POGO - our curse and shame | Inquirer Opinion
GLIMPSES

POGO – our curse and shame

12:30 AM June 14, 2024

Gambling is prohibited in China. The government of China has made gambling illegal because it has been linked to a string of crimes, including trafficking, kidnappings and prostitution. China believes that gambling has toxic effects on social and economic order aside from staining China’s image.

But banning gambling does not erase the desire of Chinese citizens to gamble. During my visits to Macau more than ten years ago, I was told by a hotel official that a limited number of Chinese citizens were given permission to visit Macau. They were the lucky ones who were part of the quota allowed to go to Macau.

Remember, China did not give them permission to gamble, only to visit Macau as tourists. But everyone knew anyway that they were there to gamble. At that time, many Chinese citizens also went to the Philippines to private resorts that had gambling casinos. Yes, even China knows how to be selective in its laws.

With more than 1.4 billion people, there must be a few hundred million Chinese with an urge to gamble. After all, gambling has been a traditional activity in China dating back to ancient times. Historical data points to gambling in China as far back as 3,000 – 4,000 years ago. If gambling is in the Filipino DNA, it is more embedded in the Chinese genes.

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Even older is prostitution, and societies worldwide have been banning prostitution for thousands of years. But prostitution doesn’t die, does it? Gambling will not, either, whether here or in China. But like prostitution, we do not have to allow it, or build commercial complexes to promote it.

But we do. Not with prostitution (though it remains active here), but with gambling. At one point in time, Ferdinand Marcos accommodated it. He allowed a floating casino to moor beside Manila Hotel and legally operate. Of course, it was supposed to be only for tourists, but government has always had a shameful record of regulating anything, starting with simple traffic rules.

The operating principle is not the rule of law but by its actual practice, and that means rules are there for all but may be broken by some (except traffic rules where everybody breaks them). And, of course, guess who can break them with little fear of censure or punishment? If there is still no chaos in our daily lives, it is because rules are followed by the dependent majority and disregarded only by a minority with power and/or wealth.

Here we are in the modern era, 52 years after martial law, not any less corrupt, not any more patriotic, and certainly, not independent with a majority population so very dependent on government handouts (plus some from the private sector and religious institutions). There has been no substantial improvement where it counts, like transparency and accountability, or the bridging of gaps between poor and the rich and powerful. Here we are, completely oblivious to the horrors we have experienced, so arrogantly confident that we can contain crime where China cannot.

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When the authoritarian state is afraid to be the regulator of gambling, the weak and fledgling of a democracy raises its hand to volunteer to regulate gambling. Worse, it is the kind of gambling that has become electronic and digital, as though we are experts of containing the daily scams and hacks that beset our financial institutions and transactions. Here we are screaming to China – give us your gambling, give us your gamblers.

For reasons we can each speculate about, China was only too eager to say yes, to facilitate Chinese characters to fund and operate online gambling businesses. Thus, the birth of POGO, literally meaning Philippine Offshore Gambling Operators. In the first place, the name is a misnomer. It is the offshore gambling operations of the Chinese, but it is an onshore operation of the Philippines.

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Because it is not an offshore operation that POGO is to us but one of brick and mortar, we are talking about buildings and communications infrastructure. And China, despite its authoritarian powers, keeps shying away from gambling because of its dirty effect on its social and economic fabrics. China must be having the loudest laugh of all watching the Philippines trying to regulate POGO.

China was afraid of corruption, so it was afraid to allow gambling to be legal and just be regulated. The Philippines does not seem to be afraid of corruption, or it welcomed POGO and today is paying a steep price. Containing corruption is not our strong suit, it is our weakness. Those who allowed POGO to come in with the excuse that we can regulate it must have been the most stupid. Or thought they were cunning.

Of course, as China knew beforehand, we embraced POGO and knowingly embraced the string of criminality it spawns. It is not as though there was no criminality here before POGO; our own history of gambling has had its bloody incidences and web of corruption that affected enforcement agencies. But with POGO, as it is in drugs, the tentacles of corruption run from the highest to the lowest officials on all three branches of government.

Only the most stupid or the greediest facilitated the entry of POGO into the Philippines. It is easy to point to Pagcor as the regulating body, and Pagcor is the common denominator. But Pagcor is not its own boss. Pagcor is simply not independent in any way, shape, or form.

The ugliness of corruption from POGO spreads like a virus. POGO now is the global face of corruption in the Philippines. There are many who say that the young Marcos wants to clean up the dirty reputation of his father. I can understand that. I can even believe that Marcos, Junior is willing to go all the way, legal or not, moral or not, to achieve that.

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POGO is evidence that corruption is here to stay. It is our curse and our shame. What a horrible legacy.

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