“Communicating hope and trust in our time.”

- Pope Francis

Understanding corruption in the Philippines

(Photo courtesy of CBCPNews)

By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD

TO THE PERCEPTION of many, Aquino’s election slogan “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” so accurately described the state of the nation and its disastrous impact on the Filipinos that in no small amount it catapulted him to the presidency.  People had enough of the litany of alleged corruptions under the previous administration; and the immorality and the amount of money involved were mind-boggling: NBN-ZTE scandal, Hello Garci scandal, P738M fertilizer scam, P532M overprice of Macapagal Blvd, Nani Perez Power Plant deal, P1.3B poll automation contract, Northrail project, Garcia and other AFP Generals scandal, the results of the 2007 Mindanao elections, millions of bribe money to congressmen and governors in 2007,  Mindanao massacre, extra-judicial killings, violation of human rights, etc. And more recently, the NFA “legalized smuggling.”  These not only further plunged the poverty level of the country; they also robbed the body and soul of the nation.

Will Aquino eradicate corruption?

To abolish corruption and replace it with “matuwid na landas” and uplift the people from the misery of poverty—what could be much better objective for a leader to pursue than that?   If PNoy now sits on the presidency, it is not so much because of what his party has done, but because of the power of the people who have grown tired about the allegations of corruption and fraudulence in the government, and the impunity of their perpetrators.  But now that he is the President, they expect him, and rightly so, to walk the talk.  But even at this point in time, many seem to be disappointed with his one-year performance.  Only recently, the SWS survey conducted between March 4 and 7, 2011 showed that his net satisfaction rating slipped from his +46 in November 2010 to +46.  Could this be an indication that in the perception of those surveyed, Aquino has yet to show tangible results?  Sen. Francis Pangilinan, himself a ranking official of the Liberal Party, was quoted to have said that the Palace should match campaign promises with concrete accomplishments, particularly with regard to poverty and corruption.  But the point is: will he be able to deliver the goods?

This question can only be answered if we have to take a good look at the corruption in the Philippines.  There is no doubt that the country is among the most corrupt in Asia, and corruption does not spare the highest government posts, obviously to the defraudation of the poor and retardation of development.   According to Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PIRC) in 2011, the Philippines ranks third in Asia, after India and Indonesia.  For Transparency International (TI), the most corrupt countries are also the poorest.   Knowing the state of corruption of the country, it is quite natural for people to look for solutions.  Of course, popular wisdom says that to put an end to it, only untarnished candidates should be elected to lead the country, which is why people power preferred Aquino over others by a large margin.  For others, however, there should be a shift from Presidential to Parliamentary form of government.  Yet, our experience shows that from Quirino to Aquino, the corruption in the government went merrily on, despite the choice of not so corrupt—at least initially—candidates.   And as for change of government form, the Parliament (Batasan Pambansa) of Marcos has no records to show that it was less corrupt and more advantageous to the poor.  If anything, a parliamentary form in the Philippine experience is simply a different collar of the same rabid dog.

The real roots of corruption

Structural Root.  But why is the country so corrupt?  To really understand the anatomy of corruption, we have to analyze it against our socio-economic and politico-cultural structure and history.  As is typical of a largely agrarian society, ours is characterized by a majority who live in the countryside, living in real poverty, dependent on agricultural products, and a small percentage that live in luxury in the cities.  Estimates place the poor at 80%, the wealthy at 20%.  While the latter have power, privilege, and prestige, the former wallow in poverty, and find themselves taking up the burden of supporting the rich and the ruling class.  Many of those in the majority do not have the basic necessities of life and power to influence, and have scarcely received honor and privileges.  All they do is largely accept the word and explanation of the privileged minority on realities; hardly do they have any real participation on decisions that affect their own life as a class.  They are usually the victims in any attempt to question the system, and are practically left to themselves to survive.  Needless to state, such a social structure, which has persisted for centuries without any alteration, is a perfect environment for corruption to exist and prosper.

The Government: An Instrument of Self-Aggradizement.  But quite apart from its structure roots, corruption exists and goes on because those at the top and the ruling class have a certain frame of mind that seems not to change.  From all indications, they seem to have a mentality that the state apparatus provides not the highest opportunity for service to the majority, but the greatest and highest means to self-aggrandizement, and so the primary aim of the existence of the class is to capture the state.  This is logical enough.  Those who control the state practically control the means to economic advancement.  That is why the political history of the country can be summarized as a history of the struggle among the richest families for the domination of the state apparatus, and not necessarily for the service of the constituents.  And one has to note that the struggle itself involves much corruption.  Of course, if history has anything to tell us, it is that the privileged class has yet to show that its actions are intended for the common good.  On the contrary, the wealthy endeavor to preserve their privileges and therefore their control of the state.  For this reason, elections, while the poor do participate in them, are nothing more than political exercises on who among the privileged families will control the state.  Victory in an election brings unprecedented wealth to the victors.  Few politicians or their retainers hold or leave their office without increasing their wealth.  And the increase in wealth—one has to ask: is this not tainted with corruption?

One remembers that when Arnold Clavio and Winnie Monsod interviewed Mikey Arroyo, their report showed that Mikey’s wealth increased from P5 M in 2002 to over P 70 M in 2005, or about 65 million in only three years.  At present, it is said that his declared wealth has reached a whopping P100 M.  Of course, the public wondered how he was able to accumulate such humongous riches in so short a time.  In a study made by Ibon Facts and Figures,  records indicate that from 2000 to 2008, former Pres. Arroyo’s declared net worth increased by 114% (from P20 M to 180 M); in other words, based on a year-on-year average, she added some P 10.97 M to her net worth every year.  Although Malacañang attempted to explain her statement of assets and liabilities by citing conjugal income and dividends, these have been questioned because, according to Ibon, “data from other sources aside from her undetailed SALN have yielded financial transactions, sales and ownership, and even the possible illegality of financial transactions.”

