P-Noy had some pretty uplifting things to say at the Asian Development Bank. “You (the ADB) have a commitment from my administration. Gone are the days when the funds you funnel to our country will end up like water leaking through a broken pail. We are prepared to follow through on our commitments, and you are by all means welcome to see if we’re living up to our word.
“We have had six positive ratings actions since we took over government a little less than two years ago—a stark contrast to the single upgrade and six downgrades in the nine years of the previous administration…. Investors and Filipinos alike see what is happening: Here is a country determined to turn the corner by instituting genuine, wide-ranging, meaningful reform, and acting on its belief that good governance is the bedrock of equitable progress.”
His ebullience was shared by Renato de Guzman, CEO of the Bank of Singapore. The Philippines, he said, which has recently seen new record highs in stock market trading, is earning the confidence of the world. “The image is improving a lot. It’s not the sick man of Asia anymore. There’s less corruption.”
Maybe not quite yet, but we’re getting there. Or at least there’s the promise we could get there, if we do not bungle it this time. We’re no longer the sick man of Asia only in the sense that we’ve ceased to be dysfunctional, a country led by a head of government whose megalomania—she projected herself as a central figure in Davos, whose advice on how to escape the global recession the leaders of the world’s greatest countries eagerly sought—was matched only by her (and her husband’s) kleptomania. And we’re no longer the sick man of Asia only in the sense that we’re slowly pushing back the culture of impunity, which is really the organic soil from which sprout rape and pillage, quite apart from murder and mayhem. You can’t get sicker than rewarding the wicked and punishing the good.
But we’re not quite all that well yet. Certainly not in terms of poverty and inequality, the twin banes that continue to hold this country in their grip. The plight of the farmers and workers remains dire and desperate, as the latter had cause to remind the world only last Tuesday, some groups complaining bitterly in particular about P-Noy taking his cue from the employers rather than the employed. And the divide between rich and poor remains spectacular, though we’ve become so inured to it we are no longer astonished by the mind-boggling contrast between the glitter of Ayala and the gutter of Payatas, between gliding Mercedes-Benzes and crawling karitons, between empty palaces in posh villages and bursting hovels in crime-infested slums. It takes a stunned foreign visitor to make us see it.
But still the change from then and now has been vast. The first decade of the 20th century and the last two years offer a mind-boggling contrast as well, one we cannot fail to sense, if not see. It gives us at least a chance of taking the first wobbly steps out of the sickbed, or a crack at cracking the puzzle of what has kept the Filipino at bay.
That brings us again to the fallacy, indeed silliness, of the proposition that P-Noy’s anticorruption campaign merely distracts from what government really needs to do, which is to improve the economy and curb poverty. That it merely reflects an avoidance syndrome on the part of an inept president: Those who cannot do, teach; those who cannot improve the economy reprove those who can.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. At the very least, stopping corruption directly affects the economy, or, since the economy is just an abstraction, the wellbeing of the people.
P-Noy himself cites the criminal wastefulness of the past. “Rice, imported at inflated cost by the government, was rotting away in rented warehouses. Stewards of GOCCs (government-owned and -controlled corporations) advanced their interest at the expense of the people. Bidding for public works had been orchestrated to favor individuals, again, at the expense of the people… Enforcing strict adherence to public bidding rules has allowed our Department of Public Works and Highways to save P6.14 billion from our 2011 budget.”
At the very most, stopping corruption, in more ways that have to do only with the theft of money, in ways that have to do with the theft of the soul, revives a country faster than you can say NBN. An ailing economy has something in common with an ailing person. The way out of it is not just through medicine, it is also through psychology. It is not just through tablets and injections, it is also through outlook and disposition. The economy is not about statistics, it is about people. It is about whether people are willing to make sacrifices because they believe those sacrifices will benefit their children in the end or likely only to become cynical, muttering, “Why in hell should I sacrifice when that will mean only more money in some people’s pockets?” The best medicine, as Reader’s Digest puts it, is laughter. Corruption kills laughter.
In fact, stopping corruption doesn’t just give us to hope, it gives us to aspire. What makes us the sick man of Asia too is that our whole trajectory, our whole predisposition, our whole agenda for at least the last half century has only been to survive or recover. A mind-boggling contrast with that of our Southeast Asian neighbors which has been to transcend and prevail. How in God’s name can you think heroic when you do not have a government to help you take giant strides, when you only have a government you are at pains to survive? The matuwid na daan is not just a road paved with good intentions, it is a road paved with the one thing that sustains a country and people:
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