International -- The Stars of Asia -- Opinion Shapers

Cheng Yen (int'l edition)

Cheng Yen
Tzu Chi Foundation
Cheng Yen begins each day at 3:50 a.m., awakening from a floor mat in her monastery outside Taiwan's mountainous coastal city of Hualien. She meditates, does an hour's worth of work, then has a sparse breakfast at 6 a.m. Her daily routine may be that of a simple Buddhist nun, but Master Cheng, as she is known, is one of the most powerful people in Taiwan. She is the founder and leader of the Buddhist charity organization Tzu Chi, or ''Mercy, Relief,'' which boasts 4 million members--one-fifth of Taiwan's population.

Through three decades of good works, Yen has changed the role of Buddhism in Taiwan from one of meditation and retreat to one of activism and engagement. She now has an army of 25,000 volunteers working at poverty alleviation, health care, and education--in dozens of countries, not just Taiwan. Her standing in Taiwan is so high that all three presidential candidates in the March election traveled to Hualien to seek her blessing.

Her foundation gained international prominence because of its quick response to the September, 1999, earthquake in Taiwan that killed 2,400 people. The quake struck at 1:52 a.m.; by 5 a.m., Tzu Chi members had arrived at disaster sites to function like a local Red Cross, sheltering, feeding, and counseling tens of thousands of quake victims. ''We are very deep into all layers of society,'' says Tzu Chi volunteer James Wang. ''We are well organized, so we can react right away.''

Even now, nine months after the quake, Tzu Chi is still stepping into what usually is a government role in reconstruction efforts: Its volunteers plan to rebuild 45 schools destroyed by the quake--and this time make them earthquake-proof. ''You can't rely on the government to do everything,'' says Cheng, a soft-spoken 63-year-old woman with a shaved head and the long, elegant hands of a Mandarin. ''The people have to do something, to take care of the part the government does not do.''

Indeed, it was inadequate government services that helped prompt Cheng to start her foundation in the first place. Back in 1966 as a young nun, she visited a hospital and saw a pool of blood on the floor--from a woman who had miscarried after being turned away for lack of money. Cheng was struck with ''overwhelming sadness,'' according to a Tzu Chi publication, and wondered what she could do to overcome such suffering.

A short time later, three Roman Catholic nuns tried to get her to convert to Catholicism, saying that their religion was better at caring for people than Buddhism because it built schools and hospitals. The publication quotes them as saying that Buddhist teachings were profound, ''but what has Buddhism done for society?'' At that moment, Cheng vowed to remain a Buddhist but to build schools and hospitals, too. And she vowed to make sure that everyone--even those without money for treatment--could use them.

DIRECT RELIEF. Cheng built up Tzu Chi gradually from a small shack and a group of women followers who saved a little each day out of their grocery money. It is now a huge organization. Tzu Chi took in $300 million in donations last year, half of it specifically targeted for earthquake victims.

Cheng has organized Tzu Chi so that all donations can be channeled directly to relief efforts. Overhead costs and salaries for its 570-member staff are met by sales of Cheng's inspirational books and tapes and endowments from wealthy members. In addition to its relief work abroad--including in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere in Asia--Tzu Chi runs a number of civic projects in Taiwan, ranging from providing monthly welfare checks to 4,000 needy families to pushing an environmental agenda that it estimates has recycled enough paper to save 3.5 million trees. All volunteers are banned from lying, smoking, drinking alcohol, using drugs, fornicating, gambling, and participating in politics.

For all its good works at home, Tzu Chi has been criticized in the local media for its relief efforts in China. Cheng has worked on the mainland for the past nine years, with activities in 19 of its 35 provinces. Cheng shrugs off concern about whether a Taiwan organization should be helping the mainland while its politicians threaten the island with war. ''We don't care about politics,'' says Cheng. ''There is no reason to love some people less than others, and mainland Chinese are people, too. Buddhism teaches us to take care of people, to take care of society.'' She's doing that--and then some.

