Note: This blog post is a combination of an old blog post I wrote on 30th April 2010, and a new post written on 11th September 2015. I am recalling one of the most remarkable moments of my life – when I left Kuala Lumpur on 30th April 2009 for the Philippines. My life has never been the same ever since. I also wish to correct the dates once and for all. My journey with Gawad Kalinga started on 16th March 2009.
30th April 2010
This time last year I made my very first trip to the Philippines, witnessed the Gawad Kalinga Build in Alaminos, met the ex-President Fidel Ramos, had lunch with him, and then gathered my new crew of Directors, Producers, and etc to start my very first shoot of the “Life Teachers with Shirley Maya” documentary.
I wanted to document every-day ordinary heroes of their community. This subject was a stark contrast to my world, as poverty was not something I had to struggle with on a daily basis.
It all began when a dear Singaporean friend told me about a man with white hair who builds houses for the poor and is turning every slum in the Philippines into a middle class community, and that his NGO is the only platform that unites young and old, the rich and the poor, competing brands and businesses, and even rival politicians.
So, I hunted high and low for this man. I thought if anyone who could teach me about poverty, it would be him. I really wanted to learn about poverty, because most of us live in a world of abundance and we take so much for granted from day-to-day. So, this amazing ordinary house-builder of the poor would be my “Life Teacher” on poverty and the one who would show me the meaning of generosity. If there was something seriously missing in my life, it would be the generosity of the heart. Little did I know that he would teach me a whole lot more than generosity.
In all, it took me 6 months to finally find him. I almost gave up on the search and was about to tag this man as an urban myth. But as strange as it sounds, I finally got connected to him via the most ostentatious of places – a decadent party thrown at the luxurious Sentosa Cove in Singapore with Jackie Chan, the movie star. Yea, I know you are not going to believe me. So, here are some pictures to prove it.
No, the house-builder for the poor was not a guest at the party, but his sponsors and donors were. That was how I came to meet Mr. Tony Meloto of Gawad Kalinga. I have to remember to thank Jackie Chan the next time I see him. By the way, Jackie is not really that much taller than me. He was standing on a Segway.
Gawad Kalinga is not like Habitat for Humanity. Yes, they build houses for the poor. But they also rebuild lives, hopes and change the whole community. They restore the dignity of the poor, and empower them to dream again. This is the most transformational gift Gawad Kalinga(GK) gives to the poor.
So, here began my love story with the Philippines’ most prized jewel: her people. And of course, I would always say that the crown of that jewel is Gawad Kalinga’s legions of selfless heroes – what they call, the Bayanis. They are truly more than heroes. They are inspiring patriots of their fellow brothers and sisters.
But prior to making my first trip out to the Philippines, I had lost all my Malaysian film crew due to the fact that we would be going to Mindanao. They felt that Mindanao was too risky and scary. They said to me, “Sorry, m’am, but no thank you. We want to stay alive. So, we quit.”
I don’t blame them. Everyone has his or her own horrifying perception of Mindanao. Yet I felt I had to go and experience it myself. Our trip to Mindanao did not take place until late July 2009 with Tony Meloto. I had to change 3 Directors and crew. Even the Filipinos were genuinely afraid to go to Mindanao. In the end, we got a film crew who had just returned from Afghanistan. Mindanao was a walk in the park for them.
A month later, in August 2009, the highest number of people killed in one day happened in Mindanao – over 60 people – comprising of journalists, NGO workers, civilians and lawyers were brutally murdered in broad daylight, hijacked from their vehicles along the very same highway which we had travelled in my visit there. Gawad Kalinga also lost an amazing volunteer-teacher on that very dark day.
Some people get to live to tell the tale and some just don’t make it out alive.
Tony Meloto said to me, “The great responsibility lies with the ones who live to tell the tale.”
And so it seems Fate has decided that the responsibility shall be mine.
11th September 2015
By the end of December 2009, I came to realise that I, too, suffered from poverty.
