[UPSE Professor and National Scientist Raul V. Fabella was the speaker at the Recognition Rites of the U.P. School of Economics graduating class of 2013, held on 26 April 2013 at the U.P. Theatre. Below is the text of his speech.]


Today we recognize and applaud the 2013 graduates of the UPSE. Congratulations and welcome to the UPSE family. We also salute the parents, guardians, and patrons of our graduates for being there and making this possible. It was an arduous journey that our graduates can look back to with fondness and pride.

For not everyone who was at the starting block with you four years ago is here today. The UPSE program was designed to be a tough rite of passage. Inevitably, some fell by the wayside. In the parlance now familiar to you, the UP—but especially UPSE—diploma, is a scarce resource. To have it is to pay the price.

Of course, mistakes are sometimes made in the pursuit of honor and excellence. We sometimes commit a type II error, that is, pass students who do not have the UPSE DNA. You know who I mean. We also sometimes commit a type I error, that is, dismiss students who perhaps have the DNA. I know one who failed to lift her probation and shifted to NCPAG where she graduated with honors. She then enrolled in the Ateneo Law School and joined its debating team. I met her the week of the pivotal debate between Ateneo team and the UP team. The winner will represent the Philippines in a world competition in Washington DC, USA. She mentioned that the UP Law team was headed by a summa cum laude of UPSE. As I knew the summa girl as the best debater in the Philippines, I said tongue-in-cheek that the Ateneo team doesn’t stand a chance. Lo and behold, the Ateneo team bagged the prize. She (the shiftee) is now a hotshot international lawyer based in London. The dean of NCPAG once asked me why we dismissed such good students. I said that UPSE—in its pursuit of excellence—is not unlike the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. On Ramanujan’s tombstone was written the epitaph by the famous number theorist Littlewood: “Even his mistakes were brilliant.”

I hesitated when first apprised of the invitation to speak to you today. Apart from a strong aversion for wasting other people’s time, I do not feel confident to instruct you on how to win in the world beyond UP. I have not built a business empire like Doy Vea of Smart and MediaQuest; I have not headed a successful universal bank like Vic Valdepeñas of Union Bank; I have not engendered laws in the Senate like Pia Cayetano; I do not dispense justice from the highest court of the land like Marvic Leonen; I have not argued for inclusiveness in the Cabinet meetings like Felipe Medalla or Ben Diokno; nor have I parted the Red Sea when I enter a room of movers and shakers like Winnie (you know who)—all of whom were once seated where you are today. I am an academic, pure and simple. An occasional object of the brickbat “Those who can’t, teach.” But I love and will not trade my position with its large think space and meagre pay for the pomp, the power, and the wealth of an outside job. I would rather sow the UPSE DNA.

So, following Winston Churchill’s advice, “The farther back we look, the further forward we can see,” let me ruminate on the past and how you got here today.

Today is that distant future that motivated the numberless times in the last four years you forewent a movie, a night out, a revelry, a date because you had to write a term paper, study for an exam, do a required reading. You are here because you resisted the allure of living for the present. You had a vision of a better tomorrow and you paid the price. You are, in other words, the children of “delayed gratification.”

What’s that, you ask? The celebrated Marshmallow Experiment in the 1970s led by Prof. Walter Mischel of Stanford University tells your story well. This involved children, three- to five-year-olds who were each left alone in a room with one marshmallow and were told they could eat it now or—if they forewent eating it until the researcher returned 15 minutes later—they would get an additional one. Watched through a one-way mirror, the children fidgeted, some closed their eyes, turned their backs, some kicked the table, and some smelled, pinched and simply, well, swallowed the marshmallow. Follow-up studies in 1988 when they were teenagers showed that those who delayed eating had significantly better SAT scores and better grades. Further follow-up years later showed significantly better educational attainment, better life outcomes like higher incomes and healthier biomass. The capacity to postpone gratification years before had marked the winners in the game of life!

Postponed gratification worked for me too. When I was a grad student in the US, one of the peak moments of my life was receiving letters from my GF who was 6,000 miles away in Manila. Whenever I received a letter—however strong the urge to open it—I would immediately identify tasks xyz that I had to do but was too distracted to do. I told myself: “You can’t open the letter until you finish xyz.” That’s how I did my homework, sections of my dissertation, chapters of required reading, etc. When I finally opened the letter—sometimes days later—the spike of enjoyment was sky-high! That’s how my GF, who is now my wife Teena, became part of my success.

My hunch is, if you follow through with the same commitment to seed the future with delayed gratification as you did in UPSE, you will be winners in the outside world. After UPSE, you already have the formula to be winners in the world.

