THE WORM’S EYEVIEW: Elites should lead the charge against corruption

Corruption remains the scourge of our society. It is largely caused by mass poverty and impunity. Battling them should be at the top of the agenda of civil society and the professionals in every community—where the cycle of corruption begins.

To break the cycle, one must intervene at its point of origin, which is in the nation’s underbelly, the barangay. Of special concern should be the neighborhoods where the most vulnerable sectors are victimized by corrupt political values and practices.

Corrupt politics does the most damage in localities where people eke out a living under subhuman conditions, bedeviling society with social problems. It is there, in the slums, that wrong perceptions pollute the political system—for example, that patronage and vote buying are a normal part of politics, therefore acceptable. This prevailing attitude indicates how debased our politics has become. The abnormal—an aberration—is viewed as normal; morality is turned on its head.

Is it possible the trapos do not know or care that their politics and style of governance is corrupting the grassroots and transforming them into an immoral citizenry? But instead of taking them to task for trashing the system and community values, the “decent” residents, the local elites—the so-called leading citizens–fraternize with the trapos, lionize them, or indulge their egos and misplaced vanities.

From the lairs of the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan and Sulu, to the insurgency-plagued localities of Mindanao, Visayas and Luzon, to the squatter-filled cities everywhere, wrongful political values make short-shrift of decency, morality and democracy. Organized bands imposing permit-to-campaign fees trash the political system. Politicians paying them to gain advantage over rivals betray the democracy they purport to champion. Political entrepreneurs who bankroll campaigns for a share of contracts or buy influence distort and sabotage the economy.

Ignorant voters and voting blocs that sell their votes wholesale bastardize elections. And the apathy of citizens who ought to know better, who belittle their role and power to influence the system, who play along so they can get a share of the loot, erode our nation’s confidence and political will.

No less than the nation’s integrity is at stake here. Unless grassroots democracy is cleansed and rid of these aberrations, we cannot hope to develop self-respect as a people, much less attain respectability in the eyes of others.

That Philippine Democracy is a put on is a perception that gives foreigners a reason to be patronizing or condescending towards Filipinos. It is bad enough that the term “Filipino” has entered the lexicon as meaning “domestic servant”—with negative connotations. That we are viewed as a nation of sheep ruled by wolves pretending to be statesmen debases the memory of Rizal, Bonifacio, and the rest in our pantheon of heroes.

More than three decades have passed since we dismantled the Marcos dictatorship at Edsa I, but the “Damaged Culture” view of American news correspondent James Fallows (in explaining our economy’s inability to take off like our neighbors) still stands. We must do something about such perceptions by breaking the cycle of corruption that gives rise to them. And we must do this community by community, barangay by barangay, until a new ethos at the grassroots transforms our political culture.

Those who truly care about the fate of our society should learn to pay attention to his barangay and be involved in its governance. The reform effort needs affirmative action in the community, especially by those who are not perceived as activists but who command respect by virtue of their station or calling.

The initiative need not be spectacular or entail extraordinary means. Sometimes just by being visible or present in barangay affairs helps. Simply by being perceived as a citizen who shows concern about its welfare or problems makes local society sit up and take notice. It alerts neighbors that something important is taking place, or that something momentous could happen.

The visibility of the middle and upper classes is very important. They are looked up to as the movers and shakers of society, its pace-setters. They can do a lot in the task of establishing local standards of service and in eradicating corruption, subtly and gently maybe, but persistently.

Moreover, it is important for decent people (unhappy about the extent of corruption in our society) to know they are not alone. There are many out there who feel the same or worse, and wish they could do something, to apply the brakes, or even just to sound the warning bell. But they may not know how to go about it. Others who do may be too timid, too discouraged or too intimidated as to even try. Perhaps they are paralyzed by the enormity of the task. But they may act if shown the way by a credible leadership.

To participate in the processes of governance in one’s barangay is one way to provide leadership—leadership by example. It doesn’t even have to be the up-front, take-charge kind of leadership. Just quiet, low key, affirmative presence. The unaccustomed presence of one who is not ordinarily in on community’s affairs gives a clear signal that this is serious business, not business as usual, that it is time for change, time for crossing over from indifference to affirmative action. It will encourage others not used to seeing principles or convictions acted out to stand up and be counted. It might even embolden them to be assertive and insist on good governance.

Or perhaps it will drive them to challenge the status quo, to stake their claim to decency and good government…. Perhaps, because no one can guarantee they will. But the first step needed to break the cycle would have been made.

And that is how reforms begin.  (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Manny is former UNESCO regional director for Asia-Pacific; secretary-general, Southeast Asia Publishers Association; director, development academy of Philippines; and  vice chair, Local Government Academy. He is chairman/national convenor, Gising Barangay Movement Inc.