Few probably noticed, and those who did probably didn’t care. September each year will henceforth be “Rule of Law Month,” by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 713. President Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo also issued Executive Order 361 last September 22 requiring the Department of Education to include the teaching of the rule of law in the curricula of public elementary and secondary schools all over the country.

Everyone knows, or should know what “the rule of law” means. Like the three square meals a day many Filipinos now don’t have, the rule of law is understood in this country of judges and lawyers primarily through its absence.

Like those meals–now reduced to two, one or even none among the legions of the very poor– the absence of the rule of law and the utter lawlessness of Philippine society are things Filipinos fully appreciate whenever they’re held up, or their homes broken into, or when they’re raped, kidnapped, beaten or murdered.

It’s certainly not there either when cell- phone snatchers who’re also killers are protected by the police, who make sure that the former stay out of jail no matter how many cases for theft, murder and mayhem have been filed against them.

But the rule of law is obviously nowhere in evidence either when the heads of government corporations transfer funds to favored banks, for example, or when police and military officials campaign for this or that candidate–or, since we’re on that subject, when a candidate makes free use of public funds to convince people to vote for her.

In the pantheon of lost Filipino causes “the rule of law” is right up there with “independence and sovereignty,” “progress and development,” “leadership by example,” and “new politics.” But like “the strong Republic,” “appointing the best and the brightest (not to mention the non-geriatric) to the Cabinet/other government positions,” “sacrificing for the common good,” and “political will,” it’s a phrase that falls from the mouths of government officials faster than you can say “intelligence funds,” “congressional insertions,” “Constitutional amendments,” or even ”

Presidential Proclamation 713 thus predictably intones that “The rule of law ensures the orderly enjoyment by all persons of their rights and freedoms and secures the attainment of national development, economic progress and political stability.”

On the other hand, Executive Order 361 noted that “integration of respect for the rule of law and the workings of the judiciary in the elementary and high school curriculum is an affective tool in nation-building,… reforms in the delivery of justice, and sustaining development efforts in the country.”

The Department of Education was thus instructed to collaborate with other institutions “such as the judiciary in the development of appropriate materials, training methodologies and evaluation measures to monitor the progress of educators and students in achieving the policy objectives specified.”

Obviously the future citizens of the country–those we insist in describing, following Rizal, as “the hopes of the Fatherland”—need to be educated in how the laws are enforced and those who violate them are punished via the judiciary. It is both a necessary part of their education as well as an imperative in the making of that elusive creature, the good citizen.

But one can’t help but suspect that Malacanang has set its sights on a secondary, probably tertiary, target–and has forgotten, or still has not realized, that the rule of law can be a reality if first, those charged with enforcing the law and punishing those in violation of it themselves observe it; second if most visible and most responsible government officials’ adhere to it in the conduct of their official duties; and third, if obeying the law and respecting it has become second nature to a law-abiding citizenry.

The first two “ifs” are the conditions for the third, and are the missing ingredients in every attempt to “discipline” people who ignore the most basic rules of citizenship. You can’t expect pedestrians to cross streets only on pedestrian lanes, motorists to dutifully stop when the traffic lights turns red, and mall-goers not to smoke when policemen beat some suspects half to death so they’ll admit to crimes they may not have committed, while the same policemen see to it that killers don’t spend an hour more than is convenient in jail because they’re part of the syndicates they themselves lead.

The Philippine police, with its corruption and unprofessional conduct, is at the very top of the list of causes for the breakdown of the rule of law in this country when it comes to enforcement. But while it would be tempting to say that DepEd’s time would be better spent at this point if it held seminars for the whole police establishment, the fact is that this is one institution that’s no longer teachable.

The reason why is obvious: even the best of teachers have limits, and the limit in this instance is the insurmountable fact that those who benefit from a state of affairs no matter how vile are the least likely to want to change it. Today that seems to apply both to the young as it does to their parents, thus the fear that even the hopes of the Fatherland are mostly beyond the reach of ethics and appeals to patriotism, their concerns being, like that of their parents’, focused on self-interest.

Whether those at the higher levels of Philippine officialdom are teachable is equally doubtful. These are among the most cynical politicians on the planet, and there is no limit to what they can do. They say one thing while intending to do the very opposite even at the very moment they say it. They pass laws full of beautiful phrases and supposedly noble intentions–laws they themselves either cripple from the very beginning with loopholes big enough for trucks to drive through, or exemptions that limit their application to the poorest and most powerless, and/or whose implementation they themselves sabotage.

Philippine politics has debased both political discourse as well as language. Marcos declared martial law “to save the Republic” and corrupted the country “to reform society.” Estrada declared “Walang kaibigan walang kamag-anak”–and then put his friends in government and made being an Estrada/Ejercito the ultimate advantage of all.

Arroyo, of course, vowed “new politics” while being the consummate practitioner of the old. She pretends total cluelessness as to who’s responsible for the fiscal crisis, despite her government’s having allowed the borrowing of huge amounts, a large percentage of which, she most certainly knew, was bound to end up in private bank accounts. With equal gall did she feign ignorance of the vast fortunes executives of government-owned and controlled corporations are making, despite her having approved them in exchange for political advantage, support and gain. And she issued a proclamation on the rule of law.

No, it will not do to merely include courses on the rule of law in the elementary and secondary level curricula. But neither will it do to have DepEd conduct seminars and conferences for policemen, or even for judges and lawyers, as well as the highest government officials from Malacanang down. What this country has to do is to reinvent the entire justice and political system, in the sense that that word is best understood in the context of the American, French, Russian and Chinese revolutions. It means dismantling everything, and then starting all over again. Otherwise, we have as much chances of seeing the rule of law in this country, and of progress finally reaching its shores, as Iraqis have of electing the leaders of their choice.


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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