Filipinos have lived for so long with corruption that many think it impossible to eradicate. But the majority of Filipinos (60 percent), say the surveys, believe that a corruption-free government is possible.

Although not only governments can be guilty of it, corruption is usually associated with the government in the public mind, and it’s understandable why. Most Filipinos who have had to deal with government have not only seen and experienced corruption firsthand. Millions have also been victimized by government corruption in one way or another.

Corruption isn’t limited to the usual fifty- or hundred-peso bill folded into the license a motor vehicle driver hands to an apprehending policeman. It can also take the form of a kickback-built road that washes out with the first rain, or a building that collapses at the slightest tremor because government inspectors were bribed to look the other way when it was built with substandard materials.

Large chunks of taxpayer money are also almost routinely diverted into the bank accounts of officials who officially earn a few thousand pesos a month but who live in huge mansions and drive around in fancy cars. In one celebrated case, BIR collectors themselves did exactly that—appropriating for themselves the money they had collected instead of turning them over to the government.

The social consequences are obvious: the schools a barangay needs are not built, the medical services the poor rely on not provided. Not only do people die as a result of corruption; the future of the country is also compromised in terms of schoolchildren who can’t go to school—or end up mis-educated by bad textbooks whose authors bribed Department of Education officials so their books can be used in the schools. (In one instance, an English grammar book was teaching children bad grammar. One of its examples went: “See the butterfly fly. It fly so high.” And then there was that history textbook which said Filipinos were descended from Noah—and another one that said dictatorship was best.)

In the past decade or so, international organizations have been increasingly focused on corruption in poor countries. Their primary concern is not so much the impact of corruption on the lives of the people, but how corruption discourages both foreign and domestic investment.

Among these organizations is the World Bank, and Transparency International. These organizations have arrived at a conclusion every Filipino knows: that corruption is pervasive in the Philippines, and that it involves not only the government but business and the media as well.

The government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, itself accused of various forms of corruption including the use of public funds in its campaign in the last elections, knows the problem only too well, and not only because of its adeptness in the practice.

Various entities including the government’s own Civil Service Commission and the University of the Philippines National College of Public Administration and Governance, as well as media organizations like the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism have documented corruption in government.

A veritable library of corruption studies and documentation in fact exists—all proving that corruption has not only grown over time. It has also metastasized throughout Philippine society, invading all its institutions including Church and family.

Combating corruption is thus among the inevitable planks of Mrs. Arroyo’s six-year program. The most recent communiqué from that hazy front is that Mrs. Arroyo has herself assumed leadership over the Presidential Commission on Values Formation. As the name implies, this Commission will encourage and enhance the value of “moral governance” in the bureaucracy.

As is now usual in this country, once “values” and “morality” are mentioned, it’s religious leaders who come to government’s mind. The Commission will thus include, if they agree, Eduardo (“Brother Eddie”) Villanueva of the Jesus is Lord Movement, Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales, Executive Minister Erano Manalo of the Iglesia ni Cristo, Mike Velarde of El Shaddai, and others.

Malacanang says the Arroyo government’s anti-corruption campaign will also include efforts to improve law enforcement. So far, however, aside from the Commission, only the adoption of a yet to be defined “anti-corruption system” has been mentioned in implementing the Arroyo promise to address corruption.

Is this a case of its not exactly knowing how to go about combating corruption? It would seem that any analysis of the Philippine situation would suggest where anti-corruption efforts should be directed first, and how.

There is no absence of laws and regulations meant to assure honest governance in the Philippines. There are rules on bids and contracts, rules on the purchase of equipment and materials. Laws and regulations are in place which punish those who misuse government funds. The fiscal operations of every government agency are governed by auditing procedures. And yet corruption persists, and every year worsens.

Given the existence of the laws and regulations meant to prevent the misuse of public funds among other forms of corruption, but the growth of corruption anyway, the key to curbing corruption, it has been said often enough, is law enforcement. Effective law enforcement, however, is premised on—here comes one of those oft-repeated phrases again—the political will of the highest levels of leadership.

In the Philippine case—and, one suspects, in those of other countries equally mired in corruption—to expect the highest levels of leadership to muster that political will is to be woefully naïve.

Is the Presidential Commission on Values Formation, for example, a sincere effort to address corruption, or just another show-boating attempt to give the impression that something’s being done?

In the first place, is the corruption problem in the Philippines due to the absence of values? Or is it a case of those values being known but ignored in practice while officials pay lip service to them? Certainly such values as transparency and honesty, among others, have been worked to death in hundreds of speeches including Mrs. Arroyo’s. They are also enshrined on numerous government agency walls—right there with the Santo Nino statue which proclaims to all the bureaucracy’s adherence to the Christian values, among them that of service to others.

The skepticism with which the Commission is likely to be greeted must be seen in another context. Those themselves accused of corruption do not make for credible leaders in combating it. The dragon can’t slay the dragon. Mrs. Arroyo could do the Commission a lot of good by designating someone else to head it—preferably someone not as similarly tainted by accusations of corruption as she is.

What’s even better, she can abolish the Commission, and instead create another body with the mandate to, first of all, propose reforms in the very electoral system that for the corruption that attends it, leads to the “election” of leaders unlikely to be serious about addressing corruption quite simply because they owe their positions to it.

As Mrs. Arroyo and her political cohorts should know, every Philippine election is won or lost on money, of which Mrs. Arroyo needed vast amounts—estimated from a low P3 billion to a high of P15 billion—to remain in power.

The use of such vast amounts—to buy allies, ads and the electorate and to create the networks to both guard and add to one’s votes—not only limits running for major electoral positions to the very rich and very corrupt. It also poisons the conduct of elections.

As we saw in the last campaign, it depletes the treasury as well, and worse, creates political debts of gratitude that must somehow be paid. Leaders elected through corruption are thus unlikely to seriously address corruption, first because it is against their interests to do so (we can assume that Mrs. Arroyo has heard the siren call of parliamentary elections in 2010 once the Constitution is amended); and second, because by doing so they would undermine the very bases of their political support.

The corruption of the electoral process, particularly the vast amounts of money expended by candidates, is thus at the very core of the corruption issue in the Philippines.

Campaign finance reform is the first and most immediate concern that must be addressed in any attempt to combat government corruption. But only a body immune from the political debts and self-interest electoral corruption creates and protects can achieve that task. Thus the emphasis, in those countries that have had some success in combating corruption, on the creation of independent bodies beholden to no political interest. Creating such a body and arming it with both power and independence would be the ultimate and clearest proof of political will. But there is so far no evidence that the Arroyo government has that kind of determination.


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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  1. The truest sign that the effort is serious will be a proliferation of comment for and against it, as entrenched interests take sides.
    Your suggestion of a start-again approach is the best; perhaps it should be launched as another beauty pagent, to get maximum coverage. If the goal is integrity of the initial panel – from which all subsequent integrity might descend – it will need “unpopular” members, who may not be well known because they focused on the patch in which they could show integrity matters. The need to have some political sophistication on the panel complicates matters enormously.
    Maybe the El Shaddai are correct…


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