Hon. Atty. Theodore O. Te: "Remember who you are, remember whose you are" (110th UPM Commencement Exercises)




Atty. Theodore O. Te

Commencement Exercises,

University of the Philippines Manila

Philippine International Convention Center, 26 June 2019






They say that, at commencement rites like these, we are reminded of three truths:

  • That the degrees that will be conferred on you are yours, the fruit of much effort (hopefully), sacrifice, and work;
  • That this ceremony is for your parents, spouses, partners, and significant others, family, and friends who stood by you throughout your life here in UP Manila;
  • That what you do with your degrees after today belongs to the People of the Philippines, whose name you carry.


So, first things first, congratulations, members of UP Manila Class of 2019, on your graduation from the University of the Philippines. You are crossing over from the relatively secure--if one may characterize Padre Faura and Pedro Gil as secure—environment of the academic life, where your life revolved around two “R”s--“Readings” and “Reports” or “Readings” and “Rounds”, to the so-called third “R”—the real world, where you, as UP graduates, would be expected to preside over yet two more “R”s --“Reforms” and “Revolutions.”


But, today also is a day to recognize those who have given much to get you here: your parents, spouses and significant others, children, family members, friends, and loved ones. This day is for them also because, in a very real way, it is as if they went through UP Manila with you.  As you studied, you have been loved, encouraged, supported, tolerated, fed, prayed for, and sustained by them. In them, you found people to tell your stories about terror professors to; who patiently endured your rants; who tried to understand your hours; who worried about your taking permanent residence at the CBTL at Rob Place. All throughout, their words and presence were a balm to wounded souls, especially on days when nothing went right and no measure of comfort could be found in spirits of other sorts. And because the busy-ness of your stay at UP Manila might not have given you the time and opportunity to say it, we want to take this opportunity now to salute you, to applaud you, and to thank you.


So, may I ask the members of Class 2019 to stand and turn to those who loved you through your stay at UP Manila: your parents, spouses, partners, and significant others, children, family members, and loved ones who are here with you.


Thank you, you may now be seated.


**Now I can say that my speech was interrupted by a standing ovation.


Finally, we also want to recognize today those whose efforts have been instrumental, though largely unsung, and often underappreciated, in transforming, shepherding, mentoring, and training you—those who have made it their mission to transform raw potential into fulfilled promise, to channel youthful passion into mature purpose, and whose professional DNA now runs in you.  Let us take this time to thank your professors and mentors.


And, not less importantly, let us also take the time today to recognize those whose efforts are truly unsung: the administrative personnel, whose sweat and toil provide the backbone upon which UP Manila operated efficiently and well.





These are not normal times. If these were normal times, you would not need a lawyer to speak to you about standing up for truth, justice, and human rights.


These are not normal times. It is war time.


We are in a war that is being waged on many fronts and in many forms.


The war against life and due process continues because extra-judicial killings remain unabated and unaddressed.


The war against truth continues because lies, falsehoods, and fake news have become part of the daily fabric of our lives.


The war against decency continues because the public discourse has coarsened with foul language substituting for policy pronouncements.


The war against accountability continues because public institutions mandated to safeguard accountability have been, and continue to be, disparaged, and assaulted.


The war against integrity continues because many courageous civil servants who have dared to speak up or speak out have been humiliated, silenced, and in some instances, even removed.


Our sovereignty has been imperiled.


We continue to find ourselves in this war that has claimed many casualties: the dead that have strewn our streets, the widowed and the orphaned, our very sense of self-who we are as a nation and as a people.


It is a war that has struck at the very sense of our regard for life, for dignity, for truth, and for justice.


It is a war that has left many of us desensitized, even bereft of hope.


It is a war that is not of our choosing, yet it is a war that we are all called to wage.





How are we to wage that war?


Let me propose four ways.


1. Remember always who we are. Remember always whose we are.


Iskolar ng Bayan. We come from the people.


That is our identity, our burden, our charge, our responsibility.


And as soon as your titles and degrees are conferred, you join the long line of maroon and green who find themselves confronted daily with that consequences of that identity, burden, charge, and responsibility.


Iskolar ng Bayan, para kanino, para saan?


What do our degrees mean outside of the ornamental value of that piece of parchment hanging on a wall?


I am sure we all have different answers to that question. I suspect that some of us still do not know the answer to that.


What I do know is this: your titles and degrees mean nothing if receiving them today is the end of it.


