CORRUPTION: A DABAWEÑO`S TAKE

Corruption is a big word. And Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ fightingest mayor-turned-president, has made eradicating it—along with the country’s pervasive drug trade— his personal mission. With this as context, Resurgent Editor-in-Chief Nikki Rivera Gomez rummages through his graft stories across three presidential administrations. He is a resident of Davao City from where the President proudly hails, a fact that lends more relevance to his pieces of rumination. Many of these first appeared as editorials in the Davao-based Mindanao Daily Mirror which he co-edits part-time. The others have been featured in his books, “Coffee and Dreams on a Late Afternoon: Tales of Despair and Deliverance in Mindanao,” and “Mindanao on My Mind and Other Musings,” both published by the University of the Philippines Press.

 

Wise.... 

Only recently, Mayor Duterte said that he preferred the city's abattoir and transport terminal to be privatized. In what could be his boldest opinion yet about public governance, the mayor said that government has "a poor track record" in running private enterprise. The city's own experience has proven that "the cost of running and maintaining (the abattoir and terminal) far outweighs (their) income." On the other hand, privatization "entails less cost for the government and enables us to focus on much-needed basic social services for the public," he pointed out. 

We think Hizzoner hit the nail right on the head. Government has a bad habit of jumping into profit-making activities, but its performance has been dismal. Our abattoir and bus terminal, among others, are proof positive of our government's inability to turn enterprises into profitable ones. At the very least, these businesses should have been turned into showcases of comfort and convenience for the public. But such amenities seem elusive whenever government steps into the picture. 

What government should focus on is the provision of a favorable policy environment for private enterprise to thrive. Basketball courts and bougainvilleas along the highways may be nice and dandy for the voting public. But if their mandates are worth anything, public officials should work instead to improve road systems, telecommunications facilities, and power supply in order to attract investments. They should cut down corruption, simplify the rules for investors to do business in the city, formulate more incentives, and squarely address peace and order concerns. 

… or otherwise

But if government gets out of business and hands over the reins of enterprise to the private sector, it would do well to screen the players first before stamping the city's official seal on the contracts. For if government has had a long history of corrupt practices, the private sector has not been squeaky clean either. It does take two to tango, and it is no longer absurd to hear of government accommodating someone on the basis, not of performance, but of friendship. 

The private sector does run things better. And by all means, it should fully operate businesses, especially those that impact on public welfare. But with our history of erring contractors and fat payolas, some conscientiousness is in order. There are far too many scalawags in corporate corridors as there are in public offices. And the key is to sift the grain from the proverbial chaff, and pick out only the best performers. Only then will Duterte's policy pronouncement go beyond lip service.  (June 30, 2003)

 

Criminal negligence 

Ten years after then President Ramos elated Dabawenyos with the announcement that an international airport terminal would rise here, such a vision has remained just that—a vision. As early as FVR's tenure, preparatory works were already mired in delays. Authorities said right-of-way problems riddled the perimeter, and the public thought, Oh, OK, maybe in a few months they'll find a way to cut through the mess. 

Well, one year tumbled into the next, and before we knew it, a full decade had passed, and still no new airport had risen from the Sasa landscape. The reason this time? The facilities are fraught with structural defects.  

Such stupidity! Are we taxpayers being made to believe that the private contractors got away with doing a lousy job under the noses of the Department of Transportation and Communications and the Air Transportation Office? For ten years? 

Councilor Peter Laviña was right: he called it "economic sabotage." 

Mindanao leaders have been challenging what's left of their sanity in looking for ways to invite tourists and businessmen. Offices like the Mindanao Business Council and the Mindanao Economic Development Council Secretariat have lost no opportunity to explore possibilities in restoring investor confidence, a tough job with bombings and kidnappings still hogging headlines. 

A high-level meeting of the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-the Philippines-East Asean Growth Area has just lent honor to the city, thanks in no small part to an ever-upbeat business sector and a small but valiant segment of the civil bureaucracy. But at the end of the day, management sessions can only do so much. Without the signal attraction of a world-class airport and a favorable air transportation policy, most visitors will think twice about coming over. 

To say the obvious, some guys made a lot of money in this "charade," as Laviña described it. The shameful part of it is that, while the thieves have feasted on taxpayers money for the last decade, the city has remained a trying-hard, backwater town that can't even lure enough foreign visitors to beef up its tourism receipts. 

If this country can't jail thieves, at least let's kick them out. 

Incompetence may be one thing. But this is criminal negligence.  (September 22, 2003)



Oh, to be in government! 

Some mayors use for their personal service PCSO ambulances donated to the health centers. 

This is a line from Mr. Patricio Diaz, who writes a column for Mindanews. Diaz was writing about gambling, about how Filipinos’ penchant for taking risks have contributed to the formidable wealth of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, and about why government must preserve the integrity of PCSO’s earnings as its contribution to the nation s poor. 

Well, that may be quixotic, if we go by the whims of many a local executive and their wives. PCSO ambulances have been the staple ride of some city, municipal, and provincial officials and their respective families, using them for long trips to urban centers. PCSO ambulances have been seen with people inside packed like giggling sardines, packed in malls. 

But this is not just about PCSO ambulances. This is about the culture of impropriety that pervades the civil bureaucracy. This is about using public property which includes the whole smorgasbord of cars, office supplies, furniture, charge accounts, even cellphones, for personal use. Office buildings in one of the regions in Mindanao have been converted into private residences. And internal revenue allotments have been used to build governors’ mansions in some provinces. 

