Asia Society and the Philippines: Six Decades of 'Close Links'
Philippine President Corazon Aquino speaks at Asia Society in 1986. Also pictured is former Asia Society president Bob Oxnam. (Robert Glick/Asia Society)
In 1986, just seven months after taking office, Corazon Aquino embarked on her first trip to the United States as president of the Philippines. The woman who would later be remembered as “the mother of Philippine democracy” made sure Asia Society’s New York headquarters was one of her first stops.
“The Asia Society will always be close to my heart,” she said in an address. “It was the first major organization to give my husband, Ninoy, a forum when he was in exile.”
Aquino was thrust into politics in 1983 after her husband Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. — an opposition leader and political rival of Ferdinand Marcos — was assassinated under mysterious circumstances after returning from three years of exile.
Since Corazon Aquino’s 1986 visit, every sitting Philippine president has spoken at Asia Society, reflecting the important role the organization has played in building bridges between the Philippines and the United States for more than half a century. “Whenever Philippine presidents were [in the U.S.], they always came to Asia Society,” said Nicholas Platt, who was the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines from 1987 to 1991 and would later serve as Asia Society’s president from 1992 to 2004. “There’s always been a close link there.”
Asia Society’s connection to the country goes back to the days when the organization was just a germ of an idea in the mind of founder John D. Rockefeller 3rd. In the early 1950s, Rockefeller made many visits to Southeast Asia, including to the Philippines. These trips helped convince him that an organization encompassing Southeast Asia that facilitated U.S.-Asia engagement was needed.
One of the Asian leaders that likely had a heavy influence on Rockefeller’s thinking was Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay. Elected in 1953, Magsaysay supported close relations with the United States, was extremely popular domestically for his policies helping the poor, and was an admired friend of the Rockefeller family.
Tragically, Magsaysay died in a plane crash in 1957, less than a year after Asia Society’s founding. One month after his death, Rockefeller established the Ramon Magsaysay Award to “perpetuate his example of integrity in public service and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society.” The award, which has become known as the Asian equivalent to the Nobel Prize, is still given annually to Asians who “exemplify the greatness of spirit, integrity, and devotion to freedom of Ramon Magsaysay.”
In the ensuing years, Rockefeller used Asia Society as a vehicle to continue engagement between the United States and Asia, as well as to promote cooperation among Asian countries. One of the most important forums used to pursue this goal was the annual Williamsburg Conference, started by Rockefeller and Asia Society in 1971. The conference brought thousands of leaders from government, business, and academia together to discuss U.S.-Asia relations and other challenging issues in the Asia-Pacific.
Platt recalled that one of the most significant Williamsburg Conferences was the one held in Cebu, Philippines, in 1995. “Williamsburg Conferences were an important part of what we do — very important ways of putting governments and businesses together,” Platt said. “We’d never done one in the Philippines … Cebu was very corporate-minded.”
In 1999, Asia Society took engagement to the next level when it established an Asia Society center in Manila. Founded by Joan Hubbard, wife of then-U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Tom Hubbard, the branch expanded Asia Society’s reach in building understanding between the United States and Asian countries. “The most important thing we did was to set up that office,” Platt recalled. “We always envisioned the Philippines as a central hub for contact with younger people throughout Southeast Asia.”
Another way Asia Society has engaged young people is through its Asia 21 Young Leaders program. For 10 years, this network of influential people under 40 doing work in the Asia-Pacific has aimed to promote understanding and collaboration in the region. This network has included many Filipinos, including Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino IV (class of 2006), who would go on to be elected to the Philippine senate in 2013. Asia 21 also came into contact with the Philippines in 2013 when its members Ibrahim Rasul Bernardo, Jo-Ar Acosta Herrera, and Ivan Anthony Santos Henares, came together through the network to give assistance in the aftermath of the deadly Typhoon Yolanda.
In addition to people-to-people exchanges and corporate and political engagement, Asia Society has also hosted hundreds of cultural and artistic exchanges with the Philippines. One of the most impactful was the Asia Society Museum exhibition Sheer Realities: Clothing and Power in Nineteenth-Century Philippines in New York in 2000. The exhibition displayed clothing, paintings, lithographs, and photographs illustrating “the complex interaction between external and indigenous cultural influences” in the Philippines.
“Compared to other countries in Southeast Asia, the art of the Philippines is hardly known in [the United States],” Asia Society’s former President Vishakha Desai said at the time. “The Philippines is really one of the first multicultural nations. You could even say that it is the crossroads of the Pacific, fusing indigenous civilizations with Chinese, Spanish, American, and Islamic cultures.”
This September, Asia Society will once again bring the best of Philippine culture to New York with the opening of the Asia Society Museum exhibition Philippine Gold: Treasures of Forgotten Kingdoms. The exhibition — the centerpiece of an entire season of Philippine-related programming at Asia Society — features more than 100 gold items, many from the ancient kingdom of Butuan, a still mysterious civilization known to have traded extensively with other civilizations in the region. Ranging from jewelry to ritual sculptures dating back to the 10th century, the majority of the objects weren’t unearthed until the 1980s and are now making their first appearance outside the Philippines.
“I looked at the material and the scholarship, and recognized how incredible the objects are and how important the implications are, not just for the Philippines, but for the rest of Asia,” said Asia Society John H. Foster Senior Curator for Traditional Asian Art Adriana Proser on the decision to host the exhibition. “This is too good an opportunity to miss.”