[Newspoint] Corruption, the nagging moral issue

“Cultural” and “systemic” is how the nature and scale of corruption in the Philippines is commonly described. And if that description is little disputed it’s because history amply provides the familiar stink. 

Corruption has in fact tainted presidencies across the postwar years. President Elpidio Quirino (1948-1953) was the first to attract suspicions – for a supposed golden chamber pot, which by itself might suggest extravagance, but not necessarily corruption. In fact, no such gilded evidence was turned up, although Quirino’s memory has remained soiled, less by any lingering doubts than by the catchy rumor. Cases after him have been definitely more credible or provable. 

Diosdado Macapagal was the next president (1961-1965) put on the same spot. He was linked to a retired American soldier who had set himself up in business in the Philippines and bribed his way to great fortune. Macapagal commissioned an American journalist and a British novelist and historian to do a sanitizing biography of him. Published in time for his re-election run, the book proved no help either against Ferdinand Marcos.

Marcos raised the going rate of corruption to plunder, and it has held since. He himself had all the time and the opportunity: he had ruled for 20 years (1966-1986), 14 of those as a dictator, before he was run out into exile, divested of power but not loot, in a bloodless popular revolt that would be widely copied against other dictatorships. Political and economic reconstruction had been going creditably under two presidencies when entered another plunderer – Joseph Estrada.  

Estrada was stopped, impeached, on the third year of his six-year term, and taken to court upon resigning, found guilty, and jailed. But his vice president and successor, Macapagal’s daughter Gloria Arroyo, pardoned him. 

Arroyo carried on having even better luck than him. After serving out his term, she won a regular full term for herself – won it on a rigged vote that somehow the nation chose to excuse. At the end of her presidency, she was charged in court, also with plunder, and arrested. But the court allowed her to be detained while on trial in the caring comfort of a hospital because of a supposedly life-threatening malady of some curious sort or other. Her ubiquitous neck brace disappeared at about the same time a Supreme Court she had managed to pack in her nearly 10 years as president acquitted her, within the third week of Rodrigo Duterte’s friendly presidency. 

Now it’s Duterte’s spectacular turn. The plunder plaguing his regime has no comparison in brazenness and sense of impunity: officials parade around lugging paper bags of extorted cash, not minding being spied by closed-circuit television; purchases are overpriced to monstrous levels; notorious contractors are not only engaged openly but favored.

Duterte himself hardly even bothers to put up a defense, and when he does he does on the presumption that we are a nation of fools. For instance, confronting implications of kickback from the government’s preference for Chinese vaccines despite their lower efficacies yet higher prices than others, he poorly improvised. Kickback, he said, is precluded in a deal funded by loans since the payment goes straight from the lender to the contractor. Of course, as suggested by its very name, kickback is a percentage of the overprice kicked back by the supplier to the government insider or connection who facilitated the deal. Kickback, in other words, is a commission paid after the deal has been consummated, although in some cases the kickback is advanced.  

On the other hand, in cases where money – taxpayer money – is paid straight out of the budget, Duterte becomes furiously incoherent, although he has been heard to concede, when stumped presumably, that, being cultural and systemic, corruption simply cannot be eliminated. But to go so far as to say corruption is ineradicable because it is man’s twin vice – kakambal ng tao” – is a stretch not even someone with a grave-sounding name like Greco Antonious Beda Banta Belgica can sell. 

Belgica is the chairman of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission. He was appointed by Duterte to watch his government. Doubtless he obediently understands that Duterte does not expect him to do his job seriously, only creatively. Indeed, no one even vaguely serious in that job would put forth a proposition indicting all humankind as inherently corrupt – it’s plainly ridiculous. But certainly not to Duterte: he rewarded Belgica with the prospect of a place in the senatorial lineup he will bless for next year’s election.

In any case, it’s useless debating whether corruption is cultural or systemic or physiognomic. The relevant issue is a moral one: doing justice. And the question that has been crying for an answer is: Why does corruption go unpunished especially at the highest levels? – Rappler.com