October 25, 2019
RETIRED Supreme Court justice and former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales gave the 18th Ongpin Memorial Lecture this year (disclosure: the lecture series is named after my late husband, Jaime V. Ongpin).
It was a comprehensive and educational talk on corruption, which is the bane of this country and many others. That we are not alone is not a comfort, but a red flag to alert us that human nature is prone to take the path of corruption. That is a premise of our humanity. Thus, public office, or rather power, does not sanctify the power holder, as aptly and accurately said by Lord Acton: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
As justice Morales traced corruption as the shadow that can accompany power from ancient times, she also analyzed the many ways it is practiced according to the society that hosts it. In Asia, it is basically blood relationships or misplaced loyalty, or quid pro quo — I do you a favor, you return the favor, laws and ethics are not to be paid attention to when a favor has to be returned. It is a transaction for personal, not societal benefit. Here it is called utang na loob, which apparently vaults over morality, law, ethics or whatever social norms we ourselves declare as values. Note how many of us put family over God and country when we know it should be otherwise. Those who strive against the norms we have adopted as a society to benefit their families while in public office are guilty of bad governance and corruption. The use of power for personal benefit is the definition of corruption.
We have a welter of laws and institutions that are specifically constituted to fight corruption. We have the cases that have been filed all the way to leaders of the country. We have the sermons and homilies, the general alarm that corruption should be opposed. But the effect is unsatisfactory. The laws can be bent to reduce or remove punishment; those who have been convicted can return to society as though nothing happened and aspire and attain power all over again, the very power that brought them or enabled them to engage in corrupt acts. Those who get years of jail, life imprisonment, the big fines, prohibition from holding public office, removal of benefits and loss of what they stole seem to be only the small-town mayors, the court clerks, the chiefs of staff — the lowly employees. The big shots get the big-time lawyers, of which paradoxically we have many, that can manipulate the laws enough to exculpate their clients. justice Morales did not use the word “impunity,” but there it is in action.
So, where do we begin to control corruption, to make it scarce and shameful, particularly in public office? The fight against corruption must begin way before ambitions to be rich are formed, way before materialism, consumerism and luxury become the goal of a life because these are the headwaters of corruption.
And that is in the family, from childhood. Justice Morales quoted Confucius, who said the struggle against corruption or bad governance, which makes a country weak and discontented, must begin when bringing up children. The young must be inculcated in what is right and wrong, good and bad; what is allowed and what is forbidden, and why it is so. They must be told what are the real and meritorious values in life — honor, truth, work and the ability to uphold them in the face of temptations to break the law, cut corners, cheat someone or betray public office. Success must be honorable, meritorious and not counted in terms of money and possessions. Because usually an excess of the latter can mean an excess of crimes to acquire them. If the lessons must be learned by the young, the example of the elders must show that they practice what they preach.
Naturally, the institutions that have been placed to oppose corruption must be based on the rule of law, on the principle that everyone , whatever their status in life, is equal under the law. Laws must be implemented fairly and strictly. Those who are guilty must pay the price. And society must demand, understand and accept it.
But if things do not turn out the way our society has envisioned, what can be done while impunity rages?
Justice Morales said the Filipino people must ultimately take responsibility, must act to right things. It is our country and it is us who make it up. I myself say, taking off from the subject of public responsibility, that in a democracy, which is what we attempt to be, the responsibility to right things rests with the people — those who elect the leaders, those who have the power to place people in public office. The elements of the public that we speak about, besides the voters as a whole, are the media, public opinion, citizen action, institutions from law to governance, from schools to cultural organizations, from business to professions. Everyone together should assert in the form of declarations and decisions against what is seen as wrong. They must voice their opinions, their opposition, take charge to point out the wrong and demand what is right.
At this point, it comes down to education from the family onward to the social institutions from schools to the legislature to the judiciary. Every society must strive for education in values and ethics that give the people power to discern who should be their leaders, who to give the power to govern.
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