So the next time someone raises an issue about charity ambulances being used as station wagons, we would do well to hold our horses and ponder the fact that it s the tip of an uglier iceberg. 

Because this is really about integrity in public service. Or the shameful lack of it.  (December 8, 2003)

 

Getting them off the streets 

Does government have the proprietary right to decide on police matters? May other sectors of society be called upon to contribute to the discourse on criminality and social disorder? 

Such questions apparently caught the interest of City Hall when it decided to launch a new program of consultation with civil society. City administrator Wendel Avisado said the Duterte administration is bent on finding a comprehensive solution to the problem of lawlessness in the city, and one approach is to meet with as many sectors as possible in an effort to formulate doable measures. 

The initiative is laudable, for two reasons. First, it recognizes the essence of civil society as the collective body that forms consensus on issues of public interest. And second, it demonstrates humility and rationality in light of persistent charges of arbitrariness in solving crime. We take our hats off to Avisado and the mayor. 

While at it, City Hall would do well to consider the many avenues available to address the ills that bedevil society. Supplying garlands for street children to sell may be one, talking to parents may be another. Yet these are stop-gap measures that will eventually trickle away, leaving the youth forgotten and unwanted as they stalk the streets once again. 

How can we be wanting in creative solutions? We should ask ourselves. How can we, and our leaders in business, the church, academe, and government, not be maverick enough when hunger, powerlessness, and even contempt stare at us as we walk the streets of our city? Across Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat, a USAID program is bringing together the local police and the community to find new answers to old questions of social misdeeds. The program is new, but early results point to an awakening of shared perspectives and aspirations. 

Real opportunities for empowerment. A solid commitment to get the dregs off the streets. Such are the continuing challenges of City Hall.  (October 4, 2004)

 

Cops, and then some 

Over at Gikan sa Masa, Para sa Masa, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s Sunday program at ABS-CBN, he bristled at cops lying around with their fat bellies and mouths reeking with last night’s beer, ignoring telephone complaints from ordinary citizens. With the boldness of someone who can only be nicknamed by Asiaweek as The Punisher, Duterte told the lazy baboons to “shape up or go to Paquibato.” 

Well, cheers to the mayor for cracking the whip – or, at least, that’s what it will eventually amount to. Cops are a hardened lot, and Duterte, himself a former prosecutor, knows this like the palm of his hand. Task Force Davao may be earning a few points for its general tidiness and benign behavior, and the city’s 911 system may be drawing envy from other cities. But by and large, in many decrepit precincts across town and in the desperate histories of policemen riddled like bullets by low pay, petty graft, and a downright chauvinist culture, the whole idea of whipping the police into shape seems romantic.  

Which is not to say that the mayor erred in firing off his warning. Like every other layer of government, law enforcement agencies are fraught with incompetence and corruption. The key, as always, is to match warning with action. Unbuttoned cops trying to shake off the previous night’s pungent smell of cigarettes and cheap lipstick should probably be made to clean off the slime in prison toilets for a month. And those who don’t bother to respond to citizens’ reports should perhaps be knee-capped, the better to get them out of the service for good. 

While at it, we’d like to see the mayor doing some real action about the homeless wandering the streets, the drugs that continue to find their way into our schools, pollution on the road, children who approach cars on a stop light peddling flowers, small rags, and God-knows-what other services. It takes a lot of grit to scold policemen hardened by these punishing times. But it takes character to do something, with the same audacity with which he deals with criminality, about the many other things that don’t go right in this town. 

So how about it, Mr. Mayor?  (October 25, 2004)

 

The illness within

Last Friday, the European Commission (EC) issued a bold statement at a press conference here. EC ambassador Jan De Kok said that the Commission will start working to reduce the prices of retail drugs in poor countries. The EC will accomplish this, he said, by lobbying for the cause of public health before the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

De Kok’s effort may be gallant. But he will need more than good intentions to carry his vision through. Right here in the Philippines, drugs are Big Business, run by a few giant players.  Government has noted that companies like Zuellig Pharma Corp. and Interphil Laboratories are eating up about 80 percent of wholesale drugs trading, while Mercury Drug Corp. accounts for 70 percent of the commerce. Because of this, it wants to level the playing field for the P100 billion pharmaceutical industry within the next ten years.

Yet how pragmatic is this? For one that says it promotes the nation’s wellbeing, government spends only P0.37 centavos per day for every Filipino’s health needs. There is only one government hospital bed available for every 29,000 people. In Mindanao, only 65 percent of the residents have access to potable water. Barely 10 years ago, according to a private research, the doctor-patient ratio in Sulu was 1:22,820. For a country like ours where disease and desperation are the ideal market, how does one tame the P100 billion monster?

Elsewhere in the world, De Kok may find that the odds against his idea are formidable. Rich countries spend nearly US$2,000 per capita in health spending, compared to an average of US$11 per capita among poor countries. That disparity alone ought to show how the price of medicines, atrocious by itself, represents only the tip of a larger, uglier iceberg. (January 22, 2006)

 

Contemplating the Secular

Yesterday the president commuted all sentences on death row. Doubtless, that was a political stunt, meant to appease what might appear to her as a nitpicking Church. But it’s doubtful if the country’s Catholic and Protestant hierarchy will be impressed. Gloria Arroyo is still one tough nut to crack when it comes to public policy. And her critics remain obstinate, at times even to a fault.

