Getting Real On Corruption

It would be farcical were it not pathetic.

A businessman, allegedly  one of the biggest smugglers in the country, just went public with his company. The multi-billion peso IPO was approved by the SEC and the Philippine Stock Exchange, the public and private entities tasked to protect the investing public.

The SEC, incidentally, is an arm of the Dept. of Finance, the same DOF that is supposed to catch smugglers. If the reports are true one body of Government has endorsed a man who possibly should be incarcerated by another. Perhaps it helps the businessman has a dear female friend in the Palace.

The IPO was underwritten by two foreign investment banks so the folly is not restricted to locals. With this level of due diligence we understand why the international banking system is in crisis. (One of these institutions was just the subject of a $2.3 billion trading fraud).

The businessman is laughing all the way to the bank. He now realizes the capital market is a more stress-free and profitable way to make a living than wheeling and dealing in the ports.

I mention all this a propos the much-proclaimed movement to erase corruption in our country. The Government and the private sector signed an Integrity Pledge. Aquino also spoke at an international summit on Open Government Partnership.

The President heralded: “My Administration is after openness that informs our people of the workings of government and breeds an informed citizenry that vigorously participates in and elevates public discourse”. Somewhat awkwardly put but you get the drift.

Except, once home, Aquino refused to endorse the Freedom of Information Act because too much transparency can be a “bane”.

As for “elevating public discourse” I am unaware of any conversation (defined as a two-way dialogue) between this Government and the people. I also wonder how it relates to disdaining unsolicited advice, dismissing bearers of bad news and dissing those who protest too much.

But since the Government is open to talk let me get some things off my chest:

– How is a tax-paying business to compete against smugglers?

-How is a daily wage earner supposed to beat a 100-person queue for an NBI clearance and still get back to work?

-How do you fight an unfavorable court ruling bought by your adversary?

-How do you release your child wrongly prosecuted of a crime?

-How does one stop being hostage to BIR, Customs and overweight law enforcers?

The path to perdition is paved with good intentions. Integrity is virtuous but there are conditions precedent, like ensuring the NBI has enough clerks to process clearances, judges are fair, state functionaries honest, and criminals are jailed. Decent citizens do not enjoy paying bribes but sometimes there are no options.

If the Administration is serious about a national polemic in general and corruption in particular, it should institutionalize the process. For example, it might establish a Dept. of Complaints with appropriate standing and a website (commercially sponsored?) to which the public can voice its issues and, more important, have them transparently dealt with. There should also be regular town hall meetings between the President and NGOs.

Fighting corruption is all good. However let us be mindful of the dangers of righteous indignation (of which this blog can at times suffer in surfeit). I refer in particular to the “holier than thou” syndrome to which people in glass houses should not succumb.

In Washington, President Aquino told media the Supreme Court was now less hostile to the Executive Branch: “ I think there has been a change in attitude as far as the Supreme Court is concerned. They are now more like partners than they were before.”

One might attribute this statement to jet lag but it was inappropriate at various levels. One, it assumes the SC at some point was ill intentioned. Two, it forgets the SC is a co-equal branch of Government with a constitutional mandate to protect. Three, it was condescending, it presumes Malacanang is always right.

Self-righteousness, a variant of hubris, is exclusionary and therefore not a quality in leaders. It unnecessarily complicates nation building. Presidents should add, not subtract. The accolades he has deservedly received for integrity should not entice Aquino to believing he has a monopoly on probity and truth -especially since his own team is hardly without sin. Humility is a better place to be.

In the meantime, returning to the IPO, I am afraid we just got mud on our squeaky clean face. So much for fighting corruption.

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About Leo Alejandrino

The blog is principally a commentary on Philippine politics and economics.
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