Dec 15, 2008

Beijing Crossroads – “Building A Better Asia: Future Leaders’ Dialogue” (BABA4)

By El Joma

El Joma, an active member of SYLFF@ADMU, the Association of SYLFF fellows of Ateneo de Manila at Ateneo de Manila University, participated in the 4th retreat of the “Building a Better Asia (BABA): Future Leaders’ Dialogue” Program (“BABA4”) that recently took place at Peking University. El Joma shares his observations on the event and the new development that followed. ---------------------------

Over the past three years, 78 young leaders from 18 countries all over Asia have been holding dialogues on the pressing social problems of today through the Building a Better Asia (BABA) retreats, focusing on issues on human security, sustainable development, poverty alleviation, capacity building, and efficient governance, with each retreat releasing a Communiqué.

In Beijing on November 2, these dialogues were brought to the next level – CONCRETE ACTION – with the establishment of the BABA Volunteer Community (BABAvC) , a group with the avowed purpose of working to secure the common good of all and of building a better Asia through volunteerism.

Already, a proposal to field volunteers to work within the ASEAN framework has been submitted. In that proposal, the BABAvC logo, shown on the left, was revealed for the first time. Inspired by Giki, the government wiki, started by Anupam, one of BABA4’s resource persons, two BABA fellows started a Volunteers Wiki as a resource mobilization strategy to rally all available volunteerism information in Asia and around the world into one site, the first of its kind on the Internet. Two songs for BABAvC have been written and are to be recorded soon. By mid-January 2009, a core group of BABA fellows will be reconvening in Jakarta to iron out the BABAvC charter and its 12-month action plan. Indeed, a great BABA threshold has been crossed and history will refer to this event as the “Beijing Crossroads.”

Started in 2006 by the Nippon Foundation Group (including the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and the Tokyo Foundation) and implemented by the Asian Dialogue Society throughthe Information Resource Centre (IRC), the four BABA retreats have, thus far, assembled a veritable pool of next-generation leaders of Asia (download summary profile here). BABA fellows are nominated by the above three organizations from among their beneficiaries and selected by the BABA Academic Committee through a competitive selection process where applicants are asked to write personal and leadership statements.


The essence of the BABA retreats is to gather promising young Asians in an environment of quiet and critical reflection on the toughest social development challenges of today, guided with the insightful stories, disciplined knowledge, and personal sharing of both painful failures and joyful successes from no less than the front-line practitioners themselves.

Combined with a lot of personal interaction and both one-on-one and group bonding among fellow Asians, BABA believes that when, in the future, these young leaders are thrust into positions of greater responsibility and encounter complex dilemmas that try dearly their values and principles, they will remember to reach out to a fellow BABA warrior and find solace and encouragement as well as a quiet sanctum where memories of a BABA retreat shared together will soothe their tired souls.

BABA thus is all about planting good seeds of principled and courageous leadership for the Asia of the future — an Asia where the common good is available to all, an Asia that is, simply, a BETTER one for everyone.

Group bonding sessions helped a lot in getting to know the more personal side of the BABA4 participants


The last time I was with such a culturally diverse group was two decades ago when I was part of the Asian Student Seminars held in Taipei and Jakarta. Research papers prepared beforehand were sent to other participating countries via postal mail. Even prior to the seminars, friendships were jump-started via long-distance calls to collaborate and share our data in preparation for the presentations to be made — and all without PowerPoint!

This time around the Internet enabled my BABA friends and me to actually begin our personal and country introductions and thematic discussions on the chosen batch themes even before the face-to-face retreat proper. This was done through various online social media tools such as, among others, the BABA community blog and the BABA mailing list. This helped immensely in “breaking the ice,” so to speak, so that when we all finally met each other in person, lively stories continued where the online discussions left off.

What inspired the white lines in the BABAvC logo created by Maky Furuki, a Bolivian of Japanese descent studying in Kobe, Japan, and the title “Interconnectedness” of the BABAvC song composed by Novri Susan from Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia, were the wonderfully creative and deeply meaningful group calisthenics and integration activities brilliantly executed by Sherilyn Siy (top in the photo) and Manisha Singh (bottom in the photo), the BABA4 facilitators.


The collective wisdom and insights of the BABA4 speakers and resource persons crystallized the three things I love to do — entrepreneurship, information technology and social development — into a clear personal goal. This inspired me to start a new blog called “sociotechnopreneur”, which will chronicle my journey toward that goal — technology-enabled social innovation. Here below are some excerpts of the wisdom shared by five of the 11 resource persons/ speakers of BABA4.

Harsha Kumara Navaratne, chairperson of the Sewalanka Foundation, shared the story of his life as a grassroots development worker in Sri Lanka with burning passion. His mother exiled him to the Philippines to shield him against growing radicalism and fundamentalism in their hometown. Harsha challenged the BABA fellows to be proud of their cultural/ethnic identities, citing that he himself has never worn an American suit. Narrating his own personal experiences of long-time friends of his who became politicians and were eventually eaten up by the system, becoming corrupt themselves, he instead offered the alternative of working directly with local communities as that is where the greatest need is, saying: “Our generation has made a lot of mistakes. Our generation has a responsibility to look after those suffering from our mistakes.”