Which brings us to ponder the true meaning of governance. Would that our leaders spare us from their cheap antics. Easter is pretty much a stand-alone occasion; exploiting it for political purposes borders on the sacrilegious.  “Jesus suffered for the redemption of mankind from sin and we should have hope in our hearts in suffering and always stand up strong when we fall,” Arroyo said in a statement.

Oh please, cut the spin.

And what are we to do about our real problems? Our cities are humming with cellular and internet technology, but an 8 percent unemployment rate still forces thousands of young graduates to settle for odd jobs if they’re lucky at all. Patriotism and other lofty concepts continue to be mouthed in schools and public offices. Yet 15,000 nurses and doctors per year leave the country for a better life, on top of some 9 million OFWs already slaving it out in foreign shores. We pray, ever the faithful, for deliverance. Yet we are silent about our culture of corruption, which by itself is costing us over P30 billion a year. 

As a civil society, we may have our lapses. But our leaders, fresh from their well-publicized Lenten retreats, would do well to be reminded of what Nicaraguan priests Fernando Cardenal, Miguel D’Escoto, and Ernesto Cardenal wrote in 1981. In response to episcopal calls for their resignation on account of their activism, they wrote that pursuing what was right was the essence of their faith, “for our offices and tasks have given us the power to serve, not the power to dominate, the power to divest ourselves of our comforts, not the power to enrich ourselves, (and) the power to be like Christ in the service of our brothers and sisters…”

How prophetic even the humblest people can be. (April 17, 2006)

 

Is there hope for the Filipino?

That’s the question that hung over my head when I listened to Dr. Mahar Mangahas, president of Social Weather Stations, say that Filipinos shouldn’t feel morally inferior when comparing themselves with their foreign counterparts. Dr. Mangahas said that despite our notorious tag as the one of the most corrupt nations in the world, we shouldn’t take it against ourselves like it were a congenital flaw. 

Well, Dr. Mangahas had a point. Corruption in countries like North Korea, Japan, the former Soviet Union, and even the United States, to name a few, had hogged international headlines for their own share of ignominy; the blight is everywhere.

Yet I find it a bit cavalier to assume that the Philippines has become what it is now—a nation of crooked politicians and conniving private individuals—because of reasons other than who we are as a people.

For corruption in our country has become a way of life. It is not something exclusive to public officials and big corporations, nor is it confined to the greed alone of government employees and their favored suppliers. Corruption has become endemic and widespread to the point of influencing otherwise God-fearing families to believe that “a little” infraction won’t hurt anyone, or that relatives and friends have as much, if not more right to public positions than other individuals, qualified or not.

Most lower middle-class parents go to Church, send their children to private schools, enjoy a mall dinner when the budget allows, and try to save to repair an old Beetle or to buy a surplus PC. They aren’t bad people by these standards, just ordinary folk trying to get by through the hard times. Yet these same parents caution their children to be on alert against con-men, imploring them to be “street smart” and to know how to “get ahead of the pack.” Parents today, certainly a breed apart from the romantics of yesteryear, exhort their children to be pragmatic about life. Thus we have this phenomenon almost peculiarly Filipino: a dearth of doctors and teachers, but a deluge of nursing students. 

Since it is a dog-eat-dog world anyway, we say to ourselves, we might as well hang in there and enjoy the spoils of commercialism. Besides, who wants to be called a heretic? Certainly not the SME proprietor who only wants to stay afloat by being in the good graces of city hall. Certainly not the “lowly” clerk who expects a few bucks to “fast-track” our permits and licenses. And certainly not the typists and gofers who don’t mind a merienda cena from a grateful government contractor. Nothing wrong with accepting “gifts,” we reason out; such is how the world turns. Besides, extra money on the side is also put to good use, besides the customary Fundador and the bar girl—like token balato for the missus, or buying lechon manok on the way home. Have salary raise, we say, will reject bribes—maybe.

It’s us, really. It’s how we think, how we look at life, and how we feel about ourselves. More than 300 years of coercive evangelization and huwes de kutsillo, not to mention Pax Americana’s foothold on our lives, have conspired to keep us this way: unsure of ourselves, indifferent about righting wrongs, but enamored of quick riches and fixes while having no sense of history. 

Take it from the “Gloriagate” scandal: Who were we to bring the heavens down over a wiretapped phone call, when we were silent, uncaring, and smug about the nation’s other cancers? Our public debt has ballooned to P4 trillion, a figure whose per capita implications to a poor nation can only be obscene. Loggers are shaving off our forests like never before, threatening our fragile ecology and wiping out entire communities at the onslaught of flash floods.  Now considered the quintessential rip-off, levies previously collected from coconut farmers and intended for their own benefit, today worth some P40 billion, remain inaccessible.

In Muslim Mindanao, families are so deprived only a fraction of them have potable water, electricity, and decent toilets. Elected officials go around in Ford Expeditions and Chevrolets, while armalite-toting bodyguards on board D-MAX pickups tail them through roads littered with beggars and maggots. Right here, while police authorities flaunt their achievement awards, young people drop dead like flies, murdered by hired thugs the likes of whom compare with the Chilean death squads of yore.

What were we talking about, sounding so righteous, when we’ve allowed Marcos’s relatives and cronies not only to go scot-free but to secure public offices, helm business conglomerates, and party the nights away?  Have we gone mad? Twenty years of brutal dictatorship and here we are, voting the tyrant’s henchmen to power or promoting putchists to generals, they who’d presided over the death and torture of our kin and comrades in the lurid heyday of martial law. 