ONLINE ORIGINAL: A Chat with Cheng Yen

Buddhist Master Cheng Yen founded the Tzu Chi Foundation in 1966 and has seen it grow into an international organization with a 25,000-member volunteer corps building hospitals, schools, and other charitable works. She recently spoke with Asia Editor Sheri Prasso at her Buddhist monastery in Hualien. Translation and assistance was provided by Taipei-based reporter Dan Nystedt. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: Why is Tzu Chi's work necessary?
Tzu Chi is a religious organization. Religious organizations should teach people how to develop their own love and then how to spread that love to others in a way that has meaning and impact in their lives. The Buddha not only taught Buddhist doctrine, he taught people how to put that doctrine into practice in the real world.

Q: If Taiwanis government already offers national health insurance and other services to people in Taiwan, why is more needed from Tzu Chi?
Our government does a good job taking care of people, but you can't rely on the government to do everything. People [the general populace] have to do something. They have to be taught that they can do something. When people discover the power of their own individual spirit, and that power is brought together with others, then all is possible...people can take care of the part the government does not do.

At the time we built the hospital, most hospitals in Taiwan required a deposit before treatment...but that wastes a lot of time and delays first aid. A lot of needy people get sick but don't have the money to see a doctor, then their illness becomes more serious. As their health worsens, effective treatment becomes more expensive, and the situation [gets worse and worse]. The same goes for laborers. When a poor laborer gets injured and refuses medical care for lack of money to pay the bill, they may become handicapped later on.

Q: Why is this work important to you personally?
Nothing is more valuable than life. The most important thing is to respect life and help people. The greatest tragedy in life is human suffering. If there were no suffering, society would be perfect. When everyone is happy, only then am I happy. When everyone is healthy, only then am I healthy. When human suffering ends, my suffering ends.

Q: Many people have compared you to Mother Teresa. Do you compare yourself to her?

I donit think comparisons are necessary. I love and respect Mother Teresa. But it is not necessary to compare us. Everyone's life "value" is different, Mother Teresa has hers, and I have mine. Everyone has their own mission in life. The most important thing is to complete that mission.

Q: Where do you see Tzu Chi 10 to 20 years down the road?
We don't plan 10 or 20 years into the future. We build everything the best we can because we hope the things we do today will last a thousand years. We walk the path of truth. We build everything carefully, step by step, the best we can. We don't waste time, not even a minute, because we hope the things we do today last forever. The most important thing is to grasp the moment at hand and take care of what is happening now.

Q: Some people in Taiwan have criticized Tzu Chi for doing aid work in mainland China, saying things like, "Why do you help China when the Chinese intimidate us and shoot missiles over Taiwan?" How do you respond to that criticism?
Love is no different between people. There is no reason to love some people less than others. Mainlanders are people, too. Tzu Chi doesn't only help in mainland China, we help people all over the world. Wherever there is suffering, Tzu Chi is there to help. We don't care about politics. Besides, our ancestors come from China, we are of the same blood. On May 27, we will send a group to Ethiopia to provide medical treatment to a village there and to assess the damage caused by the recent drought.

Q: In the past, Buddhist priests and nuns in Taiwan spent their time cultivating themselves only, and not entering society to help people. For example, meditating in mountain monasteries. But you are different. You came down from the mountain to work with the people. Are you the first Buddhist cleric to do that?
I can't really say whether I was first or not. I do not know what other Buddhists were doing throughout Taiwan when I came to Hualien. But I can tell you that Buddhism teaches us to take care of people, to take care of society and ease suffering by spreading the spirit of Buddhism. So I went to the people. I know that today, other groups have been busy building schools and other things, but we build hospitals and the medical schools to go with them. That's not easy, it takes money to hire good doctors, it's very difficult.

Park Won Soon (int'l edition)

Park Won Soon
Park Won Soon
People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy
South Korea
When Park Won Soon gave up his lucrative law practice to devote himself to organizing a grassroots crusade against corruption in the mid-1990s, few people paid attention. It seemed futile to challenge South Korea's corrupt but mighty political Establishment. But five years later, Park's civil movement is reshaping Korea's political landscape. Park, 44, is taking on corrupt politicians--and keeping them out of office.