Tay Kheng Soon, who founded Akitek Tengara and is a well-known architect and culture/social critic, passionately explained “rubanisation” as a way of moving forward on the deadlock on sustainable development. He explained that “rubanisation is neither the urban nor the rural, it is both. New architecture cannot come out of old planning! Rubanisation is the re-conceptualisation of human settlements in harmony with the environment.” I find Kheng Soon’s ideas quite moving because he is, in fact, practicing what he is preaching in actual local communities, as he showed us in the case of Lamplaimat in the northeast of Thailand.

Anupam Saraph showed us what learning by doing really meant. With small, multi-colored balls and very active facilitation of the group activity, Anupam demonstrated the seven habits of effective leaders, that is: initiative, visioning, clarity, focus, inclusivity, persistence, and openness. Anupam also demonstrated how a wiki can remove the subjectivity and biases in various forms of communication, enabling instead content objectivity on the topic or dialogue. When, during a plenary session, the discussions were bottlenecking and not getting anywhere, Anupam stepped in and showed us Pangea Day as an example of the power of action being done by just one person.

Takeju Ogata, President of The Nippon Foundation, said in his speech that when once asked by his wife what was more important to him, his family or his work, he said this to her: “The two are incomparable. I love both equally.” Such is the rare dedication of this man who has been with the Foundation for more than 30 years. Remembering when he worked directly under Ryoichi Sasakawa, the Nippon Foundation founder, he shared with us his simple work ethic: “I vowed to myself that I would never lie to him. When asked, I would always tell him truthfully what he could and couldn’t/ mustn’t do.” When asked what he can advise to become successful in one’s field, he shared with us another priceless insight: “If you do your job very well, and concentrate on solving problems analytically, then success will come.”

Save the best for the last, they say. Truly, it was the talk by ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitswan that was the hallmark of my BABA4 experience. Hearing the story of ASEAN, and the behind-the-scenes struggles they courageously fought just to stay relevant to their constituents, constituted a “Tipping Point” [of Malcolm Gladwell] that crystallized “sociotechnopreneur” very clearly in my mind and heart. I’m not sure if Dr. Surin’s talk was placed at the early part of the retreat by accident (due to the exigencies of the Secretary-General’s toxic schedule) or by design, Mr. Rajasetnam of IRC probably knew from experience that Dr. Surin’s words have a mysterious yet wonderful way of reverberating off the ideas of all the other speakers after him.

Dr. Surin of ASEAN - Sharing his joy in the ratification of the new ASEAN charter

First and foremost, Dr. Surin’s vision of ASEAN and the relevant force it can become in building a better Asia was so clear to him that probably, I wouldn’t doubt for a second, he can actually see and visualize it in his head. As the old adage goes, probably Dr. Surin’s heart and soul are already one with his vision of ASEAN, and it is just his physical dimension that is still patiently struggling at the present to get to his future vision which, for him, is already happening. He is living the future in the present.

With the new ASEAN charter now signed and going into effect, hopefully before the 14th ASEAN Summit this December, Dr. Surin will now be armed with the institutional authority to do what he stresses is “flexible engagement, open-minded engagement, candid engagement,” replacing ASEAN’s current non-intervention policy—soon to be a thing of the past.

Second, it moved me to see the courageous decision-making process of Dr. Surin when faced with complex dilemmas. His unwavering commitment to ASEAN’s legal framework and its inherent challenges, but innovating within it to ultimately have impact on the lives of individual people in its member countries, was truly, I think, patriotism of the highest level. Indeed, Dr. Surin has been called the first true regional leader.

He narrated how, when cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, the regime in power refused to allow international aid to come in despite “two weeks already of death, hunger, and illness, and no one knew what to do,” they reached out to the Myanmar leaders on a more personal, one-on-one basis, rather than the threatening, condescending stance that Myanmar had gotten so much of in the past, and gently but firmly explained ASEAN’s responsibility to protect principle; that is, if a government cannot protect/ help its own people, then the whole world has an even greater, more encompassing responsibility to do so. And that’s what got the international relief agencies into Myanmar.


Endings are also beginnings. So as I begin my BABA-endeared future and my BABAvC-concretized contribution to the building of a better Asia, my heartfelt thanks goes out to, first of all, Raja and the whole IRC team for a job well done in staging the BABA retreats; second, to all the inspiring resource persons and speakers that moved me beyond my comfort zone of ideas to make me realize that "sociotechnopreneur" is the path I should follow; third, to Mr. Ogata and the Nippon Foundation and Tokyo Foundation teams for believing in and supporting the BABA process; fourth, to Dr. Chen Zhenya, Wang Ying, and the whole Peking University team for showing us a Beijing, and a China that will stay in our hearts; and last, but not the least, I want to thank my BABA4 friends for what I can say was simply an UNFORGETTABLE Beijing Crossroads.

* You can find out about the resource persons and the transcript of the BABA retreat here.