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It was with mixed feelings of admiration and disgust, hope and despair, shock and resignation that I listened to DZBB broadcaster Mike Enriquez interview Manila’s new mayor, Isko Moreno.

The topic was Moreno’s remarkable first few weeks in office during which he launched a massive and no-nonsense drive to rid the city of vendors who for years had literally occupied the streets of the Divisoria, Blumentritt, and Quiapo areas.

Without mentioning his predecessor, former mayor and former president Joseph Estrada, Moreno described the lawlessness that had prevailed in the city due to the vendors alone. Apparently abetted by city authorities, this had been going on for years to the tune of P5 million a day in kickbacks.

The vendors, having taken over the sidewalks and the streets, left hapless pedestrians with no choice but to walk long distances, the jeepneys plying the route being unable to drive through and deliver passengers to the original drop-off and pick-up points.

Upon assuming office, Moreno launched his clean-up campaign to the applause of city dwellers and the wordless chagrin of city racketeers. The irony is that the same racketeers and their collectors have had no choice but to implement the clean-up.

Now, the streets have been cleared of vendors. They have, on the other hand, been consigned to legitimate, city-sanctioned areas from which to do business.

According to Moreno, this initial effort is like affecting the proverbial tip of the iceberg. He must plod on and clean up the rest of Manila, a huge area that could keep him occupied for the rest of his term of office.

Clearing the streets of vendors, needless to say, is just one part of Moreno’s campaign to restore order in the country’s premier city. Everyone is supposed to know about the rackets in City Hall encouraged by the infernal processes that require infernal signatures and approvals, each signature requiring infernal grease money. If the bribes collected from the vendors amounted to P5 million a day, one can hardly imagine how much the City Hall kickbacks yield.

But what was truly shocking, as revealed in the interview, was the fact that the premises of Manila’s main administrative quarters had become a literal shithole, with feces scattered all over.

The inevitable question had to be asked: How long can Moreno sustain his mission? Will he — can he — persist?

Moreno’s response was as sincere as it was naïve. He said that he could not clean up and restore order in the city alone. He needs the help of city residents. According to him, when — and if — the vendors take over the streets again, it means that he has succumbed to temptation and has also been corrupted.

Moreno’s sincerity has the whole city applauding him, as well as residents of the rest of graft-ridden Metro Manila and nearby provinces.

They’ve even begun to talk about drafting Moreno for president — another case of the Peter Principal where an otherwise competent person is promoted to his level of incompetence,

What is tragic is that the same city residents who have been applauding Moreno’s efforts have been responsible for the city’ filth — in the same manner that the city authorities helping Moreno in his campaign to rid Manila of corruption are also the principal bribe-takers and extortionists.

One can only surmise that these racketeers are just biding their time. They are surely reassuring each other that Moreno is just another ningas cogon (a trait of enthusiastically starting something then quickly losing enthusiasm) or a one-day wonder who will inevitably grow weary of his Quixotic quest and finally give up and “join the fun.”

Meanwhile the rackets will continue but at a more discreet pace. Bribe-takers and bribe-givers are two sides of the same coin. People who want to jump the line will always find someone willing to facilitate this for a fee. Scofflaws who want to avoid traffic penalties will always find an accommodating cop willing to forego the ticket in exchange for a few hundred pesos. And those who want a promotion, bypassing others, will always find an influential go-between who can persuade a senior person to persuade an even more senior person to persuade the ultimate decision-maker to cooperate and sign off on the promotion.

The culture of corruption is as old as Adam and Eve.

Former Malacañang resident Imee Marcos once described the palace as a “snake pit.” She could have applied that description to the rest of society. There are snakes all over. And not just in government.

Media and my lifelong industry, Advertising, are snake pits as well. Indeed, where there are folks who wield the pen of approval over millions and billions in contracts, there will always be “entrepreneurs” who will pay thousands and millions to land those contracts. The commission or finders’ fee or facilitators’ fee is simply rolled into the total cost.

And, in the case of Media, where there people who can build up or ruin political and business careers with choice reportage or exposes, there will always be ambitious or notorious individuals willing to pay the price of promotion or discretion.

According to an acquaintance who is familiar with the dynamics of kickbacks, if you were in the shoes of the potential bribe-taker, you can only resist the temptation of hundreds or even thousands but will invariably succumb to the siren song of millions or billions.

A classic exchange between a well-meaning corporate person and his pragmatic friend went this way:

“You are not rich because you refuse to be bribed.”

“Yes, but at least I can sleep well.”

“Oh yeah? The bribe-takers also sleep well — in air-conditioned rooms.”

Back to the inevitable question: How long can Mayor Isko Moreno keep up the campaign to clean up Manila?

Hopefully, “Yor-Me” (as Moreno likes to be called) will persist and resist and insist on achieving what most public servants in the Philippines consider an “Impossible Dream” (the theme song of The Man of La Mancha).

What could happen, on the other hand, is that some crusading reformists will become so impressed by Moreno’s dedication and nobility that they will draft him for higher office — or even the presidency.

In such a case, we could see the Peter Principal at work — or shall we call it the Duterte Principle?


Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.