His biggest victory came in the April elections, when voters responded overwhelmingly to his Web site campaign that listed allegedly corrupt candidates. All but one of 20 politicians in Seoul and its vicinity deemed ''unfit'' by Park's Citizens Solidarity for General Elections were defeated, and 70% of 86 candidates on Park's nationwide list were thrown out of office in districts where reelection is usually a sure thing. Politicians live in fear of being named.

Nearly 1 million Koreans have sent e-mail to the campaign's Web site supporting the effort. ''Politicians have been the primary hurdle to reforms, and corruption is the center of the problem,'' says Park. ''Now, we'll step up efforts to monitor and publish lawmakers' activities to shed light on those who are blocking reforms.''

An activist in his student days, Park became famous as a human-rights lawyer in the 1980s. As human rights began improving in the 1990s, Park co-founded the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. That group mobilized 900 other civic-action groups, ranging from environmentalists to religious groups, for the election push.

In addition to the Web site, Park's organization has been using the courts to push for reform. Threats of legal action are forcing chaebol to let minority shareholders nominate outside directors to their boards.

Now, both the ruling and opposition parties have pledged tough legislation to combat corruption. ''Transparency and accountability must be restored in politics,'' says Park. These days, even politicians are listening.

Christine Loh (int'l edition)

Christine Loh
Christine Loh
Hong Kong
| Video Interview |
It's the odd political bird who decides to come in for a landing when her career is soaring. But 44-year-old Legislative Councilor Christine Loh has decided she can do more outside the musty corridors of what passes for political power in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (Legco). She is calling a halt to her electoral career when her current term ends on June 30, three years after the British turned over the city to China. Hong Kong's politics are trapped in a colonial time warp, Loh says, and ''there isn't even a timetable for discussing how it could change.''

Far from stepping back from political activism, Loh is taking her championing of environmental causes and social issues directly to the people. She's founded Civic Exchange, a new group that will double as an independent research and advocacy center and an online bureau to help citizens use the Internet more effectively to influence government policy. ''It's my new life,'' says Loh, the daughter of a Shanghai cotton merchant who was sent to boarding school in Britain at age 15. She returned to Hong Kong eight years later, in 1979, armed with a law degree from the University of Hull, and then spent 12 years as a commodities trader. Involvement with a young group of pro-democracy activists prompted then-British Governor Chris Patten to appoint her to Legco in 1992.

Loh's decision to step down was termed a ''slap in the face'' for Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa by the influential South China Morning Post. It also sparked discussion about political reform, which Tung has tried to avoid.

Loh is leaving with an impressive trail of environmental victories. Her longstanding fight against land reclamation, which threatened to significantly encroach upon Hong Kong's magnificent harbor, has forced the government to halt future landfill projects while it rethinks its strategy. Her efforts are credited with reducing land reclamation by about 400 hectares--an area roughly equivalent to New York's Central Park.

A childhood asthmatic whose throat becomes raw during smog alerts, Loh has pushed hard for cleaner air. Early this year, she got the government to crack down harder on filling stations selling smuggled diesel fuel and to accelerate plans to convert diesel-guzzling taxis to LPG power. After record air pollution blanketed Hong Kong in March, Loh marshaled supporters, nearly 2,000 of whom receive her weekly e-mail report. They bombarded government officials with complaints and suggestions for action. She also got support from the foreign business community. In response, the government accelerated testing of the ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel that Loh has long championed as a way to cut down on fumes from belching trucks and minibuses.

That quick public support was what helped prompt Loh's decision to quit Legco. Who needs what she calls the ''stagnant water'' of Legco when the Internet opens new horizons for political change? Instead, Loh will work without a salary at Civic Exchange. Hers is the voice of a new generation in Hong Kong. Her supporters hope it will remain strong.

David M. Webb (int'l edition)

David M. Webb
Hong Kong
For years, David M. Webb was just another habitual letter-to-the-editor writer. He observed local goings-on and dashed off critical missives to newspapers--first in Britain, where he grew up, and then in Hong Kong, where he has lived since being sent out from London as an investment banker with BZW in 1991. But thanks to the Internet, Webb now has a powerful new venue: With it he has become a lonely voice of criticism in a city of opaque business practices and lackluster disclosure laws. ''The aim is to stop the rot in corporate governance,'' says Webb, 34.

