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10:52 PM August 19th, 2013

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By: Conrado de Quiros, August 19th, 2013 10:52 PM

The UP Faculty for the Abolition of the Pork Barrel System and the Presidential Pork Barrel Fund gives it another face. If things like the pork barrel scam didn’t happen, they say, the death of Kristel Tejada wouldn’t have happened.

Tejada of course was the 16-year-old Behavioral Science student of UP Manila who drank cleaning liquid after being unable to raise the money for her tuition. She had gotten a P6,337 loan earlier, but unable to pay it, she couldn’t get a new loan to keep her in school. Brooding over this for weeks, she finally got finality in this wise. The tragedy shocked not just the UP community but the entire country.

The connection may be a little tenuous, but it is not outlandish. It dramatizes the point that if scarce and exceedingly precious resources are not lost to corruption, then plentiful but even more exceedingly precious lives would not be lost to ignorance, or more tragically, death. I put the amount of the loan to the last peso instead of rounding it off to show the stark contrast between the enormous sums that are lost to us but are too unreal to comprehend, and the seemingly paltry sums that the poor, who are most of us, have to deal with every day but that are matters of life and death. As Tejada shows, often deathly literally.

Every last peso counts. Every last peso spells the difference between learning and ignorance, between hope and despair, between survival and perdition.

Without corruption, Tejada might still be alive today. The pork barrel is one such source of corruption, says the UP Faculty. “It is ‘sablay,’” they say, making a pun on the sash worn during graduation and other formal occasions to signify loftiness, which is also called “sablay.” “Instead of honor and excellence, [it] ends up promoting dishonor and mediocrity.”

I agree with them, having made the same call weeks ago. I’m glad they’ve added presidential pork along with it. It’s all of a piece with the congressional one. You cannot institutionalize presidential pork, particularly of the staggering amounts it’s become over the years, on the basis of an exception. Or on the ground that we have a current president that’s honest and zealous about pushing corruption to the sea. What if the next one is not? Indeed, what if the next one is made more of the stuff of Gloria Arroyo than of P-Noy? You institutionalize something, it applies to everyone. Presidential pork is as much political cholesterol as the congressional one. We want healthy governance, let’s abolish it.

But I also think that alongside this, we need to do something else, something more basic. Something that underpins this, that circumscribes this, that assures this call can have the slightest crack at prospering.

That is to mount a campaign to make the citizens realize public money is their money.

It is to make the taxpayers see that taxes are their money. It is to make the citizens grasp that what is being divided in the General Appropriations Act, also called the national budget, is their money. It is to make the people wrap their heads or hearts around the thought that when the president and his secretaries assign sums to building roads and schoolhouses and clinics, and when the senators and congressmen approve it, they are not doing so out of choice or the goodness of their hearts, they are doing so out of obligation.

It is their duty, and it is our right.

That is not as given as it seems. We do have occasional statements by secretaries and lawmakers that taxes are our money, that the public treasury is our treasury. And we do have occasional declarations by mayors and governors that this or that project is where our taxes go.

None of this is internalized. None of this takes root in head or heart. None of this takes on the force of a demand, or dapat lang. Its subtext is that your public official is doing this for you because he is good, or not so bad he will take all the money and run. And all this is assuming that what he tells you is true, the sums he has assigned to farm implements have not in fact gone to Napoles-type NGOs.

In theory, the budget hearings, which we are having even as we speak, are meant to fine-tune national priorities, or how best government can serve the people. In practice they look every inch like a division of spoils, frenzied horse-trading between the executive and legislative and what goes to whom, with occasional threats of rejections and/or vetoes. In theory, the process is circumscribed by debate on what’s best for the people. In practice, the process is circumscribed by agreements on what is best for them.

Before we can stop pork barrel and corruption in general, we first have to internalize, or feel to the roots of our being, that what was taken from Tejada was her money. And taking money from her was stealing—stealing from her. We all pay taxes whether we file them or not. We do so every time we buy Lucky Me or 555 or Emperador courtesy of VAT and sin taxes. Yet the coerciveness and aggression with which the Bureau of Internal Revenue demands government’s pound of flesh is not matched by an equal coerciveness and aggression with which we may demand our pound of flesh. Taxes are our money. They are not the money of secretaries or senators and congressmen or judges.

I don’t know why the NGOs, if not the current government itself, shouldn’t be putting up posters and ads and slogans all over the place making that message as pervasive and ubiquitous as Marcos’ “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan.” After all, it’s not just the senators and congressmen and mayors who appear to have been ripped off by Napoles, the NGOs have too. They have been made synonymous with fake. It’s time they reclaimed their name.

It’s time we claimed our due.

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