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Filipino delivers Harvard Law graduation speech

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By Volt Contreras Inquirer THIS year's elite, multiracial class of Harvard law graduates may have found their best speaker in a young Filipino lawyer of Chinese descent, one obviously honed for the global stage but who hopes to pay back "the nameless farmers and fishermen" who partly paid for his studies. Oscar Franklin Tan, 27, earned the rare honor of delivering the commencement address in behalf of some 700 American and foreign graduates of the Harvard Law School. Adel Tamano, spokesperson of the Genuine Opposition ticket in the recent senatorial elections, served as commencement speaker at Harvard Law in 2005. The 2005 law alumnus of the University of the Philippines pursued a master's degree at the exalted academy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tan was to deliver the commencement address on June 7. Tan is an associate at the Angara, Abello, Concepcion, Regala and Cruz law office. His father, Edmundo L. Tan, is a managing partner at the Tan Acut & Lopez law firm, while his mother, Dr. Jesusa Barcelona Tan, is a dermatologist. His name was added to the growing list of Filipino legal luminaries who attended Harvard, some of whom went on to shape the country'’s history. They include former Senators Jovito Salonga and Rene Saguisag; Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, Representatives Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin Jr. of Makati and Juan Edgardo "Sonny" Angara of Aurora, former Press Secretary Ricardo Puno, former Solicitor General Estelito Mendoza, former Environment Secretary Fulgencio Factoran, Ateneo Law Dean Cesar Villanueva, and Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist and former UP Law Dean Raul Pangalangan, and the latter’s wife Elizabeth Aguiling-Pangalangan. Crossing cultural barriers Tan said he apparently earned the distinction not by academic prowess alone. "I feel that I was selected to speak because I am able to touch base with all my classmates and cross all cultural barriers," Tan said Thursday, in reply to e-mailed questions from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, parent company of INQUIRER.net. "This does not just come naturally when one is in an international community. For example, some Europeans can be more aggressive and direct culturally, while some Asians can be less direct and be uncomfortable with their English capability." "I made it my priority to get to know each and every one of my interesting classmates, and let them know I was open to whatever they had to say. In this way, I was perceived as being able to best represent the class," he said. "For excellence alone is never enough," he explained, a mind-set imprinted on him at Harvard where, unlike in Philippine law schools, the obsession over good grades and bar exam results are considered "juvenile" pursuits. He recalled that awards were recently handed out to American law students at Harvard --not for academic achievements but for public service, like participation in legal aid programs. Respect for leadership "Students here respect not grades," he said, but "leadership," particularly in shaping the school journal, the Harvard Law Review. US presidential contender Barack Obama, for instance, caught the attention of the national media way back when he became the first African-American president of the HLR. Legal writing is one area where Tan left his biggest mark as a UP law student. He racked up 17 writing prizes, mainly for term papers and analyses of Supreme Court decisions. He went on to chair the prestigious Philippine Law Journal. ‘Wine in the River’ In the draft of his speech sent to the Inquirer, Tan delved no more into stiff legal discourse but rather reveled in the cultural cornucopia that made up his Harvard batch, where up to 60 nationalities were represented. The speech partly read: "A Saudi Arabian reminded me that you can fry eggs on a sidewalk in Riyadh. An Italian gave me tips on women because Italian men are the world’s greatest lovers, with the disclaimer that their style does not work on American women. A Malaysian was asked to explain the religious significance of the color of her hijab or headscarf. She would answer: It had to match her blouse. "On New Year’s Eve, a Belarusian handed me a glass of vodka, but scolded me when I began to sip it. Sipping, he emphasized, was not the Slavic way. I shared a Frenchman’s champagne, a Peruvian’s pisco sour, a Costa Rican’s piña colada, a Brazilian’s caipirinha, a Mexican’s tequila and a Japanese’s sake. "And apologies to the Germans, but I learned how even weak American beer enlivens an evening when you drink it with the Irish." 'Citizens of the world' In a piece he titled "Like Wine in the River, Like Citizens of the World," he asked rhetorically: "How do a mere 700 change the world, even with overpriced Harvard diplomas?" He called on his classmates, the "future leaders" of their respective countries, "to transcend our individual nationalities and affirm that we are citizens of the world." For regardless of race, color or creed, he said, "our peers in faraway lands face the same frustrations, the same nation-building ordeals, the same sorrows and, ultimately, the same shared joys and triumphs." Describing himself as a witness to two Philippine people power revolts, Tan acknowledged among his classmates an Afghan lawyer chased out of his country by the Taliban and a Bhutanese princess who "wants to help shape her country’s constitution after her father-king voluntarily gave up absolute power." He also noted how his Chinese classmates have "come to grips” with the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and how an Iranian, upon meeting the speechwriter of US President George W. Bush, introduced himself by saying: "Hi! I’m from an Axis of Evil country." Securities Law After Harvard, he hopes to build a career in Securities Law and Constitutional Law (the specializations he took up there), Tan said in the e-mailed interview, adding: "I hope to be in a position to influence our economic institutions’ development, and I learned so much here about how American companies are policed and how investor rights are protected. So many people agitate for political change, but I feel that we also need highly technical people able to act as midwives for the legal institutions that underpin our economy." Filipinos have "a beautiful Constitution," he said, which unfortunately remains barely appreciated or understood by the common citizen. "For example, when the Jose Pidal scandal broke out, so-called legal experts questioned whether a 'right to privacy' existed in the media, even though this is taught to UP Law freshmen during their first week of class," he said. But underlying all these lofty plans -- now all within his reach, thanks to his “overprized Harvard diploma” -- is a rather humble mission for someone who got his headstart in law at a state university like UP. “Our studies were paid for by nameless poor farmers and fishermen, and I hope to one day pay my dues,” Tan said.

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