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THIS IS AN OPEN LETTER, first, to you our dear young leaders, the future of this world, as well as to those who helped make this event possible, led by the Center for Family Ministries or CEFAM, and to everybody else who may kindly be reading this, all stakeholders to living in a better world, a world of peace, love and harmony.

A world that believes in The One and Only Creator, called in the most Majestic Names by the respective different languages on earth: GOD in English, ALLAH in Arabic, DIYOS or PANGINOON or GINOO or BATHALA to us here in the Philippines, TUHAN to the Malays (Indonesia/Malaysia) DIO to the Italians, GOTT to the Germans, APO MAGBABAYA to the Highlanders of Mindanao, YAHWEH or JEHOVAH to the Jews, to mention some. I convey to all of you, the universal greetings of peace, Assalamu Alaikum, Shalom, Peace of God Be Upon everyone, ang Kapayapaan ng kaisa-isang Panginoong Diyos ay mapasa-ating lahat.

Everyday, we see a lot of bad news on television, read discouraging news in the papers, and hear about the same in the radio. Quite sadly but is the reality, many of those bad news, particularly those that dwell on violence, peace and order problems, terrorism particularly, are almost always automatically which I deem unfair, linked to the Muslims, to the people of my faith. I wish to say it at this junction, that those who do so unfortunately misunderstand Islam but then we do not blame those who are mistaken in their belief.

A true Muslim views violence and terrorism as Un-Islamic, a gross violation of the commandment of God. I had therefore made it a challenge that I, a Muslim, shall do my humble, little way of showing that we, Muslims, or specifically Muslim-Filipinos, are just like any other people on earth who wish to live in peace and harmony, who wish to see a better life for ourselves and our families. We submit to the Will of the One and Only Creator, the God of all, without discrimination as to race, religion, and creed.

In facing this challenge, I declared my humble belief that IF only we in the Philippine Muslim Region are economically developed, IF only my poor brothers and our poor villages and lands are productive, IF we are able to trade and do business with others, then we can co-exist with more pride and self-respect.

I also declared that IF only my poor brothers are better educated and adequately provided economically, then they can no longer be a fertile breeding ground to terrorism and other forms of criminality and lawlessness.

Fellow young leaders, the “future of the next generation”, as the great hero Jose Rizal was quoted to have said, we have to believe in the value of leadership, of humility, of self-help, of integrity, of industry.

I am asked to share my own story on the subject of leadership, what transformation in life I had gone through, or, perhaps more specifically, what circumstances brought about that transformation. I guess the transformation that brought out the leader in me at my much younger years was the realization that my people needed to have peace, that they and their villages had to progress.

That realization then brought me to the subject of ENTREPRENEURSHIP as a sustainable way to our economic development. This is a subject that is not alien to the transformation of my own town from being a war zone and criminality torn in the not so distant past, to its being a bustling and peaceful economic village at present. Yes, Entrepreneurship could be an effective approach to peace building in our war-torn ARMM, it could be an effective means of changing our negative image before the world, and even before our very own selves. This can be our legacy to our succeeding generations who we definitely do not wish to go through the kind of difficult times that we at present, starting from the time of my ancestors, have been suffering from until now.

ALLAH had Blessed me and my people with able bodies, and, I believe, intelligence. Also, I look upon as a Blessing, our tribal culture, and our faith in Islam. It is therefore very important, that whatever we do or decide not to do now, be something that not only us but our succeeding generations will benefit from, or at least, not blame us when they grow up.

Our poor villages have actually been blessed with their own, respective richness, a blessing from God, which is basically the bounty of nature, whether they be in our lands, or seas, or lakes, or rivers. As important as the need to make them productive, is the need to keep them sustainable.

I therefore asked myself, How do we then harness our respective abundant, God-Given Blessings? I focused my consciousness to my earlier realization about ENTREPRENEURSHIP, that we have to be ENTREPRENEURS, whether we be farmers, civil servants, political leaders, datus and other religious leaders, small businessmen, or even as an ordinary, “jobless” member of society, or even as “rebels” or, more accurately, believers in the revolutionary but peaceful struggle.

There are many definitions of an Entrepreneur, this is the one I prefer. It means an INNOVATOR, it is one who recognizes opportunities and organizes resources to take advantage of the opportunity.

And to be able to do such, we have to possess the right ATTITUDE. I am definitely not in the position to prescribe what should be done in your respective cases. I however am happy that I am able to share my own story, with the hope that through it you may find from my experience how your own story may also unfold, in your own circumstance and time.

People often ask, what made the “Datu Paglas Story” happen? May the succeeding portions of this message help answer that question. I sum them basically as leadership plus of course, the realization that, as earlier mentioned, its time, God’s Perfect Timing, has come.

How did “leadership” play a role in my town’s unique story? It started with the realization that the life of my people must change for the better. But then, that change must also start with myself, the leader, a bridging-leader. Then, private investments, which I know was the sustainable way to economic development in my own case, must come in. Then, for investments to come in, I must have a “business plan”.

My elders, and in particular my dear late uncle Hashim Salamat, former Chairman of the rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front who returned to our Creator 2 years ago, had the following three things to say which I then adopted as Guiding Principles, when I proposed to them my “business plan”, which basically was my decision to let investments come in:

  1. “protect the environment at any cost because this is all we have for the next generation,”
  2. “do not abuse the workers, protect their rights and look after their welfare and safety,” and lastly,
  3. “provide education for the children.”

Principle 1, allowed me to operate in a way that is acceptable not only to my international shareholders while it also looked after my moral obligation to the community and the future generation, to ensure the preservation of our resources. For me this is more than just a business case, this is very personal too.

Principle 2, allowed me to work within the parameters not only of government regulations but a commitment as well to the teachings of God, thru His different Messengers and lived by different religions.