We think we know enough about survival, but we don’t. Survival for us means taking the shortcut, the easy way out. Pay off the clerk. Bribe the traffic cop. Pad the contract. Even in our work, we say “pwede na yan.” Why aren’t we inclined to due diligence, to disciplined study? Why do we not think hard enough, and feel more passionately about our future as a people? Why don’t we summon the thunder of our denunciation over the many other crimes and indecencies we observe? Is it because we are a poor nation, and that our poverty demands us to take the path of least resistance?

But we can only justify so much our sins of omission. For, on the contrary, it is precisely because we are poor that we should, probably for once, not think only of ourselves and not be cynical about survival.  Perhaps in God’s time corruption may be meaningfully addressed in this country. But that time will come only when we finally take pause and admit, with devastating honesty, how and why, in the many times our vigilance was called upon, we looked the other way.  (May 2006)

 

Are they planning at all to repair Bankeronan Bridge?

Not in the near future, it seems.

That 56-year-old bottleneck collapsed in April. Since then, everyone from highways officials and Congressman Prospero Nograles had something chirpy to say: money has been allocated for its repair, it would be finished by Christmas, construction would be implemented under the Tulay ng Pangulo Program, and that there was to be no reason for delay as it is considered “vital in the daily economic activities of the city.”

Talk about speaking too soon.

The new DPWH Regional Director, Mr. Jerome dela Rosa, was tight-lipped on the matter last week when asked by reporters. Being the new kid on the proverbial block, he may have thought it prudent to get a firmer handle on things before shooting from the hip. But what would have been more proper was to have done his homework on the most critical infrastructure project in town and fired off a no-nonsense statement.

Marginal, distractive issues underpin the bridge’s reconstruction. Engineers have supposedly begun assembling the materials from Manila, but when local officials changed the specifications, it reversed the entire process. A bidding had also been conducted for the project, says DPWH officials, but yielded no winners.

Which all amounts to nothing but pathetic excuses. For the bottom line is that after six months, that collapsed structure in Bangkerohan continues to be an aberration. 

It’s pretty obvious what the real problem is, as is the “problem” in most infrastructure projects that don’t see the light of day. We can only hope our local officials in government get their act together, admit their incompetence, stop patronizing us, and start working. Otherwise, we will lose what can only be described as the patience of Job. And we will start calling them for what they are. (November 13, 2007)

 

The evil within

There is, on the face of it, much to be giddy about current efforts to better steer businesses and local governments toward the path of integrity. That’s what the Mindanao Business Council, the League of Cities in the Philippines, and the Mindanao Coalition for Development NGOs (MinCODE) have been getting into, through a partnership with The Asia Foundation.

The collaboration aimed at enabling local governments to increase efficiency for reform and streamline their services. At the end of it all, the project partners noted some successes, like “shorter time for the issuance of a Mayor's Permit, increased tax collection by up 40 percent; reduced actual expenditures on procurement of drugs and medicines by 350 percent and medical supplies by 270 percent.”

The tie-up also ushered in a new period of openness, according to Dolores Corro, MinCODE executive director, who said working together with the public and private sectors has enabled them to collectively “veer away from their combative treatment in the past.” Media quoted her as saying that “there was mutual animosity before owing to negative perceptions.”

Transparency, of course, is a good thing. That’s what some bleeding hearts had invoked last year when the number of cases filed at the Office of the Ombudsman-Mindanao dropped from 1,500 in 1998 to 330 in 2005. But that only counts the reported cases, and there lies the rub.

For transparency and accountability boil down to the issue of corruption. There may not be a public reckoning yet of the estimated number of corruption incidents now plaguing the Mindanao civil bureaucracy. But it is safe to assume that the figures must be mind-boggling. Given the fact that corruption is present in virtually all levels of the bureaucracy, from padding prices of paper clips to charging prostitutes’ fees to representation expenses, it isn’t farfetched to assume that the blight is, indeed, everywhere.

Once in awhile, we do get lucky. The law caught up with the murderers of Marlene Garcia-Esperat, who in 2005 had exposed the sordid dealings at the Department of Agriculture in Region XII.  We gained. But Esperat lost—in a manner of speaking.

How must civil society proceed with such a pervasive evil? A billion pesos has been released to the Office of the Ombudsman last year, supposedly to help cleanse the bureaucracy. We can only hope we truly get our act together as a community, even if, contrary to the benign notions of others, we develop a “mutual animosity” towards those who rob our right to better governance. (August 27, 2007)

 

Enough with the pious remarks 

Barely a week ago, in the wake of former President Joseph Estrada’s celebrated conviction of plunder, Deputy Ombudsman for Mindanao Humprey Monteroso issued a rather breezy statement. He said that Estrada’s sentence of reclusion perpetua “will serve as a warning to all government officials.” 

“The nation can now move on,” he had to add.

Hmm. We wonder.

Just five days earlier, do-gooders from a group called the Caucus of Development NGO
Networks were having a bedeviling time trying to get senators and congressmen to respond to an anti-graft effort. They were dishing out survey forms for the PDAF (Priority Development Assistance Fund) Watch Project, a rather quixotic attempt at monitoring the use of the legislators’ pork barrel. 

Senators each receive P200 million a year in people’s money; congressmen P70 million.

