There’s the Rub

Light of day

Ever Abasolo, a fellow of International Alert, sent me this eye-opener. He did some calculations, he said, after reading all the news stories about Janet Lim-Napoles and the scam she perpetrated with the collusion of mayors, congressmen and senators, and came up with this.

Ten billion pesos could have: built 1,000 moderately equipped rural health centers; or rehabilitated 1,400 kilometers of provincial roads; or fed 763,475 hungry children for a year; or rehabilitated all the community farms devastated by typhoon “Pablo”; or renovated 5,000 public schools; or bought 10 million books to be used by schools and public libraries; or eradicated the problem of rural communities not having access to clean water; or provided sanitary toilets to 250,000 impoverished families; or built decent housing for 30,000 informal settlers/families; or provided 28,000 IP (indigenous peoples) children access to full primary and secondary education; or given 50,000 farmers with access to micro-insurance for a year; or provided 25,000 scholarship grants for a bachelor’s degree to underprivileged and deserving students; or given health insurance of 625,000 poor Filipinos for 10 years.


At about the same time I got this, Cardinal Chito Tagle was unburdening himself of his horror and sorrow over the scam. At a press conference in UST, he said: “Who would not be shocked about it? You can see the magnitude of the money involved. Your heart would be crushed. How can someone do this to his fellow man?

“Whoever is involved there, I appeal to you, visit a community of informal settlers… walk there at night and you will see on the sidewalk the families who open these cartons on which they would sleep. Maybe if you could hold their hands, your hearts will also be touched. Sometimes, I think those who did this were able to do so because the poor are absent in their lives. Maybe they don’t see them or refuse to see them.”


These two complement each other, the one touching the head and the other the heart, but both giving us to glimpse the enormity of what has been lost in the pork scam alone. And what is being lost in the other scams that continue to be hatched in high places.

Nothing like Abasolo’s computations to drive home not just the scale of the loss but the scale of that loss to the poor in particular. Only recently, SWS again reported how the number of families that went hungry over the second quarter rose over the first—4.9 million from 3.9 million. This was true for those who experienced both “moderate hunger” and “severe hunger.” When you think of how the sum involved in the pork scam alone could have fed 763,475 hungry children for a year, you will be overwhelmed like Tagle, too.

It does give a face to corruption, but I don’t know if even that face will stoke us to a collective outrage or move us to rise to demand a stop to it. “’Pag walang corrupt, walang mahirap” was the mantra that brought P-Noy to power, but to this day I wonder how deeply that concept is grasped. Specifically, I wonder how deeply, if at all, the public sees the connection between the one and the other, or sees it as cause and effect.

In fact, for you to see that connection between the corrupt and mahirap, you first have to see the corrupt and mahirap, and astonishing, or absurd, as this may sound, I don’t think we do. Both have been rendered invisible by the most opaque psychological or cultural filters.

The corruption has become invisible because the mind-boggling sums are so huge they truly boggle the mind. Billions are an abstraction. Millions are an abstraction. Hell, even hundreds are an abstraction to those who have to draw out their coins from dirty handkerchiefs to get through the day. And the corrupt have become invisible because we do not really see them seizing those sums from us. We see those sums as their money. The corrupt are merely those who are too greedy, too swapang, to leave the rest of us some crumbs or balato  in food, relief goods, and a schoolhouse or two. The corrupt persist not just because the public does not stop them but because the public does not see them.

And sublimely ironically, teeming as we are with the poor, surrounded as we are by the poor, pressed on all sides as we are by the poor, we do not really see them. The sight of street children playing  matadors  to cars to sell Winston,  basahan, and a squirt of water with or without soap on windows alongside a gleaming SM City and Trinoma is not the most startling thing in the world, it is the most natural one. They have melted into the landscape, like a pothole, or the smoke belched by a jeepney, or like the high wall with bits of broken glass crowning them. Or like the hum of idling motors, the crash of rampaging water, the noiselessness of the dying, a jumble of noise or silence, incapable of word or speech or coherence. An inanimate thing.

I do not entirely share Tagle’s optimism about good lying in the hearts of everyone, and about the corrupt, if they can only hold the hands of a child whose shanty has just been demolished, possibly having a change of heart, or head. But I do think most others, who are the rest of us, are capable of tremendous empathy and can be stricken by conscience or shocked by recognition at the sight, or sound, or smell, or feel, or something like this. Immersion—what a wonderful word, suggesting as it does being submerged in the starkness of reality, like being submerged in the waters of life during baptism—has been known to do wonders for the unknowing soul, for the callused body.


’Pag walang corrupt, walang mahirap. True, but first we must see the corrupt, first we must see the  mahirap. We must make the unseen seen. We must make the invisible visible.

We must drag out the hidden into the light of day.

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