Do public officials really want to stop corruption?

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Greg B. Macabenta

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That’s like asking if fish want to get rid of water. The answer is a resounding NO.

Public officials, from barangay tanods to the president of the Philippines and everyone else in-between, namely members of the Legislature, provincial and municipal/city officials, cabinet secretaries, civil servants, members of the military and the police, and the men and women in robes who guard the ramparts of our system of justice, could rid the country of corruption if they want to.

But while everyone will claim to be determined to combat corruption, there’s always someone who conveniently happens to be a rung above who “should initiate the cleansing process.”

It’s called passing the buck. And, to quote US President Harry Truman, the buck stops at the office of the president.

When the supporters of former Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte elevated him to the presidency on the promise of “change,” nobody really believed him. Not even Duterte himself nor members of his family.

What they really meant was changing the people in power so that they could take over the business of being in public office. That, in fact, is what public office is: a business from which office holders make a profit.

If the leaders of the country – meaning the president and the members of Congress – really want to get rid of corruption, they could. But that would be like fish being deprived of water or people being deprived of air to breath.

Among several ways of making honest public servants out of mere human beings out for a quick buck are three simple steps that could be taken:

1) Adapt the Unexplained Wealth law currently in place in such countries as Singapore, Australia and the United Kingdom;

2) Get rid of the multiple signatures required to get a simple application through the bureaucratic red tape; and

3) Apply the Sting tactic being used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the US.

Let’s discuss the first: the Unexplained Wealth law.

According to a study by Transparency International, Singapore is considered among the least corrupt countries in the world, next only to Denmark and New Zealand and ranked equally with Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. But, going by the account of the late Lee Kwan Yew, his island nation was a cesspool of corruption when he took office as Prime Minister in 1959.

In his book, From Third World to First, Lee recounts that one of the first laws that his government passed, to flush out corrupt public officials, was an “unexplained wealth” law by which any official who possessed wealth or assets beyond what could be reasonably afforded by legitimate earnings was presumed to have gained them illicitly. The burden of explaining the wealth and assets was borne by the official.

Late last year, Singapore passed the “Serious Crimes and Counter-Terrorism Bill that provides that “any person who possesses or uses any property that may be reasonably suspected of being, or of in whole or in part, directly or indirectly, representing, any benefits of drug dealing or benefits from criminal conduct shall, if the person fails to account satisfactorily how the person came by the property, be guilty of an offence.”

As in the original unexplained wealth law, the burden of proving the legitimacy of the questioned assets is borne by the suspect – a case of proving one’s innocence beyond reasonable doubt.

The United Kingdom and Australia also have similar laws designed to arrest money laundering by criminal enterprises overseas. Specifically mentioned have been the Russian mafia and South American drug lords.

Fat chance such a law will ever be proposed by members of the Philippine Congress and an equally fat chance that an equivalent ordinance will ever be filed in any provincial, municipal or city council. That would be like ordering the nouveau riche in government to explain how they happen to have hit the jackpot.

Back in the late 50s to 60s, at the height of the smuggling of “blue seal” cigarettes, the main suspect and inevitably tagged the King of Smugglers was a fisherman from Cavite named Lino Bocalan.

Bocalan reportedly had a novel way of explaining his enormous wealth. He claimed to have won the top prize in the sweepstakes several times. Of course, skeptical law enforcers assumed that Bocalan simply paid off legitimate winners in order to launder his unexplained wealth.

But those were the innocent days when folks felt compelled to explain how they suddenly became very, very rich without getting a substantial raise from their employers, much less from government.

These days, people in power simply brush off nitpicking media queries about sudden spikes in their Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN).

The Duterte family members, from the patriarch President Rodrigo Duterte to his children, Davao City Mayor and reported presidential wannabe Sara Duterte-Carpio and her brother, Paolo Duterte, have been under intense media scrutiny of late because of the unusually large jumps in their net worth, as reflected in their SALNs.

The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) has reported that “the three Dutertes have all consistently grown richer over the years, even on the modest salaries they have received for various public posts, and despite the negligible retained earnings reflected in the financial statements of the companies they own or co-own.”

Sara Duterte-Carpio reported an increase of 28.45% in her net worth, from P34.89 million in 2016 to P44.83 million in 2017, coinciding with the assumption of the presidency by her father and her own assumption as mayor of Davao City. Paolo Duterte reported an increase in net worth, from P8.34 million to P16.51 million for the same period. The PCIJ also noted that the president’s net worth nearly tripled.

And how has the presidential daughter explained her spike in net worth? She hasn’t. Instead she has dared the PCIJ or any interested party to file charges in a “correct venue” where she will give her “explanation.”

Of course, that is a better response than that given by the older Duterte who simply accused the PCIJ of being paid hacks out to get him for political reasons. Duterte hasn’t bothered to note that the “paid hacks” got their incriminating information from the SALNs filed by the Dutertes.

The second simple step? Eliminate the multiple signatures required to get through the bureaucratic red tape. But then, that would deprive the civil servants of the means to make shakedown money. Why would the members of Congress or the folks in Malacañang agree to change the system? That would deprive them of their share of the take.

And, surely, we haven’t forgotten the multi-million peso pork barrel rackets that simply required the signatures of senators and congressmen (some of whom are running for reelection).

And the third simple step? The Sting. The tactic of baiting the extorting and bribe-taking official scoundrels and catching them in the act.

But guess what will happen. The folks who set up the Sting will, instead, be stung. They will end up being accused…or end up dead.

So, who really wants to stop corruption in the Philippines? Just pass the buck please.


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