The Cancer of Corruption

Speech before a public forum sponsored by the Concerned Citizens Movement, Manila Polo Club, Makati City

Let me begin with a short story.

A big acacia tree crashed on a segment of the fence surrounding Malacanang palace. Hence, it needed immediate repairs. Wanting to show “hands-on” leadership, the lady tenant came down to oversee the bidding among competing contractors.

Contractor Nr 1 is from Amsterdam – “Madam, I can fix it for P900,000.” 

Contractor Nr 2 is Chinese – “Ma’am, I can do it for P700,000.”

Contractor Nr 3 is no ordinary Filipino. He works in the Comelec. “I will repair the damaged fence for P2.7M.”

P2.7M! The lady tenant exclaimed. Why? she asked.

The Filipino Comelec official replies, P1M for you, P1M for me and I will hire the Chinese to do the job.

The following morning, people saw the Chinaman doing the repairs.

I can end my speech right here and you can understand why we are the most corrupt in Asia.

But let me pay for my dinner.

To all citizens who are deeply concerned, and deeply disturbed, as well as those whose concern has blossomed into a fierce commitment towards shared principles of good governance; Ladies and Gentlemen, Good Evening:

We meet in deeply troubled times. Not that this country has been really out of trouble in this horrible decade, but because the prices of basic commodities from food to fuel have skyrocketed beyond the means of our people, a scenario filled with gloom and doom.

The millennium supposedly ushered in the Asia-Pacific century. Yet our country is nowhere in the radar screens of the world economy, embellished and over-stated statistics notwithstanding.

In an era defined by global competitiveness, we are most uncompetitive. Our physical infrastructure is woefully inadequate. Our social infrastructure even more so. Our manufacturing sector has shrunk. Our agricultural sector has hardly grown, unable even to feed our increasingly growing population.

Direct foreign investments have looked at countries which used to be much poorer than ours, when it comes to locating in Asia. Worse, those which have previously located here in the fifties up to the eighties, are moving elsewhere. Countries like Thailand used to learn farming technologies from us; now we have to beg them to export us some rice. Even Vietnam which was ravaged by a terribly brutal war barely a generation ago, now gets more foreign tourists and visitors than our far more beautiful islands.

Our economy is kept on a lifeline coming from the dollars of our overseas workers, which in turn drives a consumer economy where what is consumed is mostly imported anyhow, and the value added is service. Filipinos are reduced to servicing the labor needs of the outside world, which in turn allows service industries to cater to the dependents of our OFW’s.

The majority of our people have remained helplessly poor.

But if the indicia of poverty is high, something else beats that. When it comes to the indicia of corruption, we are truly world-class.The latest survey of Transparency International ranks our country the 8th most corrupt country in the world. Political and Economic Risk Consultancy based in Hong Kong classifies us the most corrupt in Asia.

Yet fifty years back, we were the envy of many of the countries of the Asia-Pacific region.

What happened?

Academics and economists will debate endlessly about the wisdom or un-wisdom of the economic policies we pursued. When we were into protectionism, our so-called industrialists took advantage of the lack of competition to make oodles and oodles of money from the domestic market, and failed to keep in pace with the technologies of the outside world. And when we embraced the global economy, we were hardly prepared.

I am aware that this is not the forum for an assessment of where and when we went wrong with economic policy. But one thing is certain — regardless of economic directions, the single most negative impact on all our efforts at progress and development has been corruption. Corruption so massive in scale and so endemic in scope.

There is petty corruption committed every day, by lowly clerks and lowly examiners, by kotong cops and traffic aides. There is corruption in land transportation agencies, where driving licenses are given even to the blind, and corruption in sea travel, where coast guard functionaries allow over-loading of un-seaworthy vessels for a price. Our roads peel with the first heavy downpour; our schools turn roofless with the first typhoon. Police generals, along with mayors, governors and congressmen tolerate illegal gambling; some even operate it themselves. Fiscals are fixed by the rich to file cases against the poor, no matter if innocent. And judges deny justice for money, or pressure from the powerful, mostly both.

But corruption in the highest of power circles is worse. It affects, nay, shapes public policy and program implementation in the most egregious manner. It used to be that programs and projects were crafted with public need and public good in mind. And corruption was a by-product of the implementation of a project that was imbued with public good to begin with. Those were the long bygone times when a 10% commission, was deemed “acceptable” by contractors and suppliers, and delivered to the government officials with a “smile”. “Smiling money”, as Jun Lozada calls it.

These days, public need and public good are farthest from the minds of crooks in high places. Programs and projects are designed principally for personal profit, never mind if no real public good is served. The NBN-ZTE project is the most recent example.