When I took my Masters some time back, one of my professors had a very distinct way of teaching. [It was a class called “Terror and Consent”, which was a long reflection on national security, human rights, collective responsibility, and individual freedoms, and we were reading from his book.] He would devote one session to one chapter of his book, not repeating the chapter’s contents but contextualizing it within the realities we found ourselves in; he would then devote the next session to simply taking questions from the class. That was how we were graded—by the questions we asked. That made me realize that while it is perfectly acceptable to not know all the answers—many of us in that class didn’t—it is absolutely inexcusable to not ask questions.  That professor was a sprightly seventy-year old with great intellectual curiosity and intense academic passions. Listening to him, I realized that curiosity and passion defy age and station and it is that curiosity and passion that spell the difference between a degree that simply hangs on a wall and one that is lived out fully.


It is the curiosity and courage to ask questions, and the passion and determination to find answers that will make your degrees meaningful. The “asking” leads to “acting,” and it is in the process of “asking and acting” that your degrees take on flesh and muscle, blood and bone.


But “flesh and muscle, blood and bone” mean nothing if there is no soul, no spirit.


If “asking and acting” are flesh and muscle, blood and bone, then “being good and finding ways to help” are soul and spirit.


The challenge to you, Class of 2019, is to continue asking and acting, confronting and challenging, being good and finding ways to help wherever you may find yourselves in.


Remember who you are. Remember whose you are.


Iskolar ng Bayan, Iskolar para sa Bayan.



2. Find Ways to Help.

There are many ways that UP Manila graduates can help but in the interest of time, I will give just two.


First, the College of Medicine has one thing I wish the College of Law has—a “Return Service Agreement.” If I had my way, I would require all entering freshmen at the College of Law to sign a “Return Service Agreement”—to render free legal service before being allowed to take the bar.


The Return Service Agreement is a concrete mechanism that allows you to help. And, in a time when the value of life is cheaper than the cost of the bullet it takes to snuff it out, we need all the help we can get.


For those with RSAs, do not look at them as obligation or burden, or even as just a way to give back. Look at it as your way of loving our country, our people. And our country is direly in need of love, and one can never have too much love.


Second, we cannot continue working in siloes—each doing their own thing, albeit expertly done. We must learn to work together.


As a lawyer, I have had the happy experience of working with experts from UP Manila.


I will put Dr. Tatie Fortun on the spot by mentioning her as an example. Many years back, while working on a case that brought us to the halls of the Senate, we saw how badly lawyers needed to learn about medicine and how badly doctors needed to understand lawyers. So, the two of us came up with a radical idea to transform “Legal Medicine” as it was being taught in law school into  “Law and Science”, marrying the law on evidence and the principles of forensic pathology to teach third year law students the real “Legal Medicine.” Tatie became UP Law’s first non-lawyer to teach a law class; I am still waiting for my opportunity to return the favor at the UP College of Medicine. Of course, Tatie is also a favorite resource person to train interns at my legal aid clinic; and a favorite witness in cases involving EJKs.


 Many years ago, and they may not remember this—doctors from UP College of Medicine and the PGH helped us save a man from death row. His name was Marlon Parazo, and he was deaf-mute  and mentally challenged; yet a trial court and the Supreme Court found him guilty and sentenced him to death because the court did not believe his testimony—yes, the records reveal that he spoke. Encountering Marlon in jail demonstrated to us what the courts refused to appreciate—he was incapable of speaking and whatever means of communication he was capable of, no one could understand. We needed to translate these physiological findings into proof. After many attempts, we managed to convince the Supreme Court to allow him to be examined by experts from, where else, UP. And in short order, experts from UP PGH confirmed what we, the lawyers, had known all along—he was deaf and mute with a mental age of 9 years old. Those experts were Dr. Ma. Luz S. Casimiro-Querubin, Ms. Meredith Castro, Dr. Grace Orteza, and now Dean Charlotte Chong.


There are many more examples that time does not allow me to give. But I think you see the point.


There is an intersection where law and science meets and it is frequently at that intersection where truth—unvarnished, objective, whole, and absolute—is found. Without science, law would be left where we are now—relying on unlearned opinion, speculating on causes based on human perception and, often, imagination.


When lives are taken and the truth about the taking is itself hijacked, law finds itself at a great difficulty because law operates on facts that can be proven and without the use of science to find those facts, law becomes irrelevant. That is why in combatting impunity arising from unaddressed EJKs, law must partner with science to enhance its capacity to find the truth.



