Conflict of interest | Inquirer Opinion
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Conflict of interest

What more can be opined about the proposed Maharlika Wealth Fund? It’s a questionable move with an even more questionable timing proposed by questionable people. Experts of all sorts have weighed in on its legal, economic, and political ramifications. Even the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry recently reversed its position of support and urged the bill’s proponents to reconsider the timing of its creation. What can a psychologist say about these matters?

Whenever we attempt to evaluate a theory or a therapy, it is important to understand the context of how they were developed. This requires understanding the background of their proponents, including their biases and partialities. Thus, when laws and policies are proposed, it stands to reason that it should also be important to understand the context of both the bill itself, as well as of the proponents. Identifying this context will allow us to locate the ideological stance of the bill and who it intends to serve and benefit. Ideally, a bill is a dynamic document—it goes through a lengthy process of revision and refinement. So instead of merely deciding whether to approve the bill or not, identifying partialities of the proposing parties will allow us to catch blind spots in the existing bill, so we can ensure that the bill does indeed serve the interests of all.

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Declaring conflicts of interest is nothing new in other fields and I, as a layman, am surprised that this is not incorporated in the process of bill development. As researchers, we are required to declare potential conflicts of interest (including funding sources) whenever we present our findings or submit our research for publication. This allows our reviewers to evaluate if our results stand on their own or has been filtered through the lens of our vested interests. For government workers, we are required to annually submit the statement of assets, liabilities, and net worth, which include listing all family members that also work for the government. This is done partially to ascertain potential favoritism when it comes to government services and contracts. In legal work, they are ethically required to recuse themselves if there is a conflict of interest or lack of impartiality that will affect their legal decision-making. In psychotherapy work, we are barred from engaging in multiple relationships with our clients (e.g., being friends, dating, or engaging in nonclinical transactions) to ensure that the therapeutic process is not influenced by the personal interests of the therapist. Media work, including the writing of this column, come with very strict contracts to declare conflicts of interest to prevent propaganda.

So how come declaration of conflicts of interest are not standard when it comes to our lawmakers? There is blatant conflict of interest in the proposal of this fund, regardless if such a fund will be helpful. The primary proponents of this bill are the first cousin and the son of the President, who have proposed that the President chair the governing board of this sovereign wealth fund. The fact alone that the Speaker of the House of Representatives is the first cousin of the President of the Republic of the Philippines is itself a conflict of interest, as two out of three branches of government are headed by the same family. Why is there no culture of recusal to prevent bills from becoming a family project? In another example of conflict of interest, a nephew of the First Lady was appointed as presidential adviser on creative communications—a wholly new position. Even if their declaration is true that he will only receive a P1 yearly salary, his position will still grant him unprecedented access to the Office of the President, among others. The power of governmental positions is not in its salary, but in its capacity to influence. These glaring conflicts of interest are not exclusive to the President; we see this time and time again with other political dynasties who treat government as their family business, with political seats as family inheritance.

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If conflicts of interest cannot be removed completely, it must at least be declared and made transparent. Just like with a research manuscript, I wish for any proposed bill to come with a cover page containing a declaration of conflict of interest, including relatives and family assets that will be directly impacted by their proposed law. Any proposals of oversight for an agency or law must make sure that it is nonfamily members who will provide such oversight. A lawmaker cannot provide oversight for an industry to which their family business belongs. It was once said that the most ethical policy is one where policymakers disqualify themselves from positions of power they have created.

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