Two years ago, Webb retired to manage his own stock portfolio. In the process of investigating companies to invest in, he came across all kinds of suspicious behavior behind the closed doors of corporate Hong Kong. A self-described ''computer geek,'' he now posts his findings on the site, providing a much-needed pro bono service to the public seeking information about publicly traded companies.

Webb, who studied mathematics at Oxford University and heads Hong Kong's Mensa chapter, keeps a bedroom full of meticulous files on Hong Kong companies' doings. He considers his muckraking critical to improving Hong Kong's market transparency. ''I say, 'O.K., you want to be a world-class financial center, let's see some disclosure,''' he says. The exposure is working: Webb's drumbeat against improprieties on Hong Kong's second board has put pressure on it to tighten listing loopholes.

ONLINE ORIGINAL: A Chat with David M. Webb

When investment banker David M. Webb, 34, retired two years ago to manage his own portfolio, he uncovered corporate-governance issues and alleged improprieties in a slather of Hong Kong-listed companies. He posted his findings on the Web -- and hiked the pressure on Hong Kong to tighten standards. Webb recenlty met with Asia Editor Sheri Prasso at his home office in Hong Kong. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What is the purpose of [your]
The main aim is to stop the rot in corporate governance. I'm a permanent resident of Hong Kong, and I spend the bulk of my time investing in the small-cap market. In Hong Kong, 600 companies make up 10% of the market value, and only 100 companies make up 90%. The top 50 of those are well researched. There's very little research on the rest. I spend my time searching through these companies, and in the course of that you do find some overlooked companies. You find some horrendously overvalued companies. In the process of screening those companies you get these really bad corporate-governance horror stories.

Also, there's the issue of transparency and disclosure. Hong Kong is one of the best in Asia, but that doesn't say very much. Companies are [required to publish] only two reports a year. It takes three months to come out, and there is no profit/loss statement. There are no quarterlies...and this is in a city that aspires to be a world-class financial center. I say, "O.K., you want to be a world-class financial center, let's see some disclosure.'' I try to spend only one day a week on it []. Most of the rest of my time goes into researching.

Q: Do you benefit financially from your activities?
It doesn't pay back in my own portfolio. You can only outperform if the drag factor from corporate governance isn't too high. It's a virtuous circle for the markets: Better corporate governance will attract more investors. I don't want to be portrayed as a saint or anything, but I don't mind shaking the trees in order to improve standards generally.

Q: What kind of feedback do you get?
One quarter of the market cap of Hong Kong is controlled by one family [Li], and [any investment analysts who report their concerns] potentially risk losing a quarter of their business. In the brokerage community I get a lot of support. People are glad I'm saying something.... We still have this bump in the playing field. The people behind [questionable activities] have a kind of godlike status in Hong Kong.

Q: How did you begin
I've always been a habitual letter writer to newspapers. When it became clear that you no longer needed a newspaper to express an opinion, [I launched the site]. The first piece I put up was on dollarization of the Hong Kong dollar, a speech I had made to the American Chamber of Commerce.

Q: Why did you retire from investment banking?
I had been doing it for eight years. I thought Wheelock (where Webb served an in-house financial adviser after leaving BZW in Hong Kong) would be a thinker's job, thinking longer term about corporate investments. I made the complete transition to how companies think and act.

Q: How did you have enough money to retire so young?
I had some royalties from books and [computer] games [developed when Webb was a teenage freelance computer programmer]. I started investing those royalties in the stock market in college.

Q: Is this a new career or a hiatus from investment banking? Would you ever go back?
I'm not sure if anyone would take me now. I'm too dangerous!

