| 8 June 2018 | Justo Albert Auditorium, PLM
Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno
Department of Budget and Management
To University President Dr. Ma. Leonora de Jesus, University Officials, Members of the Board of Regents, College of Medicine Dean Angeline Alabastro, Administrators, Faculty and Staff, to our dear graduates, their parents, families, and friends; good afternoon.
First of all, let me thank you for having me as the speaker for today’s commencement exercises. My warmest congratulations to the Class of 2018!
Full disclosure: I am not a doctor. Well, at least, not your kind of doctor. I have a Ph.D. in Economics. That’s quite different. So when I was asked to give the commencement speech for your graduation, I was not quite sure what you expected me to say. Surely, I do not have the experience required to prepare you for your entry into hospitals, private practice, or whichever path there is for you to take when you finally claim the title of “Doctor”.
I asked myself: what do I have to say to a room full of would-be professionals in a completely different field?
As I was thinking about it some more, I was reminded of a viral Internet meme. In the meme, a woman finds an old man who at that very moment was having a heart attack. The woman cries out, “any doctor here?” And a man walks into the scene and says, “I’m a doctor… of Keynesian economics.”
The woman panics and says “he is going to die.”
So the doctor quotes the Economist John Maynard Keynes, and this is the punchline, “in the long run, we are all going to die.”
There are various iterations of this meme. In another version, the Doctor is a Doctor in Spanish Literature. So when the woman asks for help, all he can do is speak to her in Spanish. Not very useful, right?
I don’t mean to put down every other field outside of Medicine. But I think the meme speaks to the importance of Medical Doctors in society. Your presence, and conversely, your absence, could mean life or death for a person at any given time.
Case in point, I was on a plane a few weeks ago, when mid-way through the flight, someone on the PA system asked if there were any doctors onboard. Apparently, one of the passengers needed medical help.
I am a “doctor”, but if I tried to offer any help then, I imagine a situation very much like the Doctor in the meme.
Hopefully, today will be different, and what I have to say will be of some use to you.
At this point, you have already made the choice regarding what you will be doing for the rest of your life. I think when you have gone through four years of medical school, that means you have already asked yourselves hundreds, maybe even thousands of times, if you do, in fact, want to be a doctor.
Every day in medical school is a day you might lose sleep so you can study. You ask yourself then: do I want to be a doctor? There might have been days you would miss out on family celebrations or nights out with friends. You ask yourself some more: do I really want to be a doctor? At the end of the day, you decide that being a doctor will be worth all of it anyway.
When you finally have the letters “M.D.” attached to your name, the people around you will behave differently. Friends will jokingly ask for free check-ups. Distant family members you have never met before will ask you for your help. People you are just meeting will approach you with either awe or caution. In general, you will be sought after, and being sought after affords you some distinction in our society as persons of merit and value.
Other careers can be just as lucrative in terms of wealth and success, but we reserve a higher kind of regard for doctors. I believe this is not only because of how hard one has to work to get that title, but because of the nature of the work itself.
In your profession, you come face to face with strangers, their problems, and their needs every single day. You attend to their rhythms and pains. And your presence, like I said a while ago, spells the difference between life and death.
Yet despite how important doctors are to societies in general, we do not have enough in ours.
The Philippines has a ratio of one doctor for every 33,000 persons. Compared to a number of our Southeast Asian neighbors and many African countries, this is not so bad. But it is still not enough. This problem is, of course, exacerbated by our geography. Over two hundred of our municipalities remain doctorless and seven out of ten people die in the Philippines without ever having consulted a physician.
Despite our need for more doctors here, many doctors still seek out opportunities abroad, particularly in the Middle East. We cannot blame them. There are many practical considerations behind decisions such as these. It is always hard to leave one’s country, one’s home and one’s family. So let me make this point here: wherever you go, you are doing noble work because you are tending to the lives of others.
Having said that, allow me to make this appeal anyway: stay home and serve your fellow countrymen.
For our part in the government, we are doing our best to make sure that the salaries of doctors working in our public hospitals are comparable to those in the private sector. Right now, this is more or less the case for General Practitioners who are just beginning their careers. To further improve compensation packages for government workers at every level, the DBM will commission an independent firm to do a benchmarking on the salary of doctors, nurses and other government personnel such as teachers, lawyers, and others, by first quarter of 2019.
