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Bridging Leadership: The Datu Paglas Story


To the kind members and officers of the PBEC, as well as to the participants and guests to this great Retreat, I convey to all of you, the universal greetings of peace, Shalom, Assalamu Alaikum, Peace of God Be Upon everyone, all stakeholders to 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 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.

It is indeed a great privilege that Asia-Pacific’s oldest independent business association would take interest in what is now internationally known as “The Datu Paglas Story”, the story of my once war zone little village in the Muslim Region in the Philippines, now a bustling economic zone, a “living model” of how sustainable economic development can help attain lasting peace in a conflict zone.

This is a story that I would have preferred to be kept in the privacy of my life and my village and people, but then as fate would have it, it has now become the focus of international spotlight whenever the subject of peace and conflict is taken up, particularly these days when world terrorism has become big part of the world’s consciousness after September 11. This has been presented in major forum like Council on Foreign Relations, World Bank and IFC, United Nations, as well as reported in international media.

This started when a consortium of foreign investors from the USA, Italy and Saudi Arabia, decided to establish a 1,000 plus hectares of banana plantation in my town, an investment that showcased cross-cultural harmony, among “Muslims, Christians and Jews working together for bananas”, as a feature story in the Wall Street Journal few years ago would call it. It had shown that armed rebels who had been fighting for generations, could actually set aside their guns and get employed in productive undertakings thus return to normal life. Some of those guns have been silenced forever. The US Embassy in the Philippines calls this phenomenon an Arms To Farms transformation.

A true Muslim views violence and terrorism as un-Islamic, a gross violation of the commandment of God. I had therefore challenged myself 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.

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 the rest of the world, 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.

I also declared that I, born to local royalty in the Southern Philippines, must be a Bridging Leader to my people, a “shepherd to my flock” as a dear Christian brother would prefer to say. I therefore find my town’s story to be very much attuned to the theme of PBEC’s Retreat.

I am asked to share my own story on the subject of Bridging 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 true 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, ALLAH had Blessed me and my people with able bodies, and, I believe, intelligence. Also, I look upon as a Blessing, my tribal culture, and my faith in Islam. It is therefore very important, that whatever I do or decide not to do now, be something that not only mine but also the succeeding generations will benefit from, or at least, not blame us when they grow up.

My 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 then do we harness our respective abundant, God-Given Blessings? I focused my consciousness to my earlier realization, that I have to be an ENTREPRENEUR. This holds true whether one 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, I have to possess the right ATTITUDE.

How did leadership and attitude 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 3 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 my 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, in Philippine setting, 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 among our clans, perpetuated throughout the succeeding generations. In the pursuit of my “business plan”, 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. 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.

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.

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. I believe PBEC and its members also have their own respective stories that contribute to economic development and help attain if not maintain peace in conflict areas. Most maybe untold, others not in the scale of exposure that Datu Paglas gets. 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 a Bridging leader in the Philippines have even a little impact in your mind and in you heart.

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

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