Which is why, well, the project was a letdown.

Only eight of the 210 congressmen provided information on the use of their funds. If that wasn’t laughable enough, consider that 87 percent or 183 didn’t bother to respond while 17 of them flat out refused to cooperate. And here’s the kicker: not a single congressman from Mindanao responded positively, while six responded negatively.

Monteroso may not be faulted for wishful wishing; that’s just about the only attitude logical enough to come out of a nation drenched with debasement. But he may be risking being misunderstood; after all, 1) Estrada’s sentence in its singularity may hardly count for a compelling warning, and therefore 2) moving on as a nation may be stretching the scenario a tad too much. 

And what are we to believe, now that we seem to be at it? That Joseph Estrada was the only such thief in our contemporary history? That he was, to date, our best example of corruption and evil his permanent banishment can only be the catalyst of our national panacea?

Marcos brutalized the best and brightest of our youth, robbed us by the hundreds of billions of dollars, and managed to have the last laugh. In his wake, countless petty bureaucrats have emulated his style, in vain. 

It’s best we keep our sanctimonious opinions to ourselves, if we can’t manage to buck the fact that we are, when it comes down to it, a people with poor memories. (September 17, 2007)

 

Fertilizers, again

In a report by the Philippine Information Agency over the weekend, government is set to shell out P295 million as fertilizer subsidy for farmers across Mindanao. The money, according to the GMA Rice Program of the Department of Agriculture (DA) is part of the national government’s P1.3 billion so-called fertilizer program. 

DA officials are upbeat, judging by the platitudes recently mouthed: the subsidy, they say, is designed to “boost palay harvests,” is a “key component” of the President’s fertilizer and irrigation program, and alongside with government’s entire agricultural support program is expected to increase current rice-producing areas of 427,000 hectares to 582,000 hectares. 

Agriculture officials also say their rice self-sufficiency program “will make the country 98 percent sufficient in grains in two years’ time.”

Yet the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines (CBCP) has countered that its was precisely the fertilizer scam involving former DA official “JocJoc” Bolante that may have triggered the country’s rice “crisis.” Such massive corruption in high places have wrought such untold sufferings particularly for the country’s lowly farmers.

The CBCP’s claims may not be far-fetched. Corruption by itself alone siphons off hundreds of millions of pesos from the national coffers. Instead of providing much-needed support for situations that call for emergency measures, such monies end up in private palaces, foreign travels, fancy jewelry, and politicians’ young concubines. 

It may be true that a food crisis is looming across the globe, but such scenarios could have been mitigated had the government had enough political will—and the money to back it up—to squarely address the blight.  (June 23, 2008)

 

Frying the small fry

A story appears in this issue’s National Page about the Supreme Court coming down harshly on a clerk for misappropriating more than P600,000 of sheriff funds. Now, the word “misappropriating” isn’t entirely layman, and says nothing much about whether or not taxpayers’ money was in fact stolen. But the high court found him guilty, so that makes the issue rather academic.

The funds belonged to the sheriff judicial development fund in Cabanatuan, says the news report. The local court in that city found Librada S. Puno guilty of dishonesty and grave misconduct, and sentenced her to “perpetual disqualification from reemployment in the government and stripped of all retirement benefits.”

Puno is due to be criminally prosecuted.

Which all sounds very efficient. But we wonder whether government is just as gung ho about chasing the bigger thieves in its midst. In case anyone’s been sleeping, we’re perceived as more corrupt now than last year, according to new findings by Transparency International.  

“Its 2008 Corruption Perception Index showed that the Philippines got a score of 2.3 in 2007—down by 0.2% from 2.5 in 2007. This year’s score is the lowest for the country since 1995 when the first CPI was devised as a tool for a country’s resolve to fight corruption. The Philippines ranked 141st—along with Cameroon, Iran and Yemen—and was behind most of its ASEAN neighbors,” according to news accounts. 

The $329-million national broadband network scandal. The controversial RP-Fraport AG construction of Terminal 3 of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The P728 million fertilizer scam… the list can go ad nauseam.

Going after the bit players may be amusing for the peanut gallery. But catching the real crooks deserves more kudos.  (September 29, 2008)

 

The crimes we commit in the name of the poor 

This week, former Agriculture Undersecretary Jocelyn ‘Jocjoc’ Bolante is expected to return to the country. He has been trying to seek political asylum in the US after a hail of allegations linking him to one of the grandest corruption scandals in recent memory, the misuse of some P728 million worth of fertilizer funds. The allotment, concocted as a subsidy to assist poor farmers across the country, was said to have been diverted to augment the campaign funds of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was then eyeing the presidency in 2004. Washington has denied his request.

That Bolante had “evaded” authorities since 2004 isn’t surprising. Throughout the decades, every other bejeweled cretin from the Marcos Dictatorship down to the Arroyo Administration has avoided arrest. It is a disgraceful testimony of our supposed anti-graft “authorities”—the Office of the Ombudsman, the Commission on Audit, the Civil Service Commission, the civil and military courts—that such crooks continue to breathe the same air as we do. Colonels who tortured civilians in the 1980s have been promoted and rewarded with public offices. Cronies who amassed incredible wealth off the sweat and blood of their toiling workers have now redefined private industry. 