But the Philippines, where poverty is endemic and human deprivation severe, it is not enough to be a winner. The nation needs heroes. A winner is not always a hero; nor is a hero is always a winner. Indeed, many a hero shares the fate of Thomas Gray’s blossom in Elegy: “Full many a blossom of purest ray serene, the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear…” They are often ignored and forgotten. In 1994, Ben Diokno, Dondon Paderanga, Noel de Dios, and I publicly proposed the weakening of the peso from ₱25 to ₱35 to a US$. China had just devalued the yuan by 40%. Our message: “This is no time to party!” But the nation wanted to party now! It could not stand party-poopers! So we were instead rebuffed and hounded like lepers. Three years later the Asian Crisis claimed the peso, spreading misery but sparing China.

As with individuals, so with countries. Countries that postpone gratification also invest a lot more in the future. Our investment rate as a nation is a measly 20% of GDP versus our neighbours’ average of 35%. Our current growth, though impressive, is consumption-led, which celebrates the present. Poverty incidence remains high. This no time to party. Here too are heroes needed to engender new institutions that make the country investment-friendly.

There are many shades of heroism. The New Testament (Mathew 5:41) spells heroism as “the second-mile rule”: “And whosoever compels you to go a mile, go with him twain.” The first mile as an act of duty; the second is an act of freedom. Anyone indeed who does his work beyond the call of duty is a hero. For heroism does not adhere to “what” one does, however important,  but to the “why “and the “how” one does what one does.

Heroism is not thus always easy to discern. In old Japan it was customary—especially among poor rural folks in times of food scarcity and/or when a new baby arrives—to leave the oldest, feeblest member of the family to the mountains in the dead of winter to die. This improves the life chances of the young. The custom is known as “Obasute” (literally, Grandmacide), a crude version of modern mandatory retirement. An old folktale goes that a son was carrying on his back his old mother (grandmother to his children) to the mountains to die. The old grandmother kept reaching for and breaking branches along the way. When queried by the son why she was doing this, she calmly replied: “So you will not get lost on your way back.” At this the son wept, turned around and brought her mother back home.

Who is the hero here? The easy answer is the son who defied tradition to save his aging mother. Defying a bad tradition is indeed one form of heroism. But if defying Obasute was courting starvation for the whole family, the son may be indulging in sentimental heroism. A better answer it seems is the old grandmother’s: she not only accepted without rancor the harsh tradition of having to be sacrificed to save the children; she also tried to ensure that they don’t lose their breadwinner. She was a thoughtful hero.

More than heroes, the country needs thoughtful heroes. For it is not enough to have a heart. We have more than we need of sentimental heroism. For far too many crimes are perpetrated in the name of the poor by sentimental heroes. Following the biting imagery my idol and iconic thoughtful hero, Deng Xiaoping, sentimental heroes (he called them “leftist deviants”) in attempting to help the poor by redistributing wealth only manage to redistribute poverty. By contrast, thoughtful heroes deploy hard-nosed data-based analysis to separate the chaff from the grain. Which explains why UPSE insists that you, its graduates, be steeped in the rigors of statistics and math.  If your heart in in the right place, the habit of hard thought will transform you into thoughtful heroes. Being  offsprings of UPSE, you have the right mix of head and heart.

For what is the essential UPSE? It is rigorous thought in the service of the nation, which means the poor. UPSE is a cauldron that forges thoughtful heroes. Sometimes defeated but ever unbowed, it will never stop battling  obfuscation and subterfuge. The UPSE will always rile against anti-poor programs masquerading as pro-poor. Many times it will be called heartless and brutal.

Which is why a good many of the UPSE faculty oppose the appreciation of the peso today; thoughtful rigor shows appreciation to be like a cocaine fix; a temporary high before the crash.

Which is why former Dean and NEDA Sec Arsenio  Balisacan reports that despite  growth in 2012, poverty incidence has not budged. At the risk of displeasing his over-exuberant principals and giving ammo to political enemies, he keeps faith with facts. That is the UPSE DNA.

Soon you will leave UPSE for good. Let me send you off with one last thought…

In the dying moments of the musical “Camelot,” the worn-down King Arthur, played by Richard Harris, pondering the inexorable demise of that one “fleeting wisp of glory” lamented: “Once there (was a spot for once brief shining moment that was known as) Camelot.”

But Camelot lives. For there is a new Round Table. Around it stand new Galahads ready to pour forth in search of the New Holy Grail, the Holy Grail of a restored, confident and flowering land.

You are the new Galahads. Through you, Camelot will tirelessly threaten  dawn upon every seemingly endless night. You will carry the fragrance of honor and excellence into battle against the despond of a sick and withered land.

And whether you are spent and wounded from the fray or victorious and vanquishing, come back sometime to Camelot to share, to be comforted and renewed.

With conviction that you will keep faith with your UPSE, I declare: “Once again there is Camelot.”

Congratulations and thank you.