If morality in politics and governance sounds like an oxymoron, it’s because of the way politics has been practiced in this country and how it’s been governed by what’s proving to be the most rapacious and most shameless political class in Asia.

Although she couldn’t stop many of those around her from grabbing what they could while the grabbing was good, Cory Aquino did demonstrate that it’s possible to be honest even while being President. But so rare is a President who didn’t enrich herself in power that her case has tended to prove that you can’t get corruption and dishonesty out of politics and governance. Just like her predecessors, her successors seemed the rule, validating through their example the common view that everyone cheats to win power, and steals once he or she has it.

The result is cynicism over politics and governance so widespread few Filipinos hardly blink even in the face of the most blatant cases of misconduct. Plunder, theft, fraud, extortion, bribery, even murder — too many Filipinos take these in stride, on the argument that everyone in power, whether in government or business, does the same things anyway.

The years 2004 to 2007 were especially alarming. They demonstrated how cynical much of the public had become. The media, civil society, various whistleblowers and the clumsiness of her own apologists had dredged up enough proof to fill a warehouse that Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had cheated in the 2004 elections. But most Filipinos greeted the information with a shrug, and the argument that everyone did, anyway.

The same apathy greeted the dozens of scandals the regime generated: in addition to election fraud, the human rights violations, the ZTE-NBN scandal, the P500,000 payoffs to congressmen in exchange for their support for charter change, the padding of the National Artists’ list with the names of Arroyo favorites, etc.etc. Its efforts to silence its critics and the media — in the short term through sedition charges, libel suits, arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings; and in the long term through the plot to change the Constitution — thrived, thanks to the same indifference.

Apathy has been the strongest ally of the most despised Philippine regime since that of Marcos, and has left Philippine democracy, such as it is, in tatters. Sovereignty supposedly resides in the people, but there they were, surrendering that sovereignty to clowns and thugs, wishing only to get on the next plane out so they could scrub toilets in Qatar and raise other people’s children in Taiwan and Singapore.

A democracy should hold accountable the officials to whom the people have delegated their power. But there those officials were, dismissing complaints about incomplete Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net worth (SALNs) with a wave of the hand, and vowing to henceforth be even more secretive the next time they travel abroad so they can escape accountability.

Mass apathy has naturally alarmed both those who see in it the seeds of the destruction of the very system that produced and benefits the likes of the Marcoses and Arroyo and company, as well as those who sincerely want the system to work as its stated aims declare.

Those aims are in the Constitution, the Preamble of which asks for the help of God in building “a just and humane society,” and in establishing “a Government that shall embody our ideals and aspirations, promote the common good, conserve and develop our patrimony, and secure to ourselves and our posterity, the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace…”

No one need belabor how far from achieving those aims the country is, over a hundred years since it declared its independence and 23 after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship. Obviously however, something is dreadfully wrong, and what that is, is this country’s so-called leadership.

Aptly enough, the chief guardian of the Constitution has several times called the country’s attention to what’s in turn wrong with what has passed for leadership in this country since 1946 — and most especially since 2001. During the launch of his Moral Force Movement (MFM), Chief Justice Reynato Puno declared immorality as that flaw, as he had in previous times.

No one could escape what and who he was alluding to, despite his refusal to name anyone. MFM, however, while not yet supporting anyone for the 2010 elections, is obviously focused on defeating the Arroyo clique.

How to do this? Puno asked MFM member-organizations and individuals to support and volunteer for such election watch groups as the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting PPCRV) and the National Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel). But Puno most of all declared that it was in the individual’s determination to be honest, and to support “transformational leaders” where the solution to the current epidemic of corruption and “immoral power” lies.

One can only hope he’s right. The obvious solution to a bad “leader” is a good one, but the obvious isn’t necessarily correct, at least not in politics and governance, and certainly not in the Philippines. Cory Aquino was, in her own words, “the opposite of Marcos”, but wasn’t quite successful in achieving the aims embedded in the very Constitution she had caused to be written. The reason has been obvious for decades. Even the most well-intentioned individuals are limited by their class interests and their backgrounds. A change in individuals isn’t enough. What’s needed is a change in the class that’s in power, the interests of which lie in making the changes that generations of politicians, academics and ordinary citizens have pined for even as the country retrogresses.

One nevertheless hopes that Puno and company will succeed, and that, as he said in his September 1 MFM speech, “we need only to listen to the whispers of our conscience” to bring about the changes the country needs. It did seem odd for Puno to declare that “the enemy to beat is nobody but ourselves.” The enemy is after all known and might need more than a clean conscience to beat. Beyond that there’s the next question of with whom the enemy should be replaced, and the hope that the replacement won’t be as bad, or — dare we wish it? — that it will be a hundred times better.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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