CORRUPTION, my canon lawyer and soon-to-be civil lawyer friend Rev. Fr. Ric A. Marpa once pointed out to me, comes from two Latin words – cor, which means “heart” and raptus, which can be translated as “broken”. Hence, etymologically, corruption means a “broken heart”. This definition literally and figuratively captures the meaning of the word “corruption”. More than just the act itself of stealing from government – corruption digs deeper into the very nature of the human heart – a brokenness that results in a heart devoid of compassion, charity and clarity of purpose, a broken heart that denies truth and uprightness to a point of betraying the human conscience.
Corruption has been a word used over and over again to describe the national tragedy to which we have all be witness in the last few weeks. It isn’t definitely the first corruption scandal to have rocked our nation’s history. But it has fueled the ire of ordinary taxpayers to a point that has never been before. Finally corruption has a face and a name – it is this allegedly scheming woman, Janet Lim Napoles, who took advantage of the greed creeping into the hearts of some government officials who have gravely betrayed the public trust that forms as the very foundation of our democratic institutions. As the Constitution precisely reminds us time and again – “The public office is a public trust.” It is upon this trust that the social contract that lends the legitimacy and purpose upon which organized government is founded upon. A corrupt government is not only but a government of broken hearts, it also becomes a government of a broken trust.
But who indeed is to be blamed for this great betrayal? Do we have to point all our fingers at that lady who finds herself at that every center of this controversy? Do our elected legislators have their share of guilt of this incidence? Is it our corrupted government system – people, structures and all – that has caused this syndicated corruption? Is it the pork barrel that needs to be abolished to put an end to this systemic and endemic corruption at the highest levels of government? Or do we simply have to look at ourselves, at what we have done or caused to be done or what we have chosen not to do that have resulted in the election of corrupt people into office?
For the last nine years, I had the opportunity to initiate and implement several social service programs that have been funded through the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), among them, a medical assistance program that have served hundreds of thousands of indigent patients confined in government hospitals and a college scholarship program that have helped almost six thousand poor yet deserving students finish college and have a better chance in life. Millions of pesos have been allocated to support these programs, and one cannot definitely ignore the fact that thousands have been served and given the needed help. Will abolishing the PDAF solve our nation’s corruption woes? That is a question we have to think about over and over again.
What is at the very core of this national controversy is not the allocation of funds for the same purposes as the PDAF. There is nothing wrong with allocating funds for medical assistance or scholarship programs. In fact, I think the government should put high priority on providing funds for such initiatives that would surely contribute – in the long term – towards national development. Once cannot simplistically say that the stealing will end once there is nothing more to steal, that corruption will end once the funds are abolished. The allocation of funds for public purposes would always a key function of the government. So, abolishing the funds will not solve the problem of corruption in the country – it would only probably allow one branch of the government to have concentrated control over public finances.
More than the PDAF, more than just the allocation of funds, the issue of corruption in the country is much more widespread than it seems to be. If one would have probably noticed, the extent of the network established by Janet Lim Napoles has embraced almost every sector of Filipino society – from the executive to the legislative and to the judicial branches of government, from the secular civil society to the Church and its ministers, from the blitz, fame and glamour of showbiz to the shady business transactions. Almost every sector is represented in that one grand operation of betraying the Filipino people. And looking at the extent of this unholy transactions, one would not help but ask, how come no one has ever noticed how billions (not just millions) of public funds have been channeled to a few people’s greed?
Definitely, the problem of corruption in the Philippines cannot be zeroed in on this specific incident surrounding Napoles and the very scandal surrounding the misappropriation of pork barrel funds. The truth is that we have become like the frog placed in a pot of water set to boil. The poor frog didn’t realize the steadily rising temperature in the water and the moment he did, it was too late. At boiling point, the hot water resulted in certain death for the poor frog. Corruption in our country thrived in the same manner. We turned a blind eye to its existence – and even by our acts of commission or omission, allowed it to happen. Then all of a sudden, we found ourselves trapped in the whole system of corruption and patronage. Without us even noticing it, corruption has taken root, perhaps even infected, the whole political system. Then perhaps we shouldn’t be even pointing only at those we accuse of corruption. We should have first asked the question from ourselves. What have we done or did not do to cause this corruption to happen? Isn’t it us the people who have voted for these people into office? Haven’t we left turned a blind eye to their corrupt acts for as long as it works to our advantage? Haven’t we already exchanged our political choice for a hundred or a thousand pesos during the last elections? And yet we complain? And yet we point fingers as if we do not share in this guilt, in this shame, in this sin?
