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Commentary

Unleash the Ombudsman

Every year Transparency International releases the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) to demonstrate the extent of public-sector corruption in nations. In the 2015 CPI, the Philippines ranked 95th out of 168 nations.

Presumably, this result did not sit well with the incumbent administration given its avowed driving force, the “daang matuwid” (straight path). Indeed, this can even be seen as an embarrassment for Malacañang.

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Expectedly, the five presidential candidates have put a high premium on fighting graft and corruption in their campaign platforms. Mar Roxas continues to hype the purported success of daang matuwid and only promises to improve on the administration’s anticorruption strategy.

Curiously, Rodrigo Duterte, Miriam Defensor Santiago and Grace Poe are promising the enactment of good governance laws as if Congress will move simply on their say-so.

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However, the anticorruption discourse in the election campaign takes a turn for the absurd and unbelievable with the promise of Jojo Binay to do a much better job at prosecuting graft and corruption in government.

It is quite clear that the five presidentiables have not utilized the CPI in drafting their respective anticorruption strategies. Obviously, nations that rank high in this index can serve as the standard to emulate with regard to establishing an effective anticorruption measure.

For many years now Singapore has consistently been perceived as the least corrupt country in Southeast Asia, thus making its anticorruption framework the most logical benchmark for the Philippines to follow. Yet none of the five presidentiables has done so despite the fact that Singapore’s anticorruption strategy has been widely studied by scholars and policymakers alike.

I am citing two articles here to highlight vital lessons from Singapore’s experience in defeating corruption, which the Philippines can adopt without difficulty.

The first, titled “Corruption in Asia: Pervasiveness and Arbitrariness,” was published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Management in 2007. One of the insights in this article is that maintaining only one independent anticorruption agency has proven to be very effective in curbing corruption in the public sector.

In Singapore, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau is the only state office mandated to investigate corruption in government. This agency prides itself in the unimpeachable integrity of its personnel. However, the most critical quality of this institution is its insulation from politics. Its one and only mission is, “To Combat Corruption through Swift and Sure, Firm but Fair Action.”

The equivalent entity for the Philippines is the Office of the Ombudsman. The Constitution describes this institution as “protectors of the people.” It is a constitutional office endowed with substantial investigatory and prosecutorial powers to basically enforce the constitutional tenet “Public officers and employees must, at all times, be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency; act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives.”

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Notably, however, the presidents elected since 1992 have each created their own anticorruption office. Therefore, instead of just having one agency to tackle this problem, we have multiple agencies. And many anticorruption experts believe this is precisely why the Philippines has failed in the battle against this heinous problem.

As we have seen many times in the past, the “turf war” syndrome has afflicted the various anticorruption offices. And if not engaged in the blame game, officials of these agencies rarely coordinate with each other. Moreover, spreading funds across different agencies performing the same mandate actually diminishes the effectiveness of all to produce the desired outcome.

The second article is “Combating Corruption in the Asia-Pacific Countries: What Do We Know and What Needs to be Done?” published in the International Public Management Review in 2009. One conclusion here worth highlighting is that “political will” is the most important prerequisite for an anticorruption mechanism to be successful.

Meaning, if government leaders are dead serious in defeating graft and corruption, they must allocate the required resources to support the anticorruption strategy. As the adage goes, put your money where your mouth is. Otherwise, the anticorruption aspiration is just a typical Pinoy politician’s election promise.

Moreover, political will equates to the impartial enforcement of anticorruption legislation. In our context, this would ultimately mean that no one in Malacañang, save probably the one during his or her term, should be untouchable for the duly recognized anticorruption agency. Our experience shows that an office created by the president would not meet this criterion.

Following the Singapore standard, therefore, the most viable and sound approach to get rid of corruption in government is to simply allow the Office of the Ombudsman to perform its function completely unhindered. Now this is not exactly a hard proposition considering that the incumbent Ombudsman is widely seen as “on the job.”

We need a presidential candidate who will not treat “anticorruption” as a mere election showpiece but as a permanent mechanism of the state operated exclusively by the Ombudsman as designed in the Constitution.

Correspondingly, the more believable demonstration of political will to fight corruption is an unequivocal assurance to voters that the following commitments shall be made in the first State of the Nation Address:

First, that all other anticorruption offices within the executive branch will be immediately abolished. That henceforth, there is only one agency tasked with investigating and prosecuting corruption in government and that is the Ombudsman.

Second, that the fiscal autonomy of the Ombudsman will never be compromised. That the executive will never short-change the budgetary allocation for this office. Additionally, that Malacañang will provide full support to the Ombudsman whenever sharing or loaning government resources is necessary.

Third, that Malacañang will not obstruct in any way the work of the Ombudsman. Corollary thereto, that the Office of the President will not protect political allies and family members from the Ombudsman. That the latter will absolutely have free rein in investigating and prosecuting corrupt behavior in the public sector.

Fourth, that the community, academe, media, civil society organizations, and business groups should all rally behind the Ombudsman. That all Filipinos are enjoined to help the office and proactively participate in the war against corrupt officials in government.

Accordingly, the anticorruption narrative in this campaign must now be reframed this way. Should we adopt a strategy which is already a proven success? Or should we insist on one whose effectiveness is debatable at best? This should be an easy enough choice to make.

Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a practicing lawyer, is the author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He conducts research on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism.

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TAGS: corruption, corruption perceptions index, Elections 2016, ombudsman, Singapore, Transparency International
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