Such high arrogance mocks the poverty of our people. Mindanao alone is populated with poor farmers who would have benefited tremendously from an honest-to-goodness fertilizer subsidy. We account for 23 percent of the national palay output and 41 percent of total corn production. Our farmers also produce 76 percent of the country’s bananas, 87 percent of its pineapple, 90 percent of its lanzones, nearly all of its mangosteen , and more than half of its papayas, langka, and pomelo. 

All this bounty has been produced year in and year out despite the fact that less than 30 percent of our irrigable land is in fact irrigated. Worse, years of backward technology and government neglect have conspired to peg Mindanao’s poverty incidence at 38 percent, the lowest across the country.

“Many of our poor are in Mindanao; agriculture thrives in Mindanao . Let us all then give serious support to agriculture – we help our brothers and sisters in Mindanao and we help reduce poverty,” once said Dr. Romulo Virola, Secretary General of the National Statistical Coordination Board.

One can only hope. 

For indeed, Bolante’s sojourn to the West may be par for the course, as privileged thieveries go. But for him to waltz back into our lives today seems providential, and signals an opportunity for the nation to redeem itself. Should we, again, choose apathy over justice, personal comfort over collective concern, then corruption and the morass it engenders will truly be the destiny that we all richly deserve. (October 27, 2008)

 

Death as opportunity

The President has declared today, September 7, as a “period of national prayer for the leader of Iglesia ni Cristo (INC, Church of Christ),” referring to Erano Manalo, 84, who died last week of cardiopulmonary arrest. 

A news report said that Mrs. Arroyo “offered condolences to the Manalo family.” She waxed sympathetic in saying that "the entire nation is requested to offer prayers for his eternal repose and in thanksgiving for the gift of his life and contributions to our nation. Ka Erdy is considered a great spiritual leader and father to the INC flock whom he has guided with the teachings of God toward spiritual growth and nation-building."

Quite a mouthful. But to be sure, the INC isn’t something to sneeze at.  As it is with most organizations, Iglesia isn’t in the habit of revealing its strength. But census estimates indicate that 2.3 percent of the 76 million Filipinos are INC members. Last year, it reported 5,000 congregations in the Philippines and 600 more in 89 other countries and territories. 

It is clearly the largest homegrown Church in Asia. Which is understandable why the President—indeed many other politicians—have fallen over themselves in publicly offering condolences to Mr. Manalo’s kin and friends. Endearing oneself to the Church has been a tried-and-tested practice of politicos out to proverbially win hearts and minds. And with national elections just eight months away, every opportunity is squeezed for maximum projection. Mr. Manalo’s passing, regretfully, isn’t an exception.

Yet apparently, it isn’t just the elections that lay beneath the motive of the Palace’s sympathetic motions. For an administration that is hogging daily headlines over accusations of corruption, such moves appear to be desperate but imperative. The president’s son, Pampanga Rep. Juan Miguel “Mikey” Arroyo, made a complete fool of himself on national television when former NEDA secretary general Winnie Monsod grilled him about his P63.7-million beachfront property in the United States, to say nothing of his ballooning net worth. Then there was the P1 million Le Cirque dinner of Mrs. Arroyo and her cahoots in Manhattan. And of course the $329-million botched ZTE deal for the National Broadband Network project. 

The list goes on. And while it does, Mrs. Arroyo’s handlers can only hope to concoct more frantic measures to deflect national attention. And the public can only twist and turn in the winds of national betrayal and indignation. September 7, 2009

 

A generation doomed

In a way, Leo Avila is right.  With the punishing effects of today’s El Nino, a massive reforestation is in order, according to the 1st district councilor. That would increase the city’s forest cover, which by current rates is dwindling fast. In a relatively short span of 15 years, from 1987 to 2002, the city’s forest cover shrank from 6,170 has. to 2,593 has., according to a study by the environmental group PCEEM (People Collaborating for Environmental and Economic Management.) Today, Avila says our forest cover is down to 12% of the ideal. This is alarming by any standard. 

Forests hold water and put this immense volume into an aquifer. Without enough forest cover, there wouldn’t be enough water to go by in the long term. In our case, if the Talomo watershed is stripped of trees, it will not be able to recharge the Dumoy aquifer, which is the main source of water supply in the city. As it is, the watershed recharges about 80% of the said aquifer. 

But while Avila’s proposal is reasonable, it may not be applied in the present tense. The El Nino is upon us, parching the landscapes of at least 22 provinces.  Last month, government estimated the crop damage at P7 billion, with the possibility of reaching P20 billion if the dry spell became severe. Planting trees at this point would be like filling buckets of water in the middle of a wildfire.

We ought to have planted trees before, and planted them like there was no tomorrow. That would have been the proactive measure that could have saved us from this misery.

For the fact of the matter is: El Niño is not a strange phenomenon. It struck in 1982, ravaging P700 million worth of agricultural products in Central Luzon, Southern Tagalog, Northern Visayas and Western Mindanao. It came back in 1992, damaging more than P4 billion in crops in South Cotabato, Isabela, Bukidnon, Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Cagayan alone. And it returned yet again in 1997, drying up farmlands and killing growth worth P8.46 billion.

Through it all, we’d never learned.

Tree planting has been a source of conceit, if not corruption, for many. There is the government official who connives with shady contactors in a “ghost” reforestation project. There is the supposed public watchdog who turns the other way for a cut in the transaction. And there is the warlord, his ilk, and his private army who shave off forests. Similarly, there are purportedly well-meaning efforts to plant a couple of hundred trees here and there, sponsored by some civic group or another. But after the photo opportunities and the pat on the back, such endeavors are relegated to scrapbooks and glossy annual reports.