Prateep Ungsongtham Hata (int'l edition)

Prateep Ungsongtham Hata
Prateep Ungsongtham Hata
As the newly elected Senate representative from Klong Toey, Bangkok's largest slum, Prateep Ungsongtham Hata has a legitimate claim as a champion of the poor. Prateep had to abandon her education at age 11 and take a job to support her family. Her first job, in 1964, was packaging firecrackers for just 35 cents a day. After five years of other menial labor, including paint-chipping and cargo-vessel cleaning, she saved enough to attend night school and complete her education.

Prateep, 47, has spent much of her life campaigning to improve the lot of the poor. But last year, she felt she could be even more effective by being part of public policymaking. So she ran for Senate and was elected in March. ''My new status will help the people's movement in the slums and rural areas,'' she explains. Prateep represents a new breed of grassroots hopefuls untainted by traditional Thai money politics. She is active in promoting women in politics. But her first concerns are children's rights and solving the rampant problems caused by drugs and HIV among the poor.

Prateep has seen it all first-hand. At age 16, she began a day care center. It grew into a school, charging 5 cents per day for slum children who could not attend government schools because their homes were not officially registered. Dubbed ''Angel of the Slums'' decades ago, she won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for public service in 1978. With more than 300 slums in greater Bangkok alone, Prateep faces her biggest challenge yet.

ONLINE ORIGINAL: A Chat with Prateep Ungsongtham Hata

Prateep Ungsongtham Hata was born in Bangkok's slums and has spent her life fighting for the poor. She was elected senator in March and spoke recently with Asia Correspondent Frederik Balfour. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: You started working at the age of 11, what happened?
After finishing four years of education, I had no opportunity to go to secondary school, so I had to work at a fireworks factory. During the rainy season there was no job, and [my family] needed money, so I worked at the harbor cleaning ships of rust and repainting. At age 14, I started thinking about continuing my studies. I tried to find some way to continue at nighttime adult school.

Q: And you eventually earned a teaching certificate?
Yes, but it took many years.

Q: At 16 you and your sister started a school?
Well, at the beginning [we] had no idea what was good for the kids. We didn't have much water in the slums. We tried to look after kids, clean them, give them medical care. We tried to teach them how to bathe properly. [Our charge of] one baht [five cents] per day was a lot for poor people. It evolved into basic education, reading and writing. The charge for regular school per semester was about 100 to 200 times more.

Q: But the school became well known?
Ten years later the school become well known because we were fighting eviction. We protested and some media came. My school...was for kids with no birth certificate or house registration [most slum residents had neither]. This made people realize the problem of the poor people. We sent a letter to the king, who sent a mediator, who helped us look for another place. Since then it has grown to 500 students from about seven or eight kids. It was illegal, but finally after nine years, in 1977, they accepted my school, called it the Community School, and I became a civil servant.

Q: You have continued to be active promoting the rights of the poor since?
In 1992 after the coup d'etat...I was appointed as a leader for protesting the army and was almost arrested.

Q: What made you decide to finally enter politics?
It's getting harder and harder for me to work for social welfare. So many poor people suffer, so if I continued to work as a social worker, I'm not touching on policy and decision making It [couldn't] change anything about the situation! So I chose on behalf of poor people to address the problem.

As a senator, at least I could address the problems of poor people. Some activities need to be done in parliament. My status change would help the people in the slum area and rural area. I think I should represent the poor people suffering during the economic crisis. Every time, the poor people at the bottom are most affected. I also want to try to follow up, or ratify, the monitoring of the drug problem. It's a failure.

Q: What about the sex industry?
I still don't pay much attention. When people have no job, some of the housewives go to work like that.

Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc (int'l edition)

Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc
Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc may not be much over 5 feet tall, but she's big enough to stand up to Philippine President Joseph E. Estrada. Magsanoc, editor-in-chief of Manila's largest daily, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, built her journalistic career by taking on the country's corrupt and powerful. She was fired from her first reporting job in 1981 because she wrote something critical of then-dictator Ferdinand Marcos--without realizing he owned the paper. But rather than retreat, she joined the predecessor to the Inquirer, where she rose to top editor in 1991.

