Rebuild Marawi City, Bring Technology — Fil-Am Tech Guru Suggests

Perhaps, one would not expect a technology guru to concern himself with non-technology issues, like the fate of war-torn Marawi City. Not even if he is a Filipino-American who found immense success and wealth in Silicon Valley in the United States, over 13,000 kms. away from the Philippines.

Silicon Valley, of course, is home to startups and multi-national technology companies each worth billions of dollars, the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, etc. It is also home to some Filipino-Americans who made good in the world of technology amid gauntlets of challenges.

Photo from: Yobie’s Twitter Account

Not a common thing to happen, really, but it did. Antonio “Yobie” Benjamin, 59, of Malabon, Metro Manila, makes social justice not a mere empty concept.

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He is one of the success stories in Silicon Valley, is concerned about Marawi City. He now lives in the Bay Area in San Francisco, U.S. He was from Malabon City, Metro Manila.

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According to one sfgate.com article, Benjamin is a Silicon Valley “entrepreneur, venture capitalist, writer, social activist, software architect, engineer, UC Merced trustee and City Brights blogger for SFGate.com.” Add angel investor.

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For a start, the Filipino-American big time tech entrepreneur is presently chief technology officer (CTO) of clickSWITCH, CTO emeritus of Token-io, and co-founder of Avegant. The World Economic Forum (WEF) honored him as 2015 Technology Pioneer.

Unknown to many, Benjamin visits his home country every now then; he is giving back to his countrymen, a demonstration of his deep involvement in social justice-related activities.

In a recent interview with the U.S.-based tech guru, he suddenly made a dive into the fate of Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, without warning.

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“We are going to have to go and figure out how to rebuild that city and use it as model for peace and we will have all the things; people who know real estate, people who know how to build condos, people who know how to build technology. Let’s come together and take these things that happen and maybe use that as an example. I don’t know,” Benjamin, dressed in round-neck T-shirt and in short pants which Filipinos call “porontong.’

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Benjamin is of the mind that behind everything lies an opportunity. “We just have to go and find it.” His mention of the situation in Marawi, ground zero on May 23, 2017 of the government war against the Maute Group/Abu Sayyaf Group tandem, the Islamic State (IS)-affiliated bands of Moro extremists, showed he was, really, keeping tab of what’s happening in his mother country.

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Benjamin’s passion for social justice puts him on a different plane, a different breed; he has combined his passion for technology with his passion for social justice. He showed his social conscience. It is not something new.

If one digs a bit about his past life it will show he really has genuine concern for social justice even as a youth. As a Silicon Valley bigwig he has many humanitarian involvements (saving the environment, helping startups, etc.).

It should not be a surprise, then, for Benjamin to be thinking of the city of over 200,000, who became bakwits (refugees) in a sort of diaspora after they fled the internecine fighting. The fighting stretch for five months before the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) declared its end. Now running into its fourth month, government forces have yet to finish off the terrorists.

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The Battle of Marawi left behind of trail of deaths, destruction, and battered spirits of the more than 200,000 bakwits.

Benjamin about serendipity. Maybe not out of the blue, his mind went off about Marawi in Morolandia (land of the Moros). The city belongs to the province of Lanao del Sur, its capital, in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), over 900 kilometers south of Manila. ARMM has five provinces, mostly in the bottom of the Philippines’ poverty index, Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi, and two cities, Marawi and Lamitan in Basilan.

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Benjamin was an activist during the time of the dictator Marcos. Authorities put him in jail for his anti-Marcos activities. He went to the U.S. in 1982. In 1983 he worked at Lotus Development Corporation. That lit the spark of his love affair with technology.

He believes that tragedies have a way of producing something good, like from what happened to Marawi. “Events like these, maybe something can come out, you never know, part of it is serendipity, right? “Chance and serendipity have a lot to do with, you know, what the future holds. If you look at some of the big tragedies the country has, if you look at Marawi City, for example, after that war, there will not be Marawi City, it will be gone.”

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From the ashes of the war he was hopeful of things getting better, of building back better. “But maybe it is a chance to rebuild, you know, a modern city, maybe it’s the chance to build a modern city, with the right infrastructure, good running water, good electricity, you know, real urban planning. At the same time, I think we can take some of the unfortunate things that happen and try use it to do good things.”