I just did not know it then. Mine was a poverty of the heart, mind and spirit. Where as those who could not even afford to dream and are subjected to living in deplorable human conditions suffer from outer poverty, I was suffering from inner poverty of the worst kind. I was suicidal, and swinging from manic depression to unreasonable bouts of anger. I had lost all meaning and purpose of my life from the year 2000 to 2006. It was a daily struggle to just get out of bed. Perhaps that could also be one of the reasons why I never felt like I belonged anywhere. I never felt at home in Malaysia. In fact, I felt exiled. Un-appreciated, un-wanted and easily discarded by my homeland.
It was not that difficult to distrust and dislike a country that did not value or recognise you as a rightful citizen. It was effortless to give up hoping for a country that continues to disappoint and crush your dreams. However, I have learnt that my loving the country is not up to them, but it is up to me. Why should I choose to be corrupted by the terrible examples of Malaysia when there are thousands and millions who are icons of a better Malaysia? Hence, it is really up to me to love and continue hoping for Malaysia even if she chooses not to love me back in the way that I wish to be loved. I can learn to love her in the way I wish to be loved. I can continue to hope, along with many others. I can choose to be part of the solution, and not just abandon the country or her people.
Malaysia and Philippines are not that different. We are the by-products colonialism. Though we have long gained our independence, our minds are still trapped in that colonial mentality. We do not know how to value our own authentic beauty, and are always looking towards the WEST for inspiration or directions. Many Malaysians and Filipinos have chosen to leave their respective countries. This is why both countries suffer from major “brain drain”.
It is time we stop borrowing from the ideas and dreams of someone else or another country. It is time to sow and build our own. Because we are beautiful and wonderful as we are. Our greatest potential has yet to be realised.
Personally, Gawad Kalinga has been an immensely healing journey for me. In particular, the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm (GKEF). It has taught me how to love myself in the right way by embracing a bigger family in the Filipinos, French, Americans and etc. Especially, my dear Malaysians.
The GK Enchanted Farm is not a farm in the traditional sense. It is an eco-system that supports and nurtures learning, sharing, entrepreneurial studies as well as the enterprises itself. It is also the “home” and the “job creator” to the poor families living there. There is no other eco-system like it in this world.
Allow me to reiterate – The Farm is a platform for social enterprise. It has a University. It has a community of over 50 families, and is also quickly becoming a social tourism destination.
In essence, the Farm provides a haven for people from all over the world to experience the greatness of the human spirit – where the rich and poor grow abundance of the land, where they experience peace by connecting with the good in the people, where students and entrepreneurs learn from real life experiences by working on the ground with the farmers and the land, where every individual will discover his or her own greatest potential along with the beauty of others.
It is about creating “shared prosperity” that leaves no one behind, and building solidarity in our collective humanity. By showing that it can be done, Tony Meloto and the GK Enchanted Farm redefine the meaning of Social Enterprise, Social Entrepreneurs, University, Industry and Community.
All the footage that we’ve filmed in 2009 are kept safely in a special vault in Manila. Believe me when I say that the stories entrusted with me will be aired at the most beneficial and appropriate time and place. I am certain of it. More exciting footage is constantly being added to the ones which we have already filmed. I suppose, this is also how we keep adding to our greater humanity – by bringing the goodness in ourselves and sharing it with the world. Most of all, by recognising the goodness in others as we journey through life.
As we brace ourselves for justice, liberty and equality in the Philippines and Malaysia, I am re-writing the story of my life’s documentary. And I hope you will join me too in re-writing your own life story.
Our diversity is not our disability.
Our differences lead us to our magnificence.
This is the real beginning. For all of us.
I shall borrow the beloved words of my “Papa”, Tony Meloto, by adding Malaysia and Malaysians :-
“NEVER STOP HOPING FOR OUR COUNTRY,
NEVER STOP CARING FOR OUR PEOPLE,
DEMAND GREATNESS FROM YOURSELF AS A FILIPINO and MALAYSIAN SO THAT YOU CAN INSPIRE GREATNESS IN ALL OTHER FILIPINOS and MALAYSIANS.”
Only by becoming better version of ourselves, we become the rightful builders of our personal and collective dream.
By being better versions of ourselves, we regain our own greatness.
The very process of becoming our highest authentic self is how we come home.
Mahal Kita, Filipinas.
Aku cinta pada mu, Malaysia.
May I always be in love with you, Philippines and Malaysia.
With deepest gratitude,
Note: Read the continuation of this blog post here.