A national broadband network that is not urgently needed, that is better left to the private sector, is designed to take advantage of the overflowing resources of a friendly nation. Instead of an investment by way of a build and operate arrangement, a supply contract is drawn with a foreign company, and the same is billed as an investment. But that was not bad enough. The more horrible story unraveled piece by piece, where equipment, service and training worth 130 million dollars balloons into a 329 million dollar purchase. This is not 10%. This is not even the 30 to 40% that has become “usual” in pork barrel funded projects. This is an overprice of 150%, to be paid for by present and even future generations of our people.

Unconscionable. Excessively greedy. But worse was when a witness whose conscience bothered him was clearly abducted upon arrival at the airport, and only the vigilance of an alert media and concerned citizens like you saved him from the designs of the minions of the guilty.

And yet, two years earlier, another crime in the highest of places was uncovered. It involved the corruption of a commissioner in charge of elections, and along with him, a cabal of other government officials, civilian as well as military. And the prize was much much more than hundreds of millions of dollars, or billions of pesos. The prize was the presidency itself which in a democracy is supposed to be decided by the sovereign people. No less than the presidency had become the object of transactions by persons willing to subvert that sovereign will. Corruption could not possibly be worse than this — where the corruptor is no less than the sitting president of the republic.

Yet when shit hit the fan, and guilt was too obvious for everyone to see, corruption once more proved to be the solution to her problem. She lied and got most everybody else to lie. And to ensure that congressmen sworn to protect democracy would willingly close their eyes to obvious truth, the executive simply bought consciences with more pork and greater perks.

A year after, another impeachment case was filed, and those who saw the futility of fighting for truth and giving justice to the sovereign people, succumbed to the same transactions of corruption.

Successful each year, they became more brazen. Fat envelopes were distributed right in Malacanang, all a matter of course, all without a shred of shame. When a priestly governor denounced it, ridiculous contortions were passed off as explanations, and soon, the matter just died down. Evil triumphed once more.

Yet the signs were all there to begin with.

All of us hoped that in the aftermath of the second ousting of a president by people power, the successor government would consecrate itself to good governance and minimum corruption. Yet barely a week after taking power, sovereign guarantee was extended to IMPSA, amid whispers of an offer of $14M. That was seven years and a half ago, and only recently did the Ombudsman file charges against a former justice secretary, the unexplained dollar trail of which I first exposed, and the Swiss federal officials confirmed. Don’t count on those charges prospering, for as long as this government remains in power. They have to protect those who know too much about the rest of the money trail.

Remember Pacifico Marcelo, whose telecommunications business this leadership wanted to take over barely a month after Edsa Dos? The guy had to flee for his life.

A 2.2 kilometer boulevard built by the previous government at a cost of 650 million pesos was taken over by the officials of this administration, finished by the new dispensation with landscaping touches, and suddenly, the cost ballooned to 1.1 billion pesos. Filipinos refer to it as the most expensive boulevard in the whole universe.

The leadership was so proud of this most expensive boulevard that she had it named after her father, a former president remembered kindly for the simple life.

There was the short-lived but long remembered saga of Jose Pidal, where a cacophony of bare-faced lies and an abduction of a material witness, was made to cover-up for money laundering and unexplained wealth so brazen.

And in another instance where programs are prostituted for perfidious money-making, the Department of Agriculture bought overpriced fake fertilizers ostensibly for food production, and distributed these even to congressmen in Metro Manila where no farms exist, for them to convert into cash to be used to buy the elections of 2004.

Another set of lies for explanations nobody in his right mind could buy. Just another scandal to wiggle itself from. When the Senate was closing in, the architect of the fertilizer scam, Joc-Joc Bolante, simply flew away.

These cases are never closed. They live in the public mind. But temporary “closure” buys time for the corrupt. Time to steal some more. Time to continue making a mockery of governance. Time to continue crafting public policy with the aim of making more and more money.

In the words of Dean Raul Pangalangan written recently in his Inquirer column, we ushered into power “a kleptocratic mafia whose greed is unprecedented in Philippine history”.

Indeed, name it and you see or smell the same “kleptocratic mafia” at play. In smuggling, wherever the waterfront is, whether Manila, Batangas, Subic, Cebu or Cagayan, via containers or breakbulk cargo. And even shipside in the case of oil. In gambling, legal or illegal. In land registration anomalies and in the registration of hot cars. In the importation of rice and sugar. In public works projects and in the misuse of close to 10 billion pesos annually of road user funds. In big-ticket transportation and telecommunications projects. In buying high-priced X-ray machines for containers, ostensibly to fight smuggling, even in ports where hardly any containers are shipped. And computers for public schools whose teachers are not even computer-literate. In the North Rail as well as the South Rail.

So pervasive is the corruption that its cancer has metastasized all over the body politic. Almost everybody and everything has become transactional —a legislator’s vote or his verbosity in defense of the mafia, even judicial decisions. And of course, that which is called the foundation of democratic rule — elections.

So where do we go from here? Can we ever put an end to corruption?

