studies at Columbia University in New York, where he’ll be graduating in 2007. Even there he tries to hold on to his connections to the Philippines as much as possible. “I organized a trip for my classmates to a local Philippine turo-turo. In the dorm where I live there are two Cebuanas who I tease in Visayan every time I see them,” he relates. “People always ask me to teach them some Filipino, and I tell them the only words they need to know are sige and kwan. It’s true. I’ve seen Filipinos have an entire conversation using only these two words.”

Joe spent his summer vacation this year studying the Chinese language in Beijing from July to August. After his course, he swung by the Philippines to reconnect with his Filipino friends and adopted family, people whose lives he has touched and who have touched his as well.

“In the Philippines I learned how to relax and ride the wave of life without trying to control it. I was sent here to help Filipinos make better lives for themselves, but I’m the one who feels enriched. I learned more in my three years here than I did in high school, college and graduate school combined. The Philippines will always be an essential part of my life.”

-text and photo by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Men’s Health Philippines, 2006

Paul Monozca: The Lion Tamer

Having done well in Singapore, Paul Monozca now seeks to do good at home

The stereotype of the silver-spooned haciendero, one born into the land of the sugar barons, haunts many sons of the well-to-do from the plantation-rich society of the island of Negros. A few are content to bask in their gentility, cultivating a charmed lifestyle as their ancestors must have enjoyed. But some strive to shake it off, break away from the shackles of privilege, and show everyone up on their own terms. Or as Paul Infante Monozca puts it, “have the passion to dare to dream and do it”. An overlooked facet of the oft-romanticized saga of the sugar plantations is how many families, including Paul’s, struggled to cope with and recover from the profound impact of the sweeping land reform program on the province’s agriculture-based economy. This struggle, compounded with his upbringing among a family of dedicated doctors, helped develop a passion for service in the young Paul.

A proud native of Bacolod City, the 38 year-old Paul has been based in Singapore for the past 14 years, where he is arguably the most visible Filipino personality. He currently stands as the Asian regional head for business development for leading investment advisory service PricewaterhouseCoopers, handling the banking & capital markets industry group. Three years ago, Paul made waves in both his host and home country with the impressive feat of bringing together scions of five prominent Filipino families to work as one in doing business with companies linked to the Singapore government. He has been invited by no less than Singapore’s Minister of Parliament and Rotary President Claire Chiang to speak on 2nd generation Philippines-Singapore business relations, and by the Philippine Embassy to be involved in entrepreneur training workshops for Filipino workers.

Paul was recently awarded the Singapore Sports Council’s ‘Sporting Singapore Inspirational Award 2006’ bySingapore’s Minister of Sports Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, the first Filipino ever to receive such a prestigious recognition in the history of the awards.

His philanthrophic efforts have raised over SIN$300,000 (over Php10million) for various charitable causes, including the Dr. AB Monozca Foundation which focuses on providing medical missions to the Philippines, funding for church restorations and scholarships to needy children.

“Because I grew up in Bacolod, a passion not only of myself, but also of my late father, is to be able to provide good health care for sugar farm workers,” shares Paul. “We’ve been fortunate to be supported by some very good names like Caltex Asia, Unilab andSingapore’s CK Tang property group. Now we’re working with a leading charitable organization in Singapore to send some Philippine doctors on scholarships and train them, but in exchange they have to commit to help out in our medical missions,” he explains.

Numerous Filipino athletes have also been given the chance to work overseas due to the foundation. “I’ve been talking to a few close friends who own PBA teams. Certain players, especially alumni, can be given opportunities to coach in Singapore and get paid well doing that. So they’ll be able to follow through after their career as a player.” The foundation’s basketball project is a nationally endorsed program by the Sports Council and Basketball Association of Singapore, currently serving an initial 17 schools with more to come.

An avid sportsman, Paul counts equestrian, golf, karting, shooting and basketball among his leisure activities. He runs some of the most high-flying fund raisers in Singapore such as the Annual Celebrity Golf Classic and the Gatorade Basketball Academy which have been attended by international celebrities including British Open Champion Gary Player, NBA great John Havliceck, China’s basketball star Chen Zhen Hao, Olympic Badminton Champions Susi Susanti and Alan Budi Kusuma, concert queen Pops Fernandez and former Philippine President Ramos. He is also credited for assisting inSingapore’s Formula One bid and Sports Hub initiative, which envisions top regional athletes converging on Singapore to participate in the global drive to promote foreign talent in the city state. “I’ve been asked by former President Ramos to see if these events can be brought to the Philippines, especially our golf event,” he reveals. “This will bring in media coverage, top sportsmen and personalities from all over the world. There are a lot of opportunities between the two countries to be visible together. The plan is to use sports to build diplomacy.”

Paul’s subsequent goal is to assist in reclaiming the investment priority status of the Philippines with the region’s financial centre, Singapore. “We used to be Asia’s number one economy. That has translated into Filipinos having a first world mindset. Our infrastructure has to keep up,” he contends. “Singapore is pretty much the hub of the region. It’s not an easy country to please, but at the same time we have to engage them because they have quite an influence over the investment landscape.”

It is this talent at engaging people, corporations, and even other countries that has obviously served Paul well in his sterling career. But he makes it very clear that above all, he will always be Pinoy at heart, and he doesn’t hold back in airing the extent of his patriotism to the Philippines.

“I’m just one of the millions of Pinoys who are based overseas, one of the guys who continually want to do good for our country. We hope that everything we do contributes to everyone’s well being,” he states. “We’ve been known as a country that deploys a lot of talent overseas, at the same time we should be mindful that all these people are still attached to our mother country whether they are vocal or not. We should strengthen our links to leverage on each one’s success and failures. Indirectly we bring Filipino traits like being respectful to our host country. This is a great way to contribute and make our presence felt”.

Paul feels that above everything, it’s all about embracing the current era of globalization. “Filipino talent is being recognized on a grand scale all over the world right now, especially our creativity, service and hospitality,” he asserts. “Filipinos can be very competitive, but are quiet about it. Now is the right time to be visible and to grab opportunities. I’ve always said that I feel that the Philippines is where China was in the 1960s, where we’re sort of living in our own world, always doing things the Filipino way.” Paul hopes that through his work he can help in creating a new mindset for the country, through sports or whatever other medium, and make a difference.

It is this noble objective of serving the greater good that now drives Paul to succeed and gives him fulfillment, after having reflected on how the world right now just revolves a lot around money. “A lot of our countrymen are forced to do a lot of things which they don’t even want to do to earn money,” he bemoans. “I’m not someone who should give advice, but a food for thought for everyone is just to follow your heart and what you want to do. Do it sincerely and credibly because that’s not something money can buy. You achieve certain things but no matter how small it is you should put in all the effort and not step on anyone. Daanan sa galing, huwag sa gulangan”.

A real never-say-die guy, Paul believes in gaining the right outlook and following what you’re passionate about and continually doing it despite people telling you it’s not going to work. “If it makes you happy, weigh the risks and do it,” Paul affirms. “Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, has their own passion and is successful in their own right. The bottom-line of the whole thing is that when you’re passionate about something it becomes priceless.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manual magazine, 2006

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