Aquino, Enrile and anti-corruption lessons for PH

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia – A long-ruling leader with massive corruption scandals and human rights violations manages to evade justice. It is a storyline familiar not just to Filipinos who recall the days of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. 

From Indonesia's Suharto to Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovych to Malaysia's former chief minister of Sarawak Abdul Taih Mahmud, impunity for corruption is a universal experience. At the world's top anti-corruption conference held here from September 2 to 4, Filipinos drew lessons from the wealth of global case studies and models.  

“The key issue that persists in the Philippines is impunity. Corruption remains low risk and high reward. We need to see how other countries made corruption low reward and high risk, and that means stolen assets returned and jail time served,” Transparency International-Philippines executive director Cleo Calimbahin told Rappler. 

Under the Aquino administration, the Philippines improved in the annual Corruption Perceptions Index of the Berlin-based group, a finding local surveys support. President Benigno Aquino III touts the gains of his anti-corruption campaign but highlights the need for continuity as he steps down in 2016. 

Beyond sustaining top-level anti-graft efforts, Filipino delegates at the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) pointed to the need to strengthen institutions, to reform campaign finance, and to address blunders like the controversial Supreme Court decision to grant bail to Senator Juan Ponce Enrile

How can the Philippines make deeper strides in fighting corruption? Here are 4 key lessons from the summit.  

UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE. The International Anti-Corruption Conference of Transparency International in Malaysia showed a universal truth: corruption is a global language. Photo by Ahmad Al-Bazz/IACC Young Journalist

UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE. The International Anti-Corruption Conference of Transparency International in Malaysia showed a universal truth: corruption is a global language.

Photo by Ahmad Al-Bazz/IACC Young Journalist

1. Judicial reform: Clean the appointments process

To Filipino participants, the unprecedented High Court ruling granting bail to the 91-year-old Enrile was Exhibit A of impunity, the conference's theme. Accused of plunder by funneling development funds for the poor to fake NGOs, Enrile was freed on humanitarian grounds and not on the basis of evidence. (READ: SC's grant of Enrile bail 'political accommodation?'

Vince Lazatin, executive director of the Transparency and Accountability Network, said that the decision shows the urgency of judicial reform. He said the problem is rooted in the appointments process, and the body that vets nominees: the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC). 

“Many fear that to give the next president 12 out of 15 appointments to the Supreme Court is a dangerous thing. The only safeguard we have is the JBC. If the JBC comes up with excellent names, no matter who is sitting as president, they will have no choice but to choose a high quality name,” he told Rappler.

Lazatin said that civil society should press the JBC to make its processes more open, and to put its decisions under greater scrutiny. The council already had two of its choices impeached: former chief justice Renato Corona, and ex-Ombudsman Merceditas Gutierrez. 

As for justices and judges, the Philippines adopted universal practices like filing asset declarations, and setting a code of conduct. The pitfalls are in disclosing what justices own, and enforcing ethical guidelines.  

SERIOUS DRIVE. Vince Lazatin of the Transparency and Accountability Network says the decision to disqualify former Laguna Governor ER Ejercito for overspending shows the Comelec was serious about campaign finance. File photo by Jansen Romero/Rappler

SERIOUS DRIVE. Vince Lazatin of the Transparency and Accountability Network says the decision to disqualify former Laguna Governor ER Ejercito for overspending shows the Comelec was serious about campaign finance.

File photo by Jansen Romero/Rappler

2. Political party financing: Single-donor limits? 

Political party and electoral reform are areas where the Philippines is just scratching the surface. Aquino endorsed the anti-political dynasty bill but is silent on other reform measures. 

Lazatin credited the Commission on Elections for removing officials like former Laguna Governor ER Ejercito for overspending. Still, campaign finance entails more in a country where big businesses are known to secretly finance candidates in exchange for favors, and where donations and expenditures are underdeclared or unreported. 