What is sinful, corrupting about the PDAF is not having the funds per se. It is the culture of patronage that thrives with it. This is the corruption that has occurred not without our participation. The root of the issue surrounding Napoles and the misappropriation of PDAF funds is not about how, for what or for whom the public money is spent. The root of the problem is the culture of political patronage that has resulted from a greedy and unscrupulous political establishment and the people’s complacency about it. Isn’t it that many people didn’t really care much about corruption as long as they benefit from it? In fact, the initial common reaction after the Napoles issue erupted was – why is her daughter living such an extravagant and luxurious lifestyle while we, ordinary taxpayers, have to work hard to make both ends meet. Para tayong naisahan. But the sad truth is, corruption has been there so long and we didn’t even care or even when we said we did, we chose not to do anything about it. What even made things worse is that corruption has entrenched in the system of political patronage. This is the reason why many government officials settle for quick-fix programs and one-time solutions – to ensure their control on their political stronghold and consequently, their political survival one election after another. Why care about long term development plans when all that voters need to see is that they get their momentary wants? But are our officials going to take all the blame when corruption gets unchecked? Isn’t it that it is us, the people, who have exchanged the rights and dignity of citizenship for the convenience of mendicancy?
Solving corruption, therefore, begins with us. Change does not come by way of changing the names and faces of our political leaders, without doing anything to change the system that surrounds us. A good government begins with a responsible vote. Accountability happens when we are willing to demand of it from the very people we placed in office. But how can we demand accountability from our officials when we are indebted to them instead of them being beholden to the people’s trust? Corruption will never happen without our participation – that is, either by our action or inaction. As citizens, we have the duty to put the right people in government, people who have no need of patronage but are willing to be judged by their actions and performance. That is the first step towards eradicating corruption.
Without the need to establish political patronage, there will be no need for pork barrel. Like a reoccurring vicious cycle, without the pork barrel, patronage politics cannot go on any further. Without the pork barrel, our legislators will be free to decide and work according to their principles and conscience and not bow to any powers-to-be that hold the key to national coffers. Without the pork barrel, politicians can no longer be assured to reclaim the funds used to buy the way to political office. Hopefully, abolishing the pork barrel will put an end to vote buying – and put an end to the monopoly of the rich, powerful and the famous on political power. Without the pork barrel, the poor and the indigent do not have to pin their hopes on the charity of their political representatives – they will earn the right to demand the right and proper social services they rightly deserve from the government.
With or without funds being allocated to some government officials, legislators specifically, replacing patronage with accountability will make all the difference. It is no question that there are hundreds of thousands of the country’s poor that depend on the PDAF for medical assistance or hundreds of the country’s local government units especially in the regional countryside that benefit from PDAF-funded infrastructure projects. But is that reason enough to maintain a corrupted and a corrupting system? Should the PDAF be maintained, or should it be abolished – the goal should be clear – restore accountability and trust in public office. We should remove the discretion on the part of legislators to manage these funds so that it is finally realigned with regional development plans and not on sheer politicking. Whatever system is in place, it should take away the strong sense of entitlement that many politicians appear to demonstrate. They must be reminded whatever money the use to “help the poor” is taxpayers’ money and not theirs to use for self-aggradation and self-promotion. The power of the purse was never given to individual members of Congress but to the institution as a whole. If legislators want to assure their constituents of projects and programs, then, they should start focusing on examining and guarding the national budget and make sure that their constituents will get their fair share of government appropriations. Principles not patronage. That is how real democracy works.
Do we abolish the pork barrel to put an end to corruption? No. We put an end to corruption so that short-sighted systems such as the pork barrel are finally rendered obsolete. We must realize that unless we do decide to change our political behavior and our political choices, even without a pork barrel system, corruption will thrive or perhaps even be magnified when the power to disburse is left in the hands of a few. We need to end corruption by reminding the people in power, by our active citizenship, moral contentiousness and social responsibility, who the real boss is – always and everywhere.
Demanding integrity from people in government is a double-edged sword. We cannot demand integrity from people in government if we are not willing to live by it – as citizens and most especially as voters. If we do not vote for the right people in government, if we sell our votes and if we are complacent and tolerant of the corruption around us, then we cannot demand integrity from others. The evil that we have to fight are not just those above us, not just those in power. We have to fight the evil within us too. We have to own politics to transform it, value accountability and transparency to demand it from others. In the end, politics can either be a curse or a blessing. Because in the end, we just get the type of political leaders that we deserve.
Vote wisely. Do not sell your vote. Follow the law. Live in the truth. Be a good employee, or employer as the case may be. Pay the right taxes on time. Be fair with people. Love our country. Be a proud Filipino. It is high time we put an end to this national heartbrokenness. Now is the time that we restore this nation and make it whole again – heart and soul.
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Previously published columns are also posted on http://thinkingoutoud.wordpress.com/