So when Estrada tried to close down her paper by organizing an advertising boycott last year, she was ready to fight back. The President was angry that the Inquirer was running stories critical of his administration, as well as editorials admonishing him for a failure of leadership. He accused the paper of damaging the image of the country and driving away foreign investors. When the Inquirer broke a story about his son using a government jet to visit his girlfriend in the south, Estrada was furious. He barred Inquirer reporters from his briefings and rallied his friends--who run the Philippines' major companies and were the Inquirer's major advertisers--to the cause. Ad placements dropped 80% overnight, with only one major advertiser, the Ayala Group, refusing to heed the boycott (page 36A17).

But Magsanoc ordered coverage as usual. The paper scaled back to 40 pages from 62, and shut off the air conditioning at 6 p.m. But every reporter still got a paycheck--and kept reporting. ''We barely survived,'' says Magsanoc, a gravelly voiced smoker in her fifties whose father was a well-known military officer and ambassador.

Magsanoc says the boycott, which drew international condemnation and was finally lifted in November after four months, ended up being a time of introspection and strengthening for the paper, which ran occasional tabloid-style stories. ''We had sort of glossed over things and become smug,'' she admits, ''so this was a good wake-up call to go back to the basics of fairness and accuracy.''

ONLINE ORIGINAL: A Chat with Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc

Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc is editor-in-chief of the Philippine Daily Enquirer, Manila's largest daily. When an angry President Joseph E. Estrada organized an advertising boycott last year, Jimenez-Magsanoc kept her reporters hammering away -- but she also reflected on standards of fairness and accuracy. She recently spoke with Asia Editor Sheri Prasso at her home in suburban Manila. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What was your background growing up? Have you always wanted to be a journalist?
Always. I used to volunteer in grade school to write the compositions of my classmates. I grew up in Manila. My father was a colonel in the military who took early retirement and later became an ambassador to [South] Korea. He was also head of intelligence and head of the Philippine National Railways. In the 1950s, I believe he was working with the CIA. He always used to tell stories at dinner.

All this got me very curious about what was going on in the world. I went to a convent school, so during Lent, you know, you have to give up something that you like, so I gave up reading the newspaper because I loved reading newspapers. My heroes were newspapermen, not movie stars.

Q: Where did you start out reporting?
I started as a reporter for the Bulletin in 1981, but I got fired. I wrote something [then-dictator Ferdinand] Marcos didn't like. They [Marcos and his wife, Imelda] owned the paper I was working for, but I didn't know it. I wish they had told me they owned the paper! [Then I joined the predecessor to the Inquirer, then called Philippine Panorama.] In 1986, there was the People Power revolt, and we were in a unique position. We felt it was fair to be unfair to the Marcoses at that time. It was a tougher task to do that [than to stand up to Estrada].

Q: Why was President Estrada angry? What did you write?
The Philippines is a highly personalistic society. On the eve of the election, there was a conference of bishops, and they told the people, "Don't vote for a 'womanizer and a drunkard,'" which was a reference to "Erap," which is the President's nickname. So we ran the headline, "Bishops: Anybody But Erap." He hasn't forgotten that. This has something to do with the President's personality. He takes everything as a personal affront.

We just continue to do our work. When his son took off in a government jet to visit his girlfriend in the south, we wrote the story. He had no official mission, his lodging was paid by local officials. We came out with the story -- it was a scoop! They're not really big stories, just little stories that pile up.

We're actually personal friends, from before [when Estrada was a famous movie actor]. He believed that when he became President, since we were friends, you can't say anything against him. I personally like the man. But he doesn't know where to draw the line between personal and professional. The President feels we should not criticize him, that it drives away investors, and that we're trying to pull down the [reputation of] the country.

Q: Did you call for his resignation?
We never asked him to resign, but we often asked him to govern, to become presidential. He's not an actor anymore.

It finally came to a head last year, in July. Our big advertisers started pulling out. It was the first time [in the Philippines] that there was an organized boycott to try to influence the press. I'm sure it was the President who organized it because some of the really big advertisers like PLDT [Philippines Long Distance Telecommunications] sent word to us that they didn't want to do it, but that it was 'someone they couldn't say no to,' that it would affect their business, too. Ads dropped 80%, and it cost 209,000 pesos [$5,225) a day. Some advertisers refused to honor it, like the Ayala Group, which owns Globe Telecom. They refused to be bullied. They even added more ads. It was very encouraging. There were some brave ones, among small advertisers, too.

