Where Honor Has Become Alien

Speech before the Rotary Club of Quezon City, Club Filipino, San Juan City

I speak to you tonight in what can best be described as living in the worst of times, which collectively we can make the best of times.

We are incessantly told, through media and public pronouncements, that the economy is on a roll. The proof, we are told, is that the peso is at a seven-year high compared to the weakening American dollar.

The proof, we are told, is that the stock market is booming, where even worthless paper sells for ten times its book value. 

But why do we not hear applause from the man on the street?

Why is the small and medium-term businessman caught in a bind, between ever-increasing costs and dwindling sales? Go to every mall, go to Divisoria or any palengke for that matter, and look around. Every shopkeeper will tell you “saksakan ng tumal ang benta.”

Go to the houses of ordinary people, and look at the food on their table. Many have stopped cooking fresh meals in their houses, because the cost of fuel and power has gone way too high that it has become cheaper to buy cooked viands from the neighborhood carinderia. That should mean the underground economy is at least thriving, but go ask the carinderia owner, and she will tell you that their suki have stopped buying several viands, and buy only one, either fried fish or gulay.

Go to the houses of the urban poor slumped in small hovels where the rats have started to gnaw, not at their measly possessions, but at their infants, and see that they have been subsisting on rice and instant noodles almost every day of their miserable lives.

A group of foreign observers from the European Union were in tears two days ago when they visited our poor brethren who live by the banks of the esteros and even underneath the bridges of “prosperous” Metro Manila.

And probably the most tragic of all, 12-year-old Marianeth Amper of Davao hanged herself and left a diary detailing her frustration and depression brought about by extreme poverty that besets her family.

Even our OFW’s, regaled as our “bagong bayani”, complain that they have lost more than 20% of their purchasing power compared to a scant year ago. Victims of “progress” they have become.

A domestic helper from Hongkong or Singapore could send about 200 dollars each month to her family. That meant eleven thousand pesos last year for a brood of six, maybe more. That was higher than the take-home pay of a lowly clerk in Metro Manila, which would be about 7,000 pesos monthly. But now, with a strong peso the barometer of economic progress per the president of the land, that 200 dollars means only 6,800 pesos. Yet for both the family of the bagong bayani and the family of the lowly clerk who is lucky to even have a job, clearly that income is not enough.

And so while the children of the domestic helper or OFW could afford to go to the malls, eat at a fast-food outlet, or see a movie last year, now even they have had to forego these minor “luxuries”. More so those who subsist on their low incomes here at home. That is why shopkeepers who belong to the upper middle-class are unhappy. “Matumal” is all they can mumble.

But business costs are ever-rising. For two years now, rentals have been affected by the increased VAT, as everything else has been so affected. Fuel and utility costs are up, and despite the strong peso, imported merchandise and imported raw materials have not gone down. Why? Because the importers from whom they buy are cartelized, and worse, because the Customs people ask more and more bribes to clear their shipments. Why? Because the Customs people also have to give more and more to the politicians and powerful men above them, to keep being on their jobs.

The pan de sal, the Filipino family’s comfort breakfast — comfort only because it is all the poor could afford — has gone up from 2 pesos apiece to 2.50. And that’s because imported wheat is at an all-time high, and domestic sugar as well as oil have also gone up, not to mention LPG and diesel. But incomes remain at a standstill, and the employer of 85% of all Filipinos, the small entrepreneur, is unable to increase salaries to pump up consumer purchasing power, precisely because he himself is desperately making both ends meet.

To be sure, all these are not the fault of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. It is not because of her that oil has shot up to almost a hundred dollars per barrel. But it is certainly because of her lack of vision and her own sense of mis-priorities that we have to import rice and sugar and even fish, while she borrows heavily for a national broadband and cyber-education where we have an awful lack of classrooms and textbooks, let alone half-literate teachers.

It certainly is because of her government’s unbridled corruption that there are not enough funds for public health. Because she has borrowed the most of all our presidents, and she has to yet pay for the collective debt of previous presidents, a big chunk of our budget goes to debt service, P295-plus billion a year. Pray wonder, how much of those debts, hers and theirs, went to line the pockets of the corrupt in government, for which we and our future generations have to pay?

We were all shocked by the revelations of Joey de Venecia III in the broadband deal because we could not fathom how greed has outstripped all sense of proportion. We have heard how 10% or even 15% was “normal” in the days of Marcos and Cory. Or how FVR bought all those high-priced power plants which at least saved us from interminable brown-outs. Or how Erap supposedly made Chavit Singson his over-all collector of jueteng.

But we could hardly imagine how 132 million dollars in equipment and installation costs could balloon to 330 million dollars, or 15 billion pesos. Not just 15% commission or kickback, but 151 percent, or 8.7 billion pesos for a Comelec chairman, a big man and a little woman, and “for the boys.” Those are public funds, because taxpayers would have to pay, via the national budget.

One of them would have received 3 billion pesos all to himself, had the deal pushed through. But how much he had already received in advanced kickbacks we do not know. Neither do we know how another deal in another time can be made to pay ZTE or its subsidiaries, now that their broadband project has been cancelled. Thanks to the Senate of the Republic of the Philippines.

We were all shocked even more when we saw on live television how our congressmen and our governors left Malacañang last October 11 with paper bags full of cash. Half a million pesos apiece, said Among Ed Panlilio, the governor of the president’s home province, seconded by Governor Jonjon Mendoza of Bulacan, and confirmed by Manila Congressman Bienvenido Abante.

We were given sickening lies to cover up for what our two eyes could see. From pointing to unknown sub-alterns in clear obfuscation, to saying the money came from a penniless local government association in clear prevarication. And the latest — one month after the fact — that it came from the President’s own political party Kampi, disbursed by Rep. Amelita Villarosa, whose husband, Jose Villarosa, is a convicted murderer doing time in Muntinglupa and seeking executive clemency.

Lubha naman tayong niloloko. At ginagago pa!

This lying, cheating and over-stealing administration keeps telling the nation to “move on,” and points to their chimera of supposed economic progress as reason to turn blind, deaf and dumb to corruption most gross and immorality most patent.

Ang katanungan ko sa inyo fellow Rotarians, dapat ba tayong manahimik? Is there any trade-off for ignoring the corruption other than more daily misery, and worse, a slaying, sinking sense of helplessness and hopelessness?

And even if there was any kind of trade-off, such as living in fear of the unknown, can we continue living a lie? Can we grow our children and their children in an environment where honor has become alien? Where perfidy is considered normal, where larceny of public funds is par for the course?

Bishop Teodoro Bacani wrote in his weekly column in a broadsheet the other day about “people of the lie”, referring to the officials of the Arroyo government. Yet if we keep silent, if we tolerate all these, do we not ourselves become “people of the lie”?

These are the worst of times. No president in all of our history has been ever so worse as that which we now endure.

But if we resolve to change all these, if we re-discover the moral values and the shared principles that make us a Christian nation, and insist that all of us follow the same — ruler or the ruled, powerful and the weak— every Filipino, then we shall begin to find the solution to the worst of times.

Each and every Filipino must demand of the leaders they elect the kind of character that would brook no compromise with evil self-interest, who would do what is right, and right what is wrong.

This is what our living faith teaches us. This is what our founding fathers taught us.

Only then can the worst of times become an opportunity to start building the best of times — a nation worthy of our fathers, a nation we could proudly bequeath to our children, our saling-lahi. A nation built on the enduring values of honor and integrity, nationalism and democratic equity.

Thank you and magandang gabi sa inyong lahat.