3. Be a counterculture.

In the UP, we are taught to not merely be experts at our chosen field of study but to also be principled and passionate advocates for genuine and meaningful change; to not only be solid scientists but to also be critical thinkers; to not just be steeped in the language of the human body and the human condition but to also be fluent in the language of human rights, economics, development, philosophy, history, arts and culture; to not just tend to the ills of our patients but also to address the ills of society; to speak out for those who cannot speak and to empower those who find themselves powerless.


In the UP, we are encouraged to be innovators and creative thinkers; to challenge convention and tradition and, in so doing, create new conventions and traditions; to master lessons not only within the confines of the campus but also life learnings in the “line of fire”, which the late Lean Alejandro described as the “place of honor.”


We are trained to lead in every field we find ourselves. That is the identity, mandate, and mission of every UP graduate. In doing so, we are called to be a counterculture: to stand for principle even when everyone else is taking the path of least resistance.


In the face of this war against truth, justice, and human rights, do not take the path of least resistance. Insist on what is true, what is just, and what is right. Do that through our scholarly research; through the use of science to find the truth; through multi-disciplinary engagements that allow us to see beyond where we find ourselves now.



4. Be good people.

The question of producing great doctors, dentists, health professionals is ultimately a question of character and it is one that is peculiarly addressed to institutions like UP Manila.


More than just allowing mastery of our respective fields, we must strive to inculcate not only knowledge but also to develop character--the conviction of what is good, right and just; to be able to do the right thing, and to resist compromising one’s ideals and values. This requires courage, perseverance, and fortitude; it also requires the strength to persist through challenges and struggles, and to choose what is right even when it is difficult, even when you stand alone and everyone else is against you.


I am sure that in the time you spent at UP Manila, you have been trained and formed to be courageous and to be good.


Ours is a culture where the pressure to conform is very great. Pakikisama, bigayan, and smooth interpersonal relations are highly valued in Philippine culture, and the pressure to just say yes, to go along with the crowd even if it is not right, is very strong.


To be able to do the right thing in the face of opposition requires courage, strength of character, and integrity.


Allow me to end with these words written many years ago from a lawyer to his son on whether it was worth his son’s time to study law. The words could apply to us today and they could very well have been said to you.


In the letter he wrote to his son, the lawyer lists down all that he sees that is wrong with society and, from his tone, he sounds as if he were discouraging his son from taking up law. Then, he writes:


Yet the truth remains true that never have our people had greater need than today for great lawyers, and for young men and women determined to be great lawyers.

Great lawyers–not brilliant lawyers. A scoundrel may be, and often is, brilliant; and the greater the scoundrel, the more brilliant the lawyer. But only a good man can become a great lawyer: for only a man who understands the weaknesses of men because he has conquered them in himself; who has the courage to pursue his ideals though he knows them to be unattainable; who tempers his conviction with respect for those of others because he realizes he may be mistaken; who deals honorably and fairly with all, because to do otherwise would diminish him as well as them–only such a man would so command respect that he could persuade and need never resort to force. Only such a man could become a great lawyer. Otherwise, “what you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you say.


For men and women of this kind, our country will always have need–and now more than ever. True, there is little that men of goodwill can do now to end the madness that holds our nation in its grip. But we can, even now, scrutinize our past; try to pinpoint where we went wrong; determine what led to this madness and what nurtured it; and how, when it ends, we can make sure that it need never happen again.


For this madness must end–if not in my lifetime, at least in yours. We Filipinos are proverbially patient, but we are also infinitely tough and ingeniously resourceful. Our entire history as a people has been a quest for freedom and dignity; and we will not be denied our dreams.


So this madness will end; the rule of force will yield to the rule of law. Then the country will need its great lawyers, its great engineers, its great economists and managers, the best of its men and women to clear the shambles and restore the foundations of that noble and truly Filipino society for which our forefathers fought, bled and died.”[1]


In the face of all that is going on in our world, be good people.


We do not need to become the monsters we seek to defeat.


And, on top of all these, always, always, always put the people first


Maraming salamat sa inyong pakikinig.


[1] Excerpted from a letter by Jose W. Diokno to his eldest son, accessible at https://web.facebook.com/JoseWDiokno/photos/pcb.2385204341530929/2385202868197743/?type=3&theater; last accessed June 13, 2019.