Even though the boycott is over, the Conjuanco companies [owned by a close friend of Estrada's who owns the San Miguel brewery] are still not advertising as regularly as they used to. And Lucio Tan [another close friend of Estrada who owns several major businesses, including Philippine Airlines] is definitely still not advertising. The president denied [he organized the boycott], but everybody knew.

Q: When did the boycott end?
In November. From July to November we barely survived. But all this time, we held fast [in reporting the news]. We did a lot of self-criticism. We did see there was some in-your-face-reporting, and there were times when we didn't tell the other side. So now that's a mantra for us, 'Tell the other side.' There was stuff we took for granted because we were No. 1. It was a good wake-up call to go back to the basics of fairness and accuracy. We had sort of glossed over things and become smug. It was a good time to examine ourselves. We want to get the other side.

Q: How did you survive? Did you cut costs, or lay off people?
We scaled back to 40 pages and normally we are 62. There were some helpful statements of support, such as from the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. There was a time when the business side started to question the editorial side. We had to explain to them what we were doing. But they supported us. We cut back on expenses, turned off the air-conditioning at 6 p.m. Nobody was laid off. After going through that, we know that journalists are only as free as their owners allow. Public opinion was behind us. It boosted circulation.

Q: What other repercussions did your reporters face? They were banned from press conferences?
On three occasions we weren't allowed to President Estrada's "private" media meetings, which he calls "meriendas." He announced things there, big stories. It was his way of getting around having to invite the Inquirer. But other reporters were sympathetic -- they shared the news! We were also banned from a presidential trip abroad [on the presidential plane]. But we sent someone anyway, whether the president liked it or not. We paid our own way, which we always do anyway, even on the official plane.

Q: How did Estrada end the boycott?
The President invited us, the editors, to dinner, and we drank two bottles of 30,000 peso ($750) red wine. He explained his side. We promised fair and balanced reporting. I think he's learned his lesson, too.

N.R. Madhava Menon (int'l edition)

N.R. Madhava Menon
National Law School India
It started 12 years ago in Bangalore. With a $150,000 government grant, N.R. Madhava Menon launched India's National Law School with 40 students and nine teachers who taught Harvard Law School's case-study method. Now the school is flooded with 3,000 applications a year but has space for 80. Its graduates are eagerly snapped up by law firms from Bombay to Wall Street.

Menon, 65, is almost single-handedly introducing pride and confidence to India's disreputable legal profession. It's a slow process, but he's hoping graduates will start to change India's atrophied legal system, much of which is based on laws dating back to the British colonial period. India has more than 30 million cases clogged in its courts, many for more than 20 years. ''Half of India does not have access to justice for social and economic reasons,'' he laments.

Menon earned a reputation as one of India's most respected legal minds while teaching law at the University of Delhi in the 1960s. A chance encounter with a poor woman trying to get her husband released from prison left Menon frustrated with India's text-book education that made lawyers ill-equipped to deal with police and courts. So he set up India's first university-sponsored legal aid program. When India's Bar Council, worried about the deterioration of the country's legal competency, wanted to set up a law school outside the bureaucratic educational system, it turned to Menon. People thought he was crazy to risk his academic reputation for a startup. But students began bringing home national awards for excellence. Then Menon scored a key victory. In 1989, he lobbied politicians and won university status for his school--just days before his first class graduated.

Menon has been trying to retire to his hometown of Trivandrum for the last three years, but the government keeps asking him to launch more schools. He does so--and even became principal of one of them without taking a salary. That's a sign of a lawyer with a higher purpose.

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Cheng Yen
 + A Chat with Cheng Yen
Park Won Soon
Christine Loh
David M. Webb
 + A Chat with David M. Webb
Prateep Ungsongtham Hata
 + A Chat with Prateep Ungsongtham Hata
Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc
 + A Chat with Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc
N.R. Madhava Menon

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