We clearly need more than lip service to combat what is arguably a dreadful consequence of climate change. And we clearly need an alternative to the massive fraud that exploits nature’s aberrations. Without this resolve to think ahead and act now, this generation is, quite simply, doomed. (March 29, 2010)

 

Sordid

How have we come to this?

A P26.865 million annual salary for the top guy at the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA)? P14.506 million for the president of the Clark Development Corp. (CDC)? P12.718 million for the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Development Bank of the Philippines? A long, sordid list goes on.

That, at the very least, is an average of a million and a half pesos per month for one person, in a country whose “Self-Rated Poverty” reached nearly 60 percent in 2008.

We’ve obviously gone mad.

Sheer greed and social callousness could only have inspired the charters of government-owned and controlled corporations (GOCC), which are exempted from government’s salary standardization law. The rationale is purportedly anchored on the fact that they manage their own resources, and are therefore entitled to reward their officials however they please. 

But the unspoken truth is that the GOCC monies are public funds. Ergo, these are taxpayers’ money for which all of the officials are accountable.

Elsewhere, this would have been unspeakable. In the United States, President Obama has introduced a sweeping reform package against the profit monsters at Wall Street. Gone are the days when CEOs would jack up their salaries to high heavens. Today, a company’s shareholders would have more say on how much their officials get paid. 

Whereas before, despite a financial tailspin that led to some $900 billion in bailout costs, CEOs had gotten away with up to $20 billion in bonuses, today Obama has made sure that the American public is insulated from the likes of Lehmann Brothers and AIG.

And yet, that isn’t even talking about public officials.

In these parts, our response should be more severe.

After all, what does P1.5 million—the average monthly take home pay of many of these GOCC heads—mean to us ordinary mortals?

That same amount can pay for the construction of a school building in Muslim Mindanao, whose poverty incidence was recorded at 55.3 percent, or twice the national average of 26.9 percent.

That same amount can be used by Gawad Kalinga (GK), with a counterpart of P2 million from the municipal government of Glan, a small town in Sarangani, to build affordable homes for the underprivileged. 

That same amount last year paid for 35 scholarship certificates to Overseas Filipino Workers from Mindanao displaced from their jobs abroad due to the global financial crisis.

Hefty salaries and bonuses may not be wrong per se. What is, is losing our sense of proportion in these, our telling times of want.  (Aug. 9, 2010)

 

Kick their asses, Mayor! 

Over at his weekly television program yesterday morning, Mayor Duterte displayed his characteristic vitriol. This time, the targets of his ire were illegal loggers. 

“They should be chased away and beheaded by chainsaws,” said the mayor, conceivably harboring images of the hundreds dead and missing in flashfloods and landslides in Quezon, Nueva Ecija and Aurora province. 

Well, we couldn’t agree more.  

But we wonder if the colorful rhetoric alone from the city executive will do the trick. Unhampered cutting of trees are being reported in Marilog. The city’s drainage system is still a problem, made perennial by the floods caused by the barren hills and valleys surrounding the city. 

Of course, it isn’t just Davao; Mindanao itself is an illegal logger’s haven. Local environment officials are said to be protecting unlicensed loggers in Davao Oriental. Syndicates there have reportedly started kidnapping lumad ecological activists. A lady tribal chieftain, no less, led a raid in Abejod, Cateel last October, only to be chastised by public officials after a month. 

Compostela Valley has become a transit point for illegal loggers, says the governor, no less, saying that transported illegal logs from Agusan del Sur and Cateel pass through his province. Cotabato, Maguindanao, and the Zamboanga Peninsula are also notorious as logging “hot spots.” 

This isn’t far-fletched. Government, for all its lip service to environmental protection, allocates only five forest rangers for every 10,000 or more hectares of forested areas. 

Maybe there’s a ghost of deliverance from every fallen tree.  In Cantillan, Surigao del Sur, Bishop Nerio Odchimar led a covenant-signing opposing local and foreign mining and logging activities in the province. It’s peaceful consensus-building. And maybe it will work in the meantime. 

Hereabouts, we hope the illegal cutters heed the mayor’s warning and make a run for their lives. Otherwise, knowing Rody Duterte, things can get a little untidy – which may be just as well. (February 2011)

 

Small steps, small gains

Sometime ago, I got invited by a couple of young people to speak before a large crowd in Gen. Santos City. It was their "week of peace," I was told, and their group was holding an all-night concert of five local bands. As it turned out, the concert was held outdoors, the bands played on, and I struggled to focus on my impromptu speech that dwelt on culture, the arts, and the importance of journeying towards peace, no matter how small our steps may be.

That last one, about our small steps and modest gains, got me to reflect when I was returning home to Davao the morning after. Helping "in one's small way" and achieving "modest gains" have become common phrases among a legion of workers purporting to serve others. The things we do for development, we would say, may not be enough against the totality of what must be done. But these "humble efforts" will bear fruit once coordinated with those of others, we would hastily add. Or we declare: Our meager resources can only support so many projects, but these "initial steps" will help pave the way for greater results.

While mulling that, a thought bothered me: but what meager resources? Non-profits the world over are collectively worth some US$1.6 trillion, says Newsweek. There's enough hard capital there to exhume old truths, reexamine conventional wisdom, discard outdated paradigms, and leverage real money to spur transformation. Heck, anyone hereabouts who can whip up a sob story about the poor being driven away by conflict can access some money from foreign charities. (And careers have been made out of that.) In fact, of the US$2.8 billion worth of official development assistance projects now in the pipeline, 46 percent is said to be allocated for the island.