Benjamin said somebody has to try and reconstruct Marawi, adding the city has one million people, “our brothers and sisters, who suddenly are refugees in this country.” He shouted out for collaboration, for peace. He did not gave specifics, though, on what help he can extend to Marawi and its population.

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Playing down his success, Benjamin said he relied on more luck, hard work, and help from others who came before him for his Silicon Valley success.

“Everybody has a chance; the world is ‘flat’,” he said, a statement that, perhaps unwittingly, echoed former Cleveland Cavaliers’ superstar point guard Kyrie Irving’s (now officially a member of the Boston Celtics after Cavs owner Dan Gilbert granted his request for a trade).

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“The Earth is flat” is the claim the National Basketball Association (NBA) star made, putting him in the eye of controversial black hole and science-flipping comment.

It is more of who you know that matters more in the technology hub, Benjamin emphasized. “It doesn’t really matter how brilliant you are in Silicon Valley, and I will tell you why. The reason is…there are only 12 groups in Silicon Valley that you need to know,” he said.

He revealed that he is writing a book on the 12 groups which he titled “12 Tribes,” a play on the 12 tribes of Israel. The technology guru and entrepreneur said if one knows anyone of the 12 groups, or have an introduction to anyone of the groups, that would be an advantage. “And if you have introduction to more members of these 12 groups you will do even better,” said Benjamin.

He was then delivering a talk on his experiences and how he started in the tech environment in the U.S., discussing as well initial coin offering (ICO) involving cryptocurrency and ether bitcoin of Ethereum. “I hope you can make use of the information I am (talking about) here.”

In a blog on Huffington Post, under his hame is this information: “Innovator/Angel/CTO — Banking, data, IoT (Internet of Things), synbio, software, music, fintech Passion, Wildlife Works, Amnesty International, relationship, health, politics, good.”

His last public visit to the Philippines came in August 24-25, 2017. TechTalks.ph founder Tina Amper invited him to speak and serve as inspiration, along with other Filipino-Americans from Silicon Valley, at the 5th Geeks on a Beach (GOAB) international conference and startup competition in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan province.

The Filipino-American prefers being clad in coats, business-types clothes. But he is also comfortable with light wear, round neck T-shirts and “porontong” shorts if the occasion calls for it. He sports a long hair, shoulder length; he wears a John Lennon-type eye glasses, too.

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As a 17-year-old student of Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications (Major in Broadcasting) at the University of the Philippines in 1976, he joined and led protests against the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos — who imposed martial law in September 1972.

In one of the many dark nights of the tumultuous period, soldiers came for Benjamin. They came to arrest the young dissenter, typical of what transpired in the martial law years. For nine months he suffered in jail.

Technology Used by Successwful BusinessesWhat followed included solitary confinement, pistol-whipping, beating with hose. Perhaps, if not for his strong will, he could have died after going into a coma for two months (per Computerworld magazine article cited by SFGate.com).

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“My memories of that episode are blurry. Strangely, I did not have any flashbacks until two years ago when all the Guantanamo news was everywhere. Once, many years ago, I was spooked by a tour to Alcatraz. But all in all, I have kept an even head,” Benjamin said in the 1998 article.

He was apparently referencing the United States’ infamous Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba, where the American government detained what it described as “enemy combatants.”


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EDD K. Usman
EDD K. Usman: 1st winner of “Best Science Feature Story” of 2018 UP Science Journalism Award on February 17; winner in June 2014 for Print Media in Kabalikat Award Media Category of PCIEERD-DOST Science Journalism Award; alumnus of United States’ East-West Center 2008 Senior Journalists Seminar; participant of South Korea 2000 Executive Seminar for Information Technology Journalists; senior journalist at Manila Bulletin until April 15, 2016; stringer/contributor at present for Rappler, Newsbytes.ph, Claire Delfin Online Magazine, Malaya Business Insight, Agriculture Magazine (of Manila Bulletin), and U.S.-based Philippine News. Traveled on assignment abroad more than 30 times. Reports about SciTech, IT, ICT, Current Events, and many other subjects under Heaven.