Learn to dance with the music

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Greg B. Macabenta

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Paying a visit to relatives in a small provincial town is always an interesting experience if you are a columnist desperate to find a new topic to write about. The topics I chanced upon, over bottles of beer and pulutan were not really new, but the insights I got provided additional dimensions to an earlier thesis that I had written about, namely, that there is no way corruption can be stopped in the Philippines.

The first harsh reality is that remaining squeaky clean and beyond reproach in the Philippines is a near impossibility or, at best, something for martyrs to aspire for.

Over three decades ago, I was CEO of a major advertising and public relations agency with a roster of clients to die for.

Invariably, some of the clients had PR issues that threatened their pristine corporate image. On a few occasions, the press relations specialists gave me the disturbing news that a business reporter was planning to write an unflattering piece about one of our prime clients.

Like a good CEO, my question was, “What can we do about it?


And like good press relations specialists, the response was, “We can talk to the reporter. But we will need a budget.”

I don’t recall ever having given the press relations specialists a scathing lecture on PR ethics.

In fact, like a businessman anxious to get an uncomfortable issue over with, I would tell them to “do what needs to be done and don’t bother to give me the details.”

In every case, the threat against the client vanished. I never bothered to ask the press relations specialists what they did. It sufficed that the client was happy.

Lest it be assumed that all media and journalists are on the take, allow me to relate an incident involving the late Letty Martillo-Locsin at the time that she was managing editor of Business Day (the forerunner of BusinessWorld).

Letty sent me a note, in my capacity as CEO of Advertising & Marketing Associates, that said tersely and bluntly, “Tell your client not to bribe my people.”

Disturbed, I called up Letty to ask for clarification. She told me that a member of the Marcos Cabinet, who was in the media spotlight for reportedly using government materials to build a house for his wife, had tried to bribe the Business Day reporter writing about the case. The reporter had informed management of the bribery attempt.

I told Letty that the public official involved was no longer a client of our agency but I was willing to pass on her warning to him. I added that perhaps the official was not personally aware of the attempted bribery and that a subaltern, eager to gain brownie points, could have done it on his own. I offered to get Letty through to a senior official of the department who could shed some light on the case.

I did exactly that and Letty was mollified.

But only temporarily.

A couple of weeks later, I received another note from Letty that declared, “He did it!”

Apparently, through a go-between, the official distributed envelopes to members of the press, including the Business Day reporter. The reporter promptly turned over the money to Business Day management which, in turn, donated the funds to a charity on behalf of the official. Letty’s note to me had the receipt for the donation attached.

The reason I have recounted this incident is to stress that not everyone in media can be bribed.

At any rate, over bottles of beer and pulutan, I related these incidents to my provincial relatives. But they did not even lift an eyebrow at my disclosure. For them, it was kalakaran or the way things are done in our country.

One of my relatives is a contractor with a number of small public works projects. The last time we discussed his means of livelihood, which was during the tenure of President Benigno S. C. Aquino III, he revealed that he had to part with 60% of his winning bid to land a contract.

According to him, a public works project was either the baby of the governor or the local congressman. Each had his or her own racket. The 60% was distributed from the top, which took most of the kickback, and was shared all the way down to the last signatory, aside from the folks in accounting who released the payment.

I asked him how things were in the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, the one with the promise of “change.” He beamed and agreed that there had been a change, “The kickback is now just 50%.”

I suppose a 10% reduction of the kalakaran is better than no reduction at all.

From the remaining 50%, funds have to be allocated to the public works project, after the contractor has set aside his earnings. But what about the quality of the project? According to my relative, the overprice already allowed for reasonably good quality materials being purchased.

“It’s the country that is being milked,” he admitted quite casually.

He finally conceded that inferior materials were also purchased with whatever was left of the contract price.

And then he added, “But what choice do we have? If we don’t agree to the arrangement, we don’t get a project. On the other hand, if we cooperate, everything is facilitated, including collection. They handle all the paper work.”

His final remark was, “We have to learn to dance with the music to survive.”

Now comes the build, build, build mantra of the Duterte administration. And before that, there were the many questionable public works projects during the tenure of Aquino.

And before Aquino, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. And before Arroyo, Joseph Erap Estrada. And before Estrada, Fidel V. Ramos. And before Ramos, the Kamaganak, Inc. of Cory Aquino.

And we have all heard about Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.

Are we to believe that the overseers of the multimillion-peso projects of Duterte are not making a fortune from kickbacks and overpricing?

Is it any wonder why such petty undertakings as providing plastic licenses to drivers and car registration plates to car owners take forever? Those thieves in the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board are fighting over the spoils from contracts and kickbacks from suppliers and the Department of Transportation’s various offices are in cahoots with the thieves. And if Secretary Tugade is not aware of this, he must be deaf and blind and dumb.

Over beer and pulutan, my relatives and I heaved a deep sigh, offered a toast to survival in our hapless country and conceded that they had no choice but to dance to the music the way almost everybody does.


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