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There’s The Rub

That is culture

I READ an interesting story last weekend. In Japan, a 19-year-old was arrested in a case that has become a media sensation, producing all sorts of editorials on the subject. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison and a fine of $6,000.

His crime? Cheating in college entrance exams.

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The kid was caught using his cell phone to access the Internet to get answers to questions mainly involving Math problems and translating passages from Japanese to English. Someone saw the site postings, noted that the dates coincided with the exam days, and notified the university, triggering an investigation. The kid readily confessed to the wrongdoing.

An investigation is underway to see if this was merely an isolated incident or had been done by others. “It’s not a mere cheating case,” Mainichi said in an editorial. “The impact of the wrongful use of the Internet, capable of massively spreading information instantly, is huge.” The opinions have tried to gauge the implications of the crime and the severity of the punishment.

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None has asked if what the kid did is a crime. It is a given.

That is culture. To appreciate the richness of it, all we have to do is compare it with similar incidents in this country.

The cheating in the nursing exams some years ago, if I recall, came not just from the prospective nurses using their cell phones to get answers to questions but from the prospective nurses getting hold of the very exam papers they were supposed to answer before the exams. One mathematical theorem we do know is that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line: The best way to cheat is directly. No one got punished for it, let alone arrested and threatened with jail and a steep fine.

That is not to speak of the cheating that happened in the 2004 elections, which got to be exposed the year after. The Japanese kid merely used his cell phone to access the Internet to get answers to questions. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo used her telephone to access Virgilio Garcillano to get an answer to the question of how she might win by a million votes. Can you imagine how the Japanese would have reacted even to a minor version of “Hello, Garci”? They arrested a kid for cheating in entrance exams. We promoted a grownup who cheated in the elections to president.

It’s yet another proof of the power of culture to enforce things, or make them happen. Culture is the moving spirit behind laws. It’s the one thing that makes everything automatic, instinctive, reflexive. You see that in the way the Japanese do not even ask if cheating in exams is a crime. Everyone agrees, it is assumed. It transgresses the values of hard work and fair play. And you see that in the way the Japanese do not bother to press the authorities to do something about it. The authorities do so by their own initiative or compulsion, from a sense of duty. That is culture. It assures that where there’s a crime, retribution cannot be far behind.

But what is culture really but the voice of the people expressing itself through long-standing tradition and cherished values? What is culture really but the voice of the people crystallized into a code of honor or “ways of doing things” that will brook no trespass? What is culture really but the voice of the people turned into the will of the people, the resolve of the people, the marching orders of the people by repetitive action, by the doing of things again and again until they become reflexive and instinctive?

That is what we need to fight corruption.

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Can we ever reach a point where we would frown on cheating enough to punish a boy or girl who cheats in the NCEE? I don’t know, but we can always try. We can start by rejecting certain beliefs, beliefs that themselves became part of the culture by constant and repeated action and invocation. Beliefs such as, “Everybody cheats anyway,” when candidates do. The bishops certainly should stop saying that, if at all they cannot say the opposite, which is “If everybody cheats anyway, then it’s time it stopped.” Beliefs such as, “Everybody steals anyway,” when public officials do. The generals certainly should stop saying that, even if they are right about their civilian counterparts being worse than them, if at all they cannot say, “If everybody steals anyway, then it’s time it stopped.”

I do know that we have a sense of fair play too. I do know that we appreciate hard work too. I do know that we hate thieves too. We do chase snatchers in sidewalks and streets when a woman cries, “Magnanakaw!” and beat them black and blue when we catch them. We do that because we hold magnanakaws in contempt. We do that because kawawa naman the ale, old or young, who has to work like the rest of us, who is deprived of her cheap cell phone and whatever meager cash she has in her handbag.

The trick may lie in that: In a campaign to make us see, one, that public officials who appropriate taxpayers’ money are thieves, and, two, that they do not just steal from one another but from us. That is what taxpayers’ money is, it is money that belongs to us. To us who have to work our asses off to get by, to us who have to cough it up through VAT whenever we buy something. Kawawa naman us, to use text language.

And therefore corrupt public officials, however we define corrupt, are no better than the pickpockets who prey in the markets of Divisoria and elsewhere, than the snatchers who prey on the pedestrians in sidewalks, than the holdup men who prey on commuters in jeepneys and provincial buses. They deserve as well to be beaten black and blue instead of being invited to become the ninong at our son’s or daughter’s wedding.

That is culture.

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