The good news about corruption is that it makes for good campaign fodder for politicians who happen to be running at a time of widespread public frustration over its endemic prevalence. The bad news is that come the time for said politician to deliver we find that corruption is not exactly the tangible beast it is made out to be during the campaign.
Indeed, even the family publicist of the Aquinos cannot help but continuously highlight the reality of what won their unico hijo that lucrative seat in Malacanang…
Aquino, who ran and won on an anticorruption platform and has promised to prosecute officials enmeshed in corruption scandals, is expected to rally Filipinos to help him govern the country.
The above statement is spot-on with one important thing. President-Elect Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III will need another “miracle” of the sort often attributed by his mouthpieces to “people power” of the “Edsa” sort. Seriously. That’s because corruption is not some kind of well-defined bogeyman that any lone bozo can snipe at from a distance. Corruption is more like the alien monster in John Carpenter’s classic film The Thing. Its DNA infiltrates every genome of every organism that inhabits a society it fatally afflicts — to the point that even the very person who fancies himself as the anti-corruption “crusader” embodied is compelled to apply the litmus test to himself.
Case in point; even one of the most widely-recognised approaches to “measuring” corruption in a society — Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) which rates entire countries on a scale from zero (really bad) to 10 (really good) — has not much to go by beyond perception abstracted from survey responses. Nevertheless, it gives a baseline from which we can draw a few interesting insights. Here is the Philippine CPI track record so far over the last nine years — each item indicates Year, Rating, and (Country Rank):
2009 2.4 (139)
2008 2.3 (141)
2007 2.5 (131)
2006 2.5 (121)
2005 2.5 (117)
2004 2.6 (102)
2003 2.5 (92)
2002 2.6 (77)
2001 2.9 (65)
Needless to say, the Philippines’s lack of improvement in its absolute rating is punctuated by the steep decline in its international ranking. It does not take the insight of a rocket scientist to pitch these numbers as an indictment of the last nine years of President Gloria Arroyo’s administration. But, see, that’s all in the past. The really inconvenient thing about the past is that while it is useful as hindsight it is quite immune to the effects of “action”. The future on the other hand is different. The future is out there for the picking. It is yet to be made.
The question is:
Can Filipinos make their future?
It all depends on what we mean by “make”. For me there are two ways things are made. The first type of way something is made can be illustrated by considering how the pride and joy of Filipinos — the rice terraces — came about. It is an absolutely magnificent structure to behold; the product of centuries of consistent toil. Hold that thought while we consider the second type of way something is made. For that second type, we use the former American naval base in Subic Bay to illustrate it. It is as wondrously magnificent as the rice terraces, though perhaps not as commanding of emotional appeal.
So here’s the question that will reveal the key difference between the nature of the minds of the people who built these structures:
Which of the two was a product of a future aspiration?
Part of the answer to that question can be found in the timeless words of national treasure Nick Joaquin in his regard for that other national treasure, the rice terraces:
About the one big labor we can point to in our remote past are the rice terraces–and even that grandeur shrinks, on scrutiny, into numberless little separate plots into a series of layers added to previous ones, all this being the accumulation of ages of small routine efforts (like a colony of ant hills) rather than one grand labor following one grand design.
Suffice to say, the original “builders” of the rice terraces most likely never foresaw the accidental grandness of the outcome of their work, but to the builders of the naval base in Subic Bay, the expected outcome was crystal clear from the time ground was first broken.
Today, the government of Noynoy Aquino has two options to consider with regard to fulfilling their “anti-corruption” promises. The first option is to approach it the same way the “builders” of the rice terraces did, and the second option is to approach it the way the builders of the naval base on Subic Bay did.
Indeed, an effort to “eradicate corruption” is one that goes up against a systemic beast. For corruption — the type such as the one endemic to a backward society such as the Philippines’ — being systemic can only beaten by systemic solutions.
An “anti-corruption” campaign is by no means new. Look back to what I wrote way back in 2003 and consider just how unoriginal the whole concept of an “anti-corruption platform” comes across to me today…
Asked what is Philippine society’s most challenging malaise, most people will answer without much reflection — corruption.
What must we do to cure this malaise? People are even quicker with answers:
Prosecute the offenders!
Refuse to give bribes!
Set an example!
Corruption is Public Enemy Number One!
There are enough of these half-witted sloganeering campaigns to serve as election campaign fodder for the next 100 years.
And the beginnings of a solution that could be engineered from this clear understanding of just how intangibly beastly the issue of “corruption” really is was already evident to those of us who applied a bit of brain to the matter at the time:
What can we do differently this time?
Our failed efforts to combat corruption are echoed by the hollowness of the above-cited slogans. They have one thing in common: They all address the symptom and not the root cause. Corruption is a mere symptom of an underlying dysfunction — lack of trust. And as we have shown above, our attempts to stifle the symptom merely nourishes the environment that breeds it. By attempting to stifle corruption with controls, we nurture an environment of mutual distrust. By making self-righteous calls for “discipline” and “restraint”, we merely highlight that Filipinos are, in fact, an undisciplined and unrestrained lot and enforce our perception of one another’s untrustworthiness.
The key, therefore, is to put forth some semblance of clarity around the aspired to results of the anti-corruption effort we are “encouraged” to rally around over the next six years of Noynoy’s administration. Only in this way can any solution to “corruption” come across as engineered and therefore serious. The road to such seriousness could begin with this question, Mr President:
What CPI rating can we aspire to see the Philippines garnering from Transparency International at the end of your term in 2016?
Perhaps the challenge really does not lie in motivating the Filipino people to rally behind you, Mr President, but more in providing them something to rally TO.