Within this frame of understanding of power and privilege, it is not difficult to see how corruption gets in.  Political power is really convertible to economic power.  Power brings about wealth, and with it, also corruption.  In their book, State and Society in the Philippines, Patricio Abinales and Donna Amorsolo, for instance, observe that as far back as the 1920s, our leaders began to use the state as an instrument of primitive accumulation, and largesse came from two sources: the state itself, and the extension of spoil system.  “Through the spoil system, Filipino politicians distributed offices (and their corresponding budgetary allocations) to relatives and appointees.  Political appointment of kin, allies, and cronies became standard practice. .. In exchange, an appointee facilitated the business success of his patron and protected other members of his network within the bureaucracy.”  In the extension of the spoil system, the vehicles were state corporations.  Osmeña, for instance, used appointments to the PNB offices to repay political debts, and it was later revealed that his appointees “authorized extravagant loans to companies in which the were themselves investors…[or] to finance personal consumptions, instead of production and commerce.”

Government Coffers as Private Possessions.  Coupled with this outlook is the attitude toward government funds.  It seems that for many among the privileged class, the money of the state is their personal possessions.  Or, least the distinction between public and private money is blurred.   Of course, who among the less privileged would dare to question the legality of the appropriation of money for personal use?  Practically, the powerful have enough instrumentalities under their control to stop any attempt to inquire into it.  All the poor do is see no evil.   According to David Timberman, in his book, A Changeless Land, this is a long-standing element of the political culture in the Philippines, but “it became much more pronounced under Marcos, because of his predilection to control virtually every aspect of society.  Thus, the resources of both the government and private sectors were viewed by the Marcoses as being available for their use.  The budgets of government ministries were regularly tapped to finance Imelda’s extravagant trips and parties, and businesses were expected to make contributions and/or offer shares of ownership to family members.”

While these forms of corruption may have the veneer of legality, a legal source of corruption is the pork barrel.  (Notice that the government does not provide an equivalent for those in the peasant class.)  Every year, each congressman is entitled to P70 M and each senator to P200 M.  Although projects for which the pork barrel that is given have already a particular government department to take care of them, yet legislators insist in keeping it.  Now re-baptized as Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), the pork barrel is perceived to increase the wealth of its beneficiaries.  It is claimed that about half of the money appropriated for a government project is lost in the form of kickbacks to legislators, engineers, etc; only about half of the budget is actually used for the project designated.  But despite all recommendations to abolish the pork barrel, not a single administration has seriously considered it, simply because of the money involved and its use especially in keeping politicians in power.  The PDAF is thus enough proof that corruption will never disappear on the face of this country.

Weak Justice System?   What exacerbates corruption is the culture of impunity. Why are members of the ruling class able to get away with their misdeeds?  Why only the small fry goes to jail?  The reason is that not only many government agencies are under the control of the ruling class, but also because the corrupt functionaries are part of the structure that sustains the system and protect the ruling class from deprivation of their privileges.  To misquote a saying, “they may be sons of bitches, but they are the oligarchy’s sons of bitches!”  It is logical that in a corrupt society like the Philippines, the justice system could be weak, or never perceived to be in defense of the majority who are poor.  How would one prosecute the retainers if the trail would lead to the prosecution of a member of the ruling class?  Besides, if the leader is corrupt, how can he discipline his men about corruption?  No wonder, efforts to go after corrupt officials are perceived not get anywhere.  For instance, despite the fact that Benjamin Abalos and other Comelec officials were charged with graft and corruption for changing the Comelec bidding rules to favor Mega-Pacific, and despite the fact that in 2004 the Supreme Court declared the poll-automation contract between the Comelec and the Mega-Pacific null and void, the Office of the Ombudsman cleared those involved.

One is reminded of an account by David Wurfel in his book,Filipino Politics: Development and Decay.  In 1975, Marcos “pointed an accusing finger at those who had violated their ‘sacred trust’ and promptly announced the dismissal of over two thousand officials, including cabinet members, bureau chiefs, scores of judges and prosecutors, and many others.  The auditor general and the director of the Bureau of Internal Revenue were among them.  Most had no prior warning, and pandemonium broke loose in the bureaucracy.  When the dust cleared, however, it was discovered that many who were ‘dismissed’ had already retired or dead.  And many charges against the more influential were ‘discovered’ to have been ‘unfounded.’  Acute observers opined that those actually dismissed were those with poor connections.  The president’s promise of a purge of corrupt military officers was entirely forgotten.”    One gets the impression that all these government crusades against corruption are all for a show; nothing really substantial takes off.  After the show—that’s all, folks.

How to solve corruption

This brief anatomy of corruption is probably enough to show that corruption is not simply about using public money for private use; its causes go back to our history as a nation and to the very structure of our society itself.  Against this background, one doubts whether P-Noy’s crusade against corruption will succeed if he simply limits himself to removing officials perceived or proven to be involved in corruption or in protecting the corrupt.  Such action may be spectacular, and win for him an increase in ratings of credibility, but without doing something that really involves fundamental changes, nothing could come out of it, no matter how sincere he is.  His effort is doomed to fail.  Something more fundamental has to happen to the gross inequality in our society.  The majority of our people have to be involved in making changes so running the government could be more equitably participative.  But this presupposes that the government is able to enhance a fluid social mobility of the majority, and provide access to opportunities largely monopolized by the elite in order to bridge the wide social gulf.   One must point out that the elite have long been leading the country since the Spanish times, and the situation has never improved; on the contrary, corruption has gotten all the worse.  Truth is, corruption is not the disease of our society; it is simply a symptom.  And it is irresponsible to make population the scapegoat of the disease.*

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