Clearly, we do have some means.

But a second thought came up: What does one make of the fact that despite the decades of foreign aid, four out of the five provinces at the nation's bottom rung still come from the island? The Philippine Human Development Report identifies these as Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, Maguindanao and Sulu. In Sulu, 85 percent of the residents don't have access to sanitary toilets. It's worse in Tawi-Tawi, where 90 percent of the people have neither seen nor used one.

One explanation is that we're simply too inept at utilizing, let alone absorbing, the sheer volume of the funds, and most of them end up returned to where they came from. Another is that we do have a global reputation for botching up projects. And yet another is that even donor money, for all its publicity, just isn't enough. (The US could have fulfilled its promise of allocating 0.7 percent of its GDP to developing countries, had the US$1 trillion cost of the war in Iraq been used instead for development purposes, said former World Bank senior economist Joseph Stiglitz early this year.)

At any rate, money is only part of the equation. "Insurgency has persisted from generation to generation … because of deep-rooted, unjust social structures," wrote one Danilo Reyes from Quezon City. And how may one honestly pursue peace when "those who pushed the nation into war are still in government," he asked.

The perceptive non-Mindanaoan may have reaffirmed a key element in the entire gamut of grassroots- and institution-based peace building: Justice. But it's doubtful anyone is listening. I have yet to see NGOs, Church-led peace movements, and even donor-assisted "peace initiatives" lay down their olive twigs and pause to reflect on the real roots of conflict and underdevelopment -- and to actually do something. Artesian wells, several hundred carabaos and kabir chickens, an all-weather road here and there, and seminar upon seminar of trying to get Muslims and Christians to see eye to eye may appease some of the people some of the time. But beneath the "peacespeak," the wounds of underdevelopment fester away.

Peace without justice, as the wags would say, is meaningless. And true social change will happen only if we ourselves decide so; it will remain a lie if we continue to make excuses, deluded by the notion that change is complex and expensive and therefore can only be done incrementally.

Consider the rest of the national narrative:

A major network just ran a laughable segment about exposing wrongdoing in government offices. Lugging a hidden camera, TV reporters filmed postal clerks on the take. A day after recording the act, the producers interviewed the clerks' bosses, a couple of third rate postal and customs officials (the clerks ignored all requests for interview -- but naturally!). The bosses nonchalantly said they'd have the incident "investigated." And that was that. No filing of charges. No public censure whatsoever. No warnings aired on primetime about the erring office. Nothing. I could almost hear the clerks and officials laughing and exchanging high 5's when the reporters left.

Our public officials -- civil servants, I believe they used to be called -- brazenly live luxuriously, thanks to a corruption price tag of US$2 billion a year. Thirty percent of government spending is said to go to kickbacks, which then go to SUVs, to trying-hard Parisian-style villas, to shooting ranges and Harley-Davidsons, to young girls and aged wine, and to high stakes mahjong. Meanwhile, each of us ordinary mortals try to make do with the health department's P0.37 centavos per day for health care, and a single hospital bed for every 30,000 of our fellow sick. Of that dismal ratio, only 20 percent is allocated for Mindanao.

We're big on words, nada in action. Activists may brandish red-painted banners all they want. Or we may analyze to death the notion that we're mired in our cultural biases. But in my book, just about the only ones who have done something truly worth anything are our OFWs, whose monthly billion dollar remittances account for a clean 10 percent of our GNP.

Reluctant heroes, they are, but heroes nonetheless. By the same token, at least 15,000 of our nurses and doctors wouldn't have decided to leave every year, were it not for the promise of a better life abroad. Yet here we are, pretending to be erudite while the unshod philosophize about their poverty, and having the chutzpah to believe that things will get better "when we get our act together.” (MindaNews/15 June 2005)

 

Absurd 

Over the weekend, the Mirror ran a short item about a cop getting ten years for a misdemeanor. His crime? Demanding a cell card worth P250 from a taxi driver, supposedly in exchange for keeping mum about a minor traffic accident. The episode happened four years ago, which in itself says a mouthful about our justice system. But the turtle pace of our prosecution service isn’t just the issue here. It’s this: Has our sagacity depreciated so much that we think a civil misconduct such as this demands a ten-year imprisonment? 

Judge Emmanuel Carpio, who declared that the cop violated the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act, may invoke the penal code all he wants. But spending a full decade behind bars for wrangling a 250-peso cell card from somebody else doesn’t make much sense. 

If it’s graft we’re truly after, we won’t find it only in the petty thieves and small-time thugs. We wonder where our barristers get the notion that the heart of dishonesty resides only in the streets, whose peddlers deserve the harshest sentence. That notion is flawed and dangerous, mainly because it ignores the reality of high-level corruption. 

The truth is, corruption – the scale of which many of us may not completely fathom – unfolds everyday, everywhere.  We are losing our forests to loggers, high-value crop growers, and public officials shod in gold necklaces.  And we are losing school buildings, medicines, and farm-to-market roads to inept contractors and conniving mayors getting STD from too much largesse. Jail – or better yet, execute – any one of them, we ask the law and its minions. 

That’s small consolation for us. Heck, maybe even for the guy who’s spending ten years in the can for a stupid mistake four years ago.  (Undated)