In the United States, there are single-donor limits. Lazatin said Philippine law has no such restrictions. 

“The bigger issue here is the influence that money has on our candidates. In theory, a single donor can fund 100% of the campaign of a candidate. It's a problem around the world: in the US, the UK, here in Malaysia. It's not a developing country or a maturing democracy problem. It's a problem even in maturing democracies,” he said.  

“More than judicial reform, it's political finance that I think we're still groping for solutions.” 

3. Access to information: make data useful 

Participants mourned what civil society groups declared in August as the “death” of the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, an acknowledgment that Congress will not pass the law even after 15 years of lobbying. 

Michael Cañares of Open Data Labs Jakarta said even without legislation, activists, researchers, and journalists in countries like Malaysia and the Philippines can extract and mine data. Beyond access, what is important is coverting information into formats people can understand and use. 

One crucial area is the procurement process. The Construction Sector Transparency Initiative, for instance, works with the Philippine public works, transportation and agriculture departments to make procurement data from the construction industry available online. 

“Even if the law provides that civil society organizations are participants in the procurement process, I just don't think that's enough,” said Cañares, the Open Data Lab's regional research manager for Asia. 

“Not all national areas have strong civil society organizations with a very high competency for understanding procurement contracts. The complexity of our procurement law even makes it impossible for local CSOs to understand how things work.”

Another challenge is integrating the efforts of follow-the-money communities, which tend to focus on their own niches like social audits, and participatory budgeting. 

Kidjie Ian Saguin, a researcher at Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, believes bureaucratic reforms cannot be overlooked. 

“There's still a need to pass the FOI bill. Whistleblowers protection still needs to be improved. Matuwid na daan (straight path) is actually just a slogan but it doesn't have a legal framework.” 

4. Business integrity: craft anti-bribery policies

Delegates warned against focusing too much on the government, and ignoring corruption in business. The private sector, after all, accounts for the supply side of the problem. 

Jerry Bernas, program director of the Singapore-based ASEAN CSR Network, said it is not just foreign companies, but even local SMEs that resort to corruption to secure permits, and to run businesses. 

Bernas' group works with national associations and programs in the region like the Philippines' Integrity Initiative to ensure that they operate ethically, meet global standards, and learn from each other.

He urged companies to come up with their own policies against corruption and bribery. 

“Make it clear to employees, agents, intermediaries that corruption is not acceptable. Often, a corporation justifies corruption by saying it didn't authorize the employee to do that but where did the money come from? It's not the employee's personal money.” 

Bernas added that the Philippines must follow through with its improved reputation in fighting corruption by passing a law similar to the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. An anti-foreign bribery law covers corrupt acts Filipino firms commit overseas. 

CRITICAL MOMENT. The 2016 elections are a crucial moment for the anti-corruption movement, and an opportunity to deepen reforms that began under the Aquino administration. Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

CRITICAL MOMENT. The 2016 elections are a crucial moment for the anti-corruption movement, and an opportunity to deepen reforms that began under the Aquino administration.

Malacau00f1ang Photo Bureau

Elections and entrenching reforms

While working in different fields and countries, the Filipino attendees all looked to the 2016 elections as a crucial moment for the anti-corruption movement. 

Transparency advocates commended Aquino for setting the tone, filing high-profile cases against political rivals, and appointing credible personalities to head sensitive agencies.

Yet questions about the sustainability of the reforms point to the very nature of the changes under his watch. 

“All this apprehension about the results of the next elections actually speaks of the fact that probably, the reforms are not that deeply entrenched,” said Cañares.  

“The reforms must be deeply entrenched in such a way that the institutions themselves are actually strong. If the Supreme Court was really independent, if the Office of the Ombudsman is a strong institution, then no president can potentially frustrate a person leading that institution.” – Rappler.com  

Rappler multimedia reporter Ayee Macaraig was chosen to be part of the Young Journalists Initiative of the IACC. She covered the anti-corruption conference of Transparency International in Malaysia.