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Commentary

The greater tragedy

12:05 AM June 01, 2015

THE FIRE at the slipper factory of Kentex Manufacturing Corp. in Valenzuela City, where 72 workers were killed, showed once again the greater tragedy: In this country, basic governance issues are given serious attention only when a crisis has already arisen. Of course, the investigation has yet to be completed and what exactly happened with respect to code violations has yet to be fully available. But the norm seemingly favors violations of zoning, building or fire ordinances, or occupational safety standards, among various regulatory requirements. The common culprit is graft and corruption.

This may seem a sweeping indictment. But let it be a challenge for reflection by every citizen.

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It takes two for graft and corruption to be operative. On one hand is the private party who wants to have its transaction facilitated and its requirements met without hassle; on the other is the public official ready and willing to oblige and justify cutting corners to deliver the service requested. This can be as simple as getting ahead of the queuing protocol or as complicated as issuing building and business permits when such may challenge zoning, engineering and legal prescriptions. The consideration may be simple (nonfinancial) or substantial (multiples of fees saved or benefits derived). Whatever arrangement finally transpires, a violation has happened: Either a constituent is simply disadvantaged or standards are swept aside. Mediocrity in the delivery of the public service is the outcome as work values get prostituted. Public service no longer becomes public trust.

Over the decades, the system seems to have been institutionalized as the standard operating procedure or “SOP.” The parties involved, private and public, no longer find the arrangement wrong as it has been recognized as part of the system. They are simply included in the norm. Who will be intimidated by formal investigations then if the SOP can be relied upon? Will media coverage provide the Fourth Estate’s quest for truth, or will “envelopmental” journalism make oversight “overlook”?

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These observations are highly speculative. There is hardly evidence that will demonstrate that these arrangements are happening. They have generally become routine; they seem to be the regular way things are done. Hopefully, not all are rotten in the basket. And perhaps SOP is the exception rather than the rule? But who will know? Only when there are whistle-blowers with documents, like Benhur Luy and company, that the prospect of exposure gets a chance.

After 18 years, there were convictions in the case stemming from the 1996 Ozone Disco fire in Quezon City, where 162 were killed. Accountability was finally proven. There was also a fire in 2001 at the Manor Hotel in Quezon City where 75 died. What used to be the hotel is now Destiny Memorial Chapels, a crematorium and a columbarium. Does the zoning in this part of Quezon City allow this type of service and business? Were there structural adjustments made in the burned hotel even if its use has been converted to cremating the dead and keeping the ashes in urns and vaults? This must be one creative business that sufficiently impressed Quezon City’s business licensing and building officials to have allowed its operation: burning the dead where hotel guests burned to death.

It is not only in public-private transactions where SOPs are said to take place. In private-private transactions, such deals apparently happen, too. The culture of graft and corruption seems endemic in Philippine society, a reality that justifies a cultural revolution, the nonviolent kind. We are all guilty! The road to transformation can only begin when the problem is recognized. The country cannot forever be in denial mode.

The overall social framework is conducive to the culture. For example, when fines for traffic violations are increased, the likely outcome will not be less traffic violations but a bigger take for the traffic enforcers proposing to a violator a discount from the higher fine. When a taxpayer submits an honest and complete tax return, being made to undergo an intimidating audit can be a disincentive for the honesty. The taxpayer and the revenue officer splitting savings from tax payable is a seemingly longstanding formula. Rigging a bidding through a well-thought-out conspiracy among the concerned parties is reportedly in vogue, too. There can be a million and one ways for graft and corruption to happen.

Again, are these too-sweeping judgments on our society? Self-reflection is necessary. And even if one can say that one has not been a party to graft, has one been a witness and done nothing to prevent it? It is very easy to be indifferent. What can one really do, after all? How can one fight City Hall?

Elections are less than a year away. The positioning for national posts is beginning to heat up. There is always an opportunity to right a wrong, to dare go where no one goes in pursuit of the impossible dream. It is easy to despair when the odds for transformation seem tilted toward the status quo. The mindset of entitlement needs extreme moderation. We can read posters by some politicians declaring that they deserve the positions they hold until forever. Entitlement is one big drawback to transcending the culture of graft and corruption. A major overhaul of the mindset is called for. The revolution must be waged beginning with the self, with the help of institutions where the cultural revolution must happen in the first place.

Now is the time for Filipinos to act. The process of selecting the right leaders who will right the norm begins today.

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Danilo S. Venida ([email protected]) holds undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from the University of the Philippines and the Center for Research and Communication/University of Asia and the Pacific. He is a former president of the Philippine Daily Inquirer and is now a business consultant.

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