Meanwhile, we are also doing our best to ensure the presence of doctors in far-flung areas. For one, we have enhanced the compensation package for Doctor-Volunteers engaged in the Doctors to the Barrios Program of the DOH. Doctors to the Barrios also serves as return service for beneficiaries of our DOH Medical Scholarship Program.
But I understand that even with our efforts to bring up salaries for public doctors, it will be difficult to match rates some countries abroad have to offer. Perhaps I can convince you better by sharing with you two stories from my own experience where I had been given the choice to leave or serve our country.
The first time was when I had just finished my Ph.D. in the U.S. Back then I had the option to stay in the U.S. and take a chance in a far away land. I was hesitant to go back to the Philippines because the political environment was still volatile with the Philippines under Martial Law. I decided to seek the advice of my former thesis adviser at the U.P. School of Economics, who at that time was working in the World Bank.
I asked him: “Should I go back home or should I stay?” He said: “If you stay in the U.S., you will be a small fish in a big pond; if you go back home, you will be a big fish in a small pond.” I knew then that I would rather go home, face the music, and have a big contribution to my country.
Upon coming back to the Philippines, I resumed my teaching assignment in the UP School of Economics. That’s one decision I never regretted. I spent nearly forty years of my life teaching Economics to the brightest minds in the country.
So my dear graduates: If you stay, I believe the impact you would have made abroad would be multiplied here tenfold. Why? Because there may be as many people to cater to, especially if you go to our underserved areas.
Of course, impact is not only measured by the number of people you serve on a daily basis. Sometimes, we make the biggest impact by taking on positions where we might hold greater influence and power. If you stay in the Philippines, I have no doubt you will be more exposed to such opportunities. This brings me to my second story.
In 1998, I was asked to give a briefing on the state of our economy to then Vice-President Joseph Estrada.
When I was presented the opportunity, I said, “Why not? I brief my students, international fund managers, and Filipino businessmen on the state of the Philippine economy, why not the Vice President? After all, as a U.P. Professor, I’m a public resource, and it is my duty to brief any public official who is willing to listen to my views.”
After the briefing, the Vice President apparently liked what he heard and that started my role as his Economic Adviser during the 1998 presidential campaign.
President Estrada won the May 1998 presidential elections effortlessly. Thereafter, he offered me to be his Secretary of Budget and Management. But it was not that easy; I was in a quandary. I was scheduled to leave for the University of Toronto that August since I had earlier accepted the position of ASEAN Visiting Professor. In fact, I had already signed up for my housing in Toronto and I was looking forward to a relatively relaxing life in Canada. Not known to many, I was also looking forward to watching in person Michael Jordan play in Toronto.
I decided to consult with the Canadian Ambassador, a pleasant and engaging person. I told him of my difficult situation. Should I go to the University of Toronto and honor my commitment, or stay and serve my country?
His reply was quick and direct. He said: “In my country, if you’re offered such a position in the President’s Cabinet, it is your patriotic duty to accept.” That was it. I accepted the Cabinet position.
Again, this is a decision I have not regretted since. Serving in the government has allowed me to make long-lasting contributions to the bureaucracy.
I am now on my third tour of duty in the Department of Budget and Management. To this day, I am seeing a lot of the reforms I have started in my previous terms implemented and improved on.
If you choose to stay in the Philippines, you will be working against the backdrop of a Public Health System that is a work in progress. But that is precisely why you should stay.
You already know our context and culture. You know the different pain points in our system. Should you choose to rise to the bigger challenge of improving Public Health in the Philippines, you can make contributions that will last beyond your careers. Here, you are in the position to not just serve more people, but to leave a legacy spanning many generations.
Ultimately, my message is simple: stay in the Philippines. Make an impact. Leave a legacy.
Let me end my speech by sharing with you an oath that I have tried to live by in my many years of public service. It is a powerful oath of citizenship called the “Oath of the Athenian”. It is engraved prominently in the lobby of Maxwell Hall, the building that houses the Maxwell School Citizenship and Public Affairs of Syracuse University where I took my Ph.D. It goes:
We will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many; we will unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty; we will revere and obey the city's laws; we will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.
This is the task ahead for us, to transmit our country “not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”
I hope you are all up for this task.
Thank you for having me, and, again, congratulations to the Class of 2018!