As presidential rallying cries go, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” could rank among the more memorable ones. There are, of course, various reasons why people and things become memorable, including notoriety. Some may still remember Marcos’ “This nation can be great again.” And who can forget Erap’s “Walang kaibigan, walang kamaganak”? The latter two probably fall into the notoriety category because, in the case of the former, Marcos unfortunately took a turn away from greatness after an arguably fine start, and in Erap’s case, flaunting the exact opposite of his well-received rallying cry is surely a major reason for his fall from grace, however interestingly temporary it is beginning to seem.
Many would agree with the observation that President Aquino’s rallying cry is not likely to follow the path of notoriety anytime soon. Like it or not, P-Noy’s dogged pursuit of a corruption-free government and his unrelenting focus on the objective of bringing to justice even those in lofty positions (whose very loftiness was hitherto thought to be reason enough for their exemption from its equal application) have made his rallying cry both rather convincing and largely credible. This, combined with his display of leadership by example in eschewing the more exorbitant trappings of presidential power, has brought him one of the longer running high approval ratings in recent memory. In contrast, Erap started with a high approval rating and was ex-President by about P-Noy’s present span of time in office. Gloria Arroyo never quite had the approval she craved and expended considerable effort and resources to attain.
Be that as it may, there has been some slippage of late. No one should expect that approval ratings can realistically be maintained at high levels, but most analysts do come to the conclusion that a major reason for this slippage is that while the anticorruption drive continues to be a strongly supported effort, there is a growing anxiety about the direction and pace of the economy.
While we can all take pride in the remarkable heights achieved at the stock exchange, the exceptionally large levels of international reserves, the strength of the peso, and the continuing reduction of the fiscal deficit, none of these has made much of a dent in improving the situation prevailing among the “gut issues” of poverty reduction, job creation, and the capability to meet basic needs. These issues are the main day-to-day concerns of the overwhelming majority of Filipinos. The most recent survey of unemployment found adult unemployment at 24 percent, or about 10 million, to have increased from about the level of 20 percent the previous year. Furthermore, the most recent SWS survey on the poverty situation found that families rating themselves as poor rose to 55 percent, or 10 points higher than the 45 percent of just six months earlier.
These trends must not be allowed to continue, and it would thus seem that the time has come for the administration to give equal, if not added, emphasis to the flip side of its effective anticorruption rallying cry and move full speed ahead with a clarion call of “Kung walang mahirap, walang corrupt.” After all, corruption permeates even the lowest income levels of our society, the root cause of which is often poverty, and Philippine society can only really be transformed from its longstanding padrino system and lopsided income structure with the rise of a much larger, educated middle class. As the experience of richer countries has shown, a society comprising a larger educated middle class is far more difficult to hoodwink into corruption or into electing unworthy political leaders simply on the basis of popularity.
In this regard, it is nevertheless heartening to note that during the recently concluded annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank, the prevailing mood about the Philippines was once again characterized by optimism. However, our consistent history of moving one step forward followed by two steps backward has left many still in a wait-and-see mode, such that, for instance, during a presentation by a ranking government official on the “new Philippines,” a cynic was overheard to remark that this was probably at least the fifth edition of a “new Philippines” he has heard over the years. Certainly, to be truly convincing this time around, action has to speak louder than words. The government’s increased spending this year, its unveiling (finally) of one of the 17 PPPs it had promised to unveil this year, and its energetic prioritization and effective marketing of tourism are steps in the right direction. But the level of intensity and energy it has brought to bear on the fight against corruption should be applied at least equally on the critical economic goals of poverty reduction and inclusive growth.
There is clearly no time to waste. The world around us is not stopping to wait for us to catch up, and the steps taken so far on the economic front, while encouraging, appear to many as baby steps compared with the larger strides displayed on the anticorruption front. Already, the distractions of the 2013 elections loom on the horizon. And the phenomenon that years seem to go by faster the older one gets rings true for individuals as well as for administrations.
Roberto F. de Ocampo, OBE, is a former finance secretary and was Finance Minister of the Year in 1995, 1996 and 1997.