COMMENT: Can we ever learn? (1). By Patricio P. Diaz


Flashback

From President Manuel A. Roxas to President Diosdado P. Macapagal (1946-1965) were 20 years of political and economic struggles for leadership in Southeast Asia as an independent country. Unfortunately, Filipino leaders ignored the warning of Sen. Lorenzo Tañada of moral decadence alarmingly threatening Philippine society by 1949.

Ironically, the political and economic elite must have seen the decay except where it hurt the fledgling republic most – in themselves, they, in whose leadership the country would rise or fall.  In all the elections during the 20-year span, all presidents lost in their reelection bids with corruption as among the big issues, if not the main.

President Ferdinand E. Marcos expertly used corruption to win a second term in 1969.  His 20-year rule, 14 years under martial law, saw the worst moral, political and economic corruption in Philippine history. If in the 20 years before Marcos, the Philippines had made slow progress despite the corruption, in the 20 years of Marcos mired in corruption it retrogressed. For a bonus, Marcos sired the Moro and Communist rebellions.

In the twelve years of the Corazon C. Aquino-Fidel V. Ramos presidencies – January 25, 1986-June 30, 1998 — the country regained vigor while corruption, like cancer, was just in remission.  Even then, complete cure looked wistful. When Ramos stepped down, both the Moro and Communist rebels were negotiating with the government.

Then came the abbreviated [June 30, 1998-January 20, 2001] Joseph Estrada presidency and that of his immediate successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, to end on June 30, 2010. Corruption spread fast plunging the country into crisis after crisis. Despite Arroyo’s Glorific claim of a booming economy, the next president will most likely inherit the crisis. Peace negotiation with the Communists is in limbo; that with the Moros is in impasse.

What has been wrong? Multi-level corruption at the root of crisis after crisis and four decades of Moro and Communist unrest have dropped the Philippines to the tail-end of the Southeast Asian nations it was leading politically and economically until the early 1960s.  

The Matter

The matter boils down to one simple question: Can we ever learn?

Learn what? Learn to see and correct our mistakes; learn from the experience of other nations and their examples.

The Filipinos are as human as the other Asians, the Americans, the Europeans, the Australians and the Africans and are as prone to make mistakes as they.  But there’s a big difference between them and us — especially our leaders. In our pride, we either fail or refuse to see and emulate models and to take lessons from bad examples.

Like all free nations, we have democratic system and institutions to promote the common weal.  But instead of admitting their mistakes our leaders blame those very system and institutions for our national woes.  To rectify their mistakes, our erring leaders would rather change the system and institutions to suit their interests than change their ways.

That in a nutshell is the matter with us, Filipinos.

Corruption

Corruption is basically perversion of moral, political, social and economic values. What we see as corruption in terms of multi-billion peso government funds stolen, cheated or lost in many other devious ways, we condemn. But as long as the perversion remains, multi-level corruption will stay in us, with us and around us. The remedy starts in us, especially our leaders.

Let’s take a look outside our windows. The following cases should make us wince and think.

Eliot Laurence Spitzer, 48, elected by a landslide as governor of New York, resigned last March 17 less than 48 hours after The New York Times had reported his involvement as a client in a “high-end [for VIPs] prostitution ring” – the subject of a federal criminal investigation.

Part of his apology reads:

“From those to whom much is given, much is expected.  I have been given much: love of my family, the faith and trust of the people of New York and the chance to lead this state.  I am deeply sorry that I did not live up to what was expected of me.

“Over the course of my public life, I have insisted – I believe correctly – that people regardless of their position or power take responsibility for their conduct.  I can and will ask no less of myself.  For this reason, I am resigning from the office of governor.”

His remorse, apology and resignation speak much of Spitzer, the person and governor. His case shows how democratic institutions work for public good.  His involvement in prostitution was incidental to the initial investigation of a suspicious movement of his bank deposits – a case of probable money laundering.

Four institutions cooperated. The bank reported its suspicion to the Treasury Department which endorsed it to the Justice Department.  Federal prosecutors and the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted “intense, intrusive and aggressive” investigation with authority from the Federal Court – tapping his phone calls, tailing him, and examining his financial records.

Despite his resignation, Spitzer has no assurance he could avoid facing criminal charges.

Bertie Ahern [Patrick Bartholomew], 56, despite an 11-year brilliant performance at the helm, announced his decision to resign as prime minister of Ireland and head of his political party on May 6, 2008 because “a government tribunal continues to investigate whether he received improper cash payments from businessmen in the mid-1990s” (washingtonpost.com, April 3).

Ahern denied the allegation involving his bank deposits amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. But he did not like the “focus on his finances” to be “a drain on his administration” and he stressed that the government must “not be constantly deflected by the minutiae of my life, my lifestyle and my finances”.

While his position was speculated to be growing untenable, his resignation was a surprise. His lifestyle is well known in Dublin. “Bertie lives in an ordinary suburban house and goes to the local pub, and he was never seen as someone who was making much money in politics,” wrote Michael Gallagher, a political science professor at Trinity College Dublin.

What’s common in the two examples?  Suspicion of wrongdoing merits investigation in New York and in Ireland. The highest officials — heads of government — are not immune from investigation and government agencies concerned do their job without deference. Spitzer and Ahern are sensitive towards the highest interest of their office – not their own.

Diane M. Gordon, 58, a four-term state assemblywoman representing Brooklyn in East New York –winning 90 percent of the vote in the 2006 election — was convicted of bribery last Tuesday, April 8 (The New York Times, April 9). She will be sentenced next month. Besides losing her seat, she faces up to 10 years in prison.

Ironically, Gordon is paying dearly for bribery that had failed to bear fruit. She offered to help a developer acquire a parcel of city-owned land in her district if he would build her a house for free as part of the project – a gated community.  The house, according to the developer, would cost about $500,000.

But the plan was discovered.  The developer cooperated with the investigators and prosecutors in entrapping Gordon with hidden tapes and cameras.

Reports the Times: “The gated community … was never built, though Ms. Gordon did have a pair of doors worth $600 installed in her office [by the developer]. And the developer, Ranjan Batheja, never acquired the city-owned parcel.”

In Contrast

Gordon’s caper – amateurish though it looks – is not unlike the demand of members of a city council in a Southwestern Mindanao city for lots in exchange for their approval of subdivision plans.  The only difference: Here it’s not bribery. Or, if it is, city councillors enjoy immunity.  

The charges against Spitzer and Ahern pale in comparison with charges against Philippine top government officials.  But in the U.S. and in Ireland, the governments “aggressively investigate allegations of wrongdoing of public officials” – their heads not exempted.   

Our government is tolerant and permissive.  Our President has immunity deferentially extended to members of the First Family.  Under our patronage system, favored officials of the President, from the Palace down to the barangay, exude privilege as protected species.

We breed, not eradicate, corruption. (To Be Continued) ("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Titus Brandsma for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You may e-mail your comments to [email protected]).

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