And the Third Principle, I will continue to invest in the future of our children. I believe and I have seen this myself - that poverty and economic inequality are a fertile breeding ground for terrorism. But a healthy and well-educated generation will be the most positive and powerful tool against terrorism, and for the preservation of earth’s resources. As the saying of the Wise goes, we did not simply inherit this world from our parents, the better truth is that: we merely borrowed this world from our children.

Through all these, I learned that a clear sense of vision and mission helps clarify and purify our intentions. Modesty aside, I was not born poor although ever since my younger days I had always found natural affinity with the house helpers, drivers and bodyguards of my parents. And because of that, I had seen the glaring divide that separated the Muslim nobilities from the common families. I protested the norms where the leadership of the ruling clans put their interest over the most basic concerns of those in poverty. As my father’s successor, I vowed to use the influence of my family to make a difference in our community because I was tired of seeing the same vicious cycle of violence and poverty. I wanted to try something new because the traditional “Muslim way” of leading our people was not working. It worked for the elite Muslim families and the politicians. But it never worked for the people.

I also learned that in fulfilling my mission to BRIDGE the economic, social, and political divide among the tri-peoples in Mindanao (Muslims, Christians, and Highlanders), I knew I had to change the rules of the game:

  • When the convention dictates that the Datus – or members of the local royal families --- are the only people who can make sound decisions for the people, I encouraged dialogue and consensus among local folks. By doing so, we share the accountability to make things work for all of us.
  • Philippine “Muslim culture” is basically very exclusive. I challenged that by bringing everyone’s concerns on the table … the government, the military, the religious leaders, the workers, the rebels and even the lawless elements because I believe that what each of these groups say is of great value.
  • We often had difficulty welcoming new ideas and new ways. We did not want outsiders in our territory. But again, this system did not work for us and therefore, I invited NGOs and the academe to work with us so that we could learn how to invest in our future through training, skills building, values formation and education. We built partnerships with as many groups as possible, regardless of culture, faith, and ideologies, to hasten the progress we deserve and dreamed for.
  • I was brought up in a culture where guns and goons define a Man’s status in the society. I challenged that convention. At first, I was not comfortable because it was “not the normal thing” to go around town without my bodyguards. But, I decided to put an end to that fashion because the old ways were not working for others and for me either. My personal campaign took a toll on me. I lost my father and 3 brothers due to violence and lawlessness, before I could demonstrate to the rest that we don’t need guns. Some of our traditional and political leaders are still relentless, but I keep the faith that in due time they will change.
  • I was brought up in a culture of “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth”. Throughout my growing years, I was witness to vengeance killings (we call “RIDO”) among clans, perpetuated throughout the succeeding generations. In the pursuit of my “business plan”, and inspired “ironically” by my late uncle former MILF Chairman Hashim Salamat, I decided that this “culture of hatred” and cycle of violence MUST STOP. Therefore, when my father and younger brothers became murder victims, I decided to accept that it was their fate, their time had come, God had Allowed it to happen, and I must forgive. I left justice to the laws and to the authorities.

Today we are starting to reap the fruits of our labor and faith for a better future. By way of infusing at least $400,000 dollars to the local economy every month in the form of salary for the more than 2,000 full time plantation workers and allied economic activities versus almost nothing in the past --- we are able to change the picture of Paglas town and the adjoining villages, from war zone to economic zone.

For me, the bigger challenge is always HOW TO SUSTAIN THE GAINS. And my simple but honest response to this is to continue to LISTEN to what other people have to say --- and LEARN from the WISDOM of their stories --- as they gave me great inspiration to continue to improve, to be a BETTER leader.

The investment that we established in Datu Paglas allowed us Muslims to prove our worth, whether it be as a leader, as a follower, as an employer, as a worker, as a professional, or simply as a responsible citizen in out communities. We earned the trust of our investors. Recently, my investors conveyed their approval of up to U.S. $50 million additional investment to expand our operations to 2,300 more hectares in, to the surprise of many, the “risky” Muslim area, including the predominantly Maranao mountain town of Bumbaran, and its adjoining town of Christian settlers, in Wao, both towns in the province of Lanao del Sur.

The expansion areas, just like Datu Paglas years ago, have been in the headlines because of the armed conflict between military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and plain lawlessness (for example, just 3 years ago, in Bumbaran town there was a truckload of 20 Christian settlers who were massacred). Now, this town is looking forward to having its own share of peace and prosperity, for the benefit of their children. This new investment and development means employing at least 3,000 more people and I am glad to know that thousands of rebels took advantage of the opportunity to be in the mainstream workforce.

So much has been told about the “Datu Paglas Story”. I am sure there are other stories of transformation for the better, they all show that we can all innovate, we can all transform, everything have their own respective timing, but we have to be around to grab the opportunity when they come. Yes my dear fellow young leaders, you have your respective roles to play which you may already be playing those roles of leadership, of service to others. What you are doing, silently perhaps, may not even be noticed, not even on a smaller scales if compared to, the way the Datu Paglas Story has been catching attention although it was never an intention or expectation that we be noticed. But then the most important and ultimate witness to what we are doing, aside from our own selves, is God Almighty, and the people of our respective localities, small people whose lives we had touched. A Christian brother had shared with me a quote from the Holy Bible “whatsoever you did to the least of my brethren, you did it unto me.” Very true indeed!

May this little sharing from your humble brother have even a little impact in your mind and in you heart. I, and I trust you also, continue to be of private service to the cause of lasting peace thru sustainable economic development.

And lastly, although it might be too early but nevertheless, let me take this occasion to greet everyone in advance, Merry Christmas and a Prosperous 2007.

Thank you once again and Wassalamu-alaikum, God Bless all of us.