We are where we are now — mired in corruption, because in the past and up to the present, we as a people tolerated “small” graft, be it the “kotong” of cops or the “lagay” for clerks in regulatory and licensing agencies. We took jueteng as “normal” and accepted the corruption of our officials by jueteng lords as a “way of life”. We know that our congressmen and senators take kickbacks from the projects funded by their pork barrel, but we nevertheless thank them for the overpriced or under-specified project. And elect them back to office.

We see the crooks at Holy Mass, the first even to receive the sacraments, and we forget their mortal sins of corruption and avarice. We see them at parties, and we oblige them with greetings. Some would call that social form. Just like our so-called democracy— all form and little substance.

For crooks, crime pays in our corrupted body politic, because no one is severely punished. In time, even the shame disappears. As it has. The culture of impunity has firmly taken root.

We need to install leaders who, trite though it may sound, will lead by the power of good example.

We need a benevolent, strong leader who can make government feel afraid of its people and make people unafraid of their government,

Sure we can re-design our procurement systems, tighten our audit of government contracts, go into electronic bidding, even increase the penalties for graft. But all these require zealous implementation, without any let-up and without any exceptions to the rule. But a leader cannot compel obedience if those who should follow, are aware that the leader himself or herself participates in corruption.

We need a leader who is ready and willing to “break glass” in fighting all forms of corruption, not someone who would rather sweet-talk, or pass by through propaganda spins.

Never again should we allow the least of us to lead us. The “least” is here defined not in terms of a lack of academic preparation or intellectual gifts, rather, the “least” are those who have had a history of corruption, or who have gone up the political ladder by cutting deals and compromises with the corrupt.

Never must we subscribe to the false reasoning that says a public servant on his way up the political ladder has to accept certain givens of the political game, and compromise with what is morally wrong. One who has compromised with small graft in his or her salad days will partake of bigger and bigger graft as he or she occupies higher and higher office.

For moderate greed eventually becomes immoderate and excessive.

As a nation, we have suffered enough from years of unabated corruption. Our schools are sub-standard; proper health care is unaffordable to the middle-class and inaccessible to the poor; our peace-keeping forces are ill-equipped and under-manned. Our food supply is short, and the patience of our people is wearing extremely thin. Corruption has robbed us of the most fundamental of services that are the responsibility of a government our taxes support. We are into exceedingly difficult times.

If we seriously meditate on why our quality of life has so deteriorated through the years, we will agree that the biggest culprit is corruption. We have to excise the malignancy, and thereafter, begin to build a kinder society and a more responsive polity.

We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to future generations.

There are problems of policy that we may debate and discuss. There is a sense of nationhood that we must begin to inculcate. There is a business environment whose playing field we must always level. There is social unrest that we must quell through the provision of fundamental services that will ensure equal opportunity. But first and foremost, there is a rot in the body politic that we must excise. There is a cancer of corruption that we must extinguish.

At the end of the day, for all of us, there is a responsibility to the next generation and to the future Philippines, to redeem our nation from the curse of corruption. As Pilosopong Tasio said, “No todos dormian en la noche de nuestros abuelos” Not everyone slept in the long night of our forefathers.”

The debate on public policy and economic directions are replete with pros and cons, conflicting sides each with subsequent merit. But there is only one side to corruption. No matter what, it is evil. And there can be, there should be, no compromise with evil.

It wasn’t like this before. Those of you who like me are over fifty still remember when times were kinder. When the middle-class and the poor could hope. And when hard work could yet turn those hopes into reality.

Let me end with another story:

Many, many years ago, there was a poor couple with eight children. / Despite their poverty, or perhaps because of it, they dreamt of sending all of eight children to school and earn their college degrees.

Raising eight children and seeing them through school was back-breaking for that poor couple. But through honest toil and plenty of prayers, the couple managed to get all their eight children through public school, and thence, through college.

“May awa ang Diyos, makakaraos din tayo mga anak. Sukdulang hindi kami kumaing mag-asawa ng tatlong beses isang araw, makatapos lamang kayo sa inyong pag-aaral ” – iyan ang madalas sabihin ng mag-asawa.

They were a deeply religious couple. Never a Sunday passed that they did not attend Mass in the town’s parish church. And they instilled the same moral values they practiced / among their brood of eight.

The fourth child became a soldier, law-enforcer and eventually a public servant./ He may not be the ideal public servant in the minds of his critics and doubting Thomases, but he does his best to live by the virtues that his poor parents had imbued in his young mind and the rest of his siblings.

How many such poor couples, in this day and age, can yet succeed to give their kids, even a smaller brood of two or three, the same blessings received by the eight children from the hard and honest toil of their poor parents in my story?

If we all leave this hall tonight determined — that together we can yet bring back those kinder times when everyone could hope, under a government that provided enough reason to hope, enough reason to be believed, then the concerns that brought us together here tonight shall have become a mighty, committed force.

By the way, the poor couple in my short story are my parents. I am their fourth child.

Thank you and good evening.

*****

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