Last month, President Duterte again declared defeat, as he had done last November; he admitted that he cannot eradicate corruption within his term. This time, spokesperson Harry Roque did not dissent. But ex-spokesperson Salvador Panelo wants daughter Sara to help her father and give them six more years to do the job. To be fair, stopping corruption by 2022 was not a credible goal; neither would a 2028 timetable. The mistake was publicly proclaiming a deadline that naturally became a measure of performance
While the public might disregard unrealistic deadlines, Mr. Duterte correctly anticipated public interest in an assessment of the anti-corruption campaign. Voters would want to know how the administration managed inherited corruption cases. What progress did it make on the Janet Lim Napoles/PDAF scam, Marcos plunder, Makati City parking building controversy, or those connected to the Mamasapano incident and Dengvaxia? These can be compared, for their significance and their handling, with the cases Solicitor General Jose Calida prosecuted against Leila de Lima, Maria Lourdes Sereno, ABS-CBN, Manila Water and Maynilad, as well as cases involving charges against government agencies, like the Department of Justice (DOJ), Bureau of Customs, the Philippine National Police, and PhilHealth.
The PhilHealth investigation implicated Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and surfaced two questionable assumptions underlying the Duterte approach to corruption. Duque deserved a fair and credible investigation of his role in the PhilHealth plunder. Mr. Duterte’s quick dismissal of the allegations against Duque as unlikely, because he was already wealthy, was not helpful. The inference that no rich people are corrupt and only the poor are prone to corruption is conceptually unsupported and contrary to experience. It is also strange to hear from a populist leader an argument insulting to the poor people he claimed to represent.
Also considered as favoring Duque was the assumption that guilt could attach only to those directly involved in corrupt transactions. PhilHealth top management must be accountable for transactions over which they had direct executive responsibility. Since Duque only chaired the PhilHealth board, he could not be culpable: This is also an unexpected perspective coming from someone so oriented toward the military approach.
The concept of command responsibility is a deeply enshrined principle in military organizations, presumably even in the Philippines. But the response to delays in the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s distribution of pandemic assistance to the poor and in the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases’ delivery of vaccines reflected a lax, permissive interpretation of the principle. Despite the management lapses, the Palace was reported to be not inclined to hold top leaders accountable for the delays and their serious consequences to the public.
Confidence in the competence, discipline, and loyalty of security forces was a third deeply-held presidential belief not always helpful against corruption. The focus on the drug war, counterinsurgency, and the pandemic lockdown strategy reinforced the President’s inclination to entrust to security forces additional responsibilities outside their customary roles. Problems arising from poor performance on these responsibilities can contribute to corruption.
Tasks not correctly or effectively accomplished invite attempts at cover-ups. The DOJ has confirmed “irregularities” committed by police in drug operations where deaths have occurred for which they can be indicted. The continuing investigation of these cases thus deserves public scrutiny. Second, delayed action on these irregularities encourages impunity, which further empowers security forces directly dealing with citizens to require strict or loose enforcement of regulations at their discretion; rules, for instance, at checkpoints, or on vaccine access and health precautions. Corruption can consist of the unpredictable and unjust distribution of costs and benefits imposed on citizens by authorities with discretionary powers and little accountability for their decisions.
Corruption, like mortality, is part of the human condition. It can take root and thrive in every human institution and in rich and poor countries alike. Xi Jinping in socialist, authoritarian China conducts anti-corruption campaigns. Donald Trump talked about “draining the swamp” in capitalist, democratic America. Corruption cuts across religious lines, affecting Buddhist Myanmar, Hindu India, Muslim Malaysia, and even the Vatican.
Human institutions, like the human body, are corruptible. Protecting them from corruption, like protecting the body from sickness, must be, as the pandemic is teaching us, a continuing struggle. The challenge is difficult enough and defies definitive deadlines. The Duterte approach to the problem makes it even more difficult.
Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.
Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).
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