Photos of students donning the iconic ‘sablay’ (the graduation costume of the University of the Philippines or UP) partnered with a 1,500 characters of caption are now flooding Facebook. Uniquely UP sablay photo shoots are set in different locations varying from the usual photo studios to the more mundane—in bushes, roadsides, and beachfront, and to the uncommon as underwater. It is literally everywhere. Graduates are relishing their victory from the four or more years battle to finally wear the iconic gold, green and maroon sash and receive the premier state university’s diploma.
The June graduation is another distinction of UP from most schools since its adoption of the academic calendar shift just 2 years ago.
But another striking distinction of UP’s graduation from that of other colleges and universities is the usual occurrence of protest rallies. Midway through the graduation rites, one student would usually shout angrily ‘Im-per-yalismo!’ and then a throng of graduates would make a thunderous reply ‘I-bag-sak!’ and the long list of chants would follow.
Taking pride of being the bastion of academic freedom and excellence, UP, its graduates and the whole academic community have made these usually anti-government, anti-capitalist, anti-status quo protests an enduring tradition. Given the ever narrowing democratic space within the university and in the whole country, the ever zealous activists, in turn, have utilized all available platforms including graduation ceremonies to send their message of nationalism and common welfare to the broader public. In some instances, these protests are coordinated with college administrations and are even formally integrated into the official graduation program. Last 2016, UP Diliman installed an enormous tarpaulin bearing the statement “Serve the People” supposedly as a challenge to the new graduates to give back to the country and partake in nation-building. Graduation protests usually culminate with a chant that was derived from the same Serve the People slogan, “Iskolar ng Bayan tumungo sa kanayunan, paglingkuran ang samabayanan”. During these protests, most if not all graduates join in chanting and even in raising their clenched left fists while singing the final stanzas of UP Naming Mahal. But beyond the clichéd remarks, the silly ‘wag magpakain sa sistema’ statements, the unity in chanting, the important question remains to be: what does serving the people really mean?
Historically, UP gave its best and the brightest in complete and selfless service to the national democratic revolution. Its chemists, engineers, artists and thinkers went to the hills, took up arms, fought a dictatorship in the 1970s, and sowed the seeds of what would become the most enduring revolutionary movement in Asia and the world and the most formidable foe of the government. From Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong’s eloquent words, Filipino youth revolutionaries used the slogan ‘Serve the People’ as their own battle cry. They took it as an inspiration for their own struggle in the Philippines together with Prof. Jose Maria Sison’s book, Philippine Society and Revolution. Using the lessons provided by the university’s liberal education and the ideals taught by the harsh social realities outside its campus, these sons and daughters of UP had the sense of serving the people by going to the hinterlands where most of the country’s population is, to establish a revolutionary, democratic and socially just government.
Years after the fall of the dictatorship, the meaning of the phrase “Serve the People” did not change. Its message even reverberated in a society that remains to be market-driven, plagued by massive inequality, hunger, and poverty. The nationalist fervor of UP did not wane as many Iskolar ng Bayan continued to march to the mountains and serve the cause of the national democratic revolution.
However, serving the people may be construed as that which can take in many forms and several differing degrees. Service can be parsed as staying in the country as a doctor, however, serving only the richest folks in Makati or Taguig and retaining an ostentatious lifestyle. Or, helping build the country’s economy as an economic planner who ensures that wealth flows only towards one direction – only to the affluent families of the nation. Or, service to the people by becoming a cohort of a legislator who has plundered the public coffers by the billions.
The particularity of the chant “Iskolar ng Bayan tumungo sa kanayunan, paglingkuran ang samabayanan” gives clarity and preciseness to the call to serve the people.
In the situation of an industrially backward and feudal Philippines, service is definitely not like those listed above. Hence, the meaning of the challenge “Serve the People” in a historical, moral and practical context of the country is the offering of oneself to the fight for national liberation, not anything less. It is the conscious act of embodying the hopes of the people and elevating these aspirations into greater collective interest. To participate in a movement that aims to overthrow a government that systematically murders millions of its poor citizens in favor of a ruling one percent is plain, genuine service to the people. And risking one’s life for such is a fitting response to a challenge that requires superlatives. There are many positions to fill in the revolution ranging from literacy teachers to the Mamanwa indigenous peoples of Leyte; organizers of peasant communities in Samar; leaders of fisherfolk in Biliran; researcher for farmers’ associations; or ultimately, a full-fledged guerrilla fighter of the New People’s Army.
Activists know all too well that the principal method to achieve the goal of a just society is to slay the monsters that are imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism. And to do so is not by sitting idly in the comforts of an air-conditioned office or in front of a laptop hovering over videos of cats and cakes but by severing ties with the corrupt establishment. It is a painful but necessary process of cutting the umbilical cord that ties the youth to the system that saw their birth and that of their fore-parents. The goal is also a reminder that activism should not be synthetic that comes only from textbooks and lectures. It should not also be transient, that only gives adventure and thrill in college life. That activism springs from the deepest recesses of the soul, from actual life.
We howl our slogans in the streets to convince the unconvinced of our ideals, and we can be more effective if we live up to it.
Finally, may this serve as an invitation to reexamine our creed, review our assumptions, and interrogate ourselves: who are we for?