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Getting into the ‘action’

With the 2018 national budget signed, and the new taxes that will partially fund this year’s committed infrastructure projects under the ambitious Build Build Build program in place, many eyes and ears are now open to the possibility of getting into the “action.”

Having to spend P1.1 trillion, equivalent to 6.3 percent of the country’s GDP, this year alone is more than enough to make those less upright bureaucrats of the Duterte government salivate and spend sleepless nights trying to find ways of cashing in on a percentage of any project.

And this is also why Transparency International, the world’s anti-graft watchdog, has put back the Philippines as among the countries that need some hawk-eye watching, even after strong pronouncements by the incumbent President of the republic that his wrath would fall on those found to be involved in corrupt acts.

Likened to a teflon pan, the President has managed to escape relatively unscathed on criticisms about his war on drugs where over 7,000 people to date have been summarily executed, and his belittling attitude on members of the Philippine media.

Whispers of widespread impropriety, however, could very well be the linchpin that could pull down the current President’s high popularity ratings.

No government projects, no corruption

“Tuwid na Daan,” the slogan of the previous government of president Aquino against corruption, had been credited in the improvement in the Philippines’ rank in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, to 34 (ideal score is 100) in 2012 from 38 in 2014.

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(It slid back a bit to 35 in 2015 and 2016. The 2017 score will be released within the month.)

While private sector economists had acknowledged the improved climate of transparency under the Aquino government, there have also been widespread attribution to the rise of social media, where citizen action using smartphones to capture acts of corruption have been gaining popularity.

But perhaps the biggest reason for the tempering of corruption in government is the fact that very few national projects with full government guarantees had taken off.

Instead, most new projects were undertaken under a public-private partnership scheme, where strong private sector involvement meant an absence of state funds.

But even these were finely scrutinized to the point that the Aquino government was accused of public investment paralysis which slowed down infrastructure spending and impeded the country’s sustained economic takeoff.

Populist governments

There’s really no telling yet just how resolute Duterte would be against corruption, largely because the administration is barely less than 17 months into power, and the big government projects are not yet rolling out. This year will definitely start to tell.

Transparency International argues that populist leaders are magnets for corruption, and this is mostly true for many governments that have had autocratic heads. Autocracy means a loss of democracies, and history has many examples of abusive leaders in these regimes.

We had our fair share, too, during the extended years of the Marcos leadership where the clamp down on press freedom, dilution of the judiciary’s independence, and the rise in cronyism and nepotism contributed to the bankruptcy of the state.

It can also be argued that Duterte could be the Philippines’ Lee Kuan Yew and do a similar Singapore rebirth that had catapulted the island state to become a first world economy. But then again, the scope of Singapore politics is limited by population size and land area compared to the Philippines.

Culture of corruption

Duterte is up against a far more complicated ecosystem than in his hometown Davao where he served in various capacities as a public servant. As he now realizes, eradicating drugs, even just in Metro Manila, requires more than just one death squad.

The culture of corruption is so entrenched in the country that a strongman’s menacing threats alone may not be enough to keep the crocodiles at bay, especially when you’re dealing with potentially billions of pesos in “commissions.”

Transaction corruption permeates at all levels of government, where simple acts of service need to be prompted by gifts or money. Getting permits for almost anything, some of which are not really needed, is often a major source of corruption.

Exports and imports go through too many stages, and this is also fodder for spawning corrupt practices. Income taxes are negotiable, especially among small businessmen who are more at ease in “building relationships” with local government personnel.

Mistrust in the police system

There is still a high level of mistrust in the police system, and the most glaring argument to this is the prevalence of private security companies, not just to guard office premises, but also the residences of its owners and top executives.

The judiciary system is, likewise, notorious for its slow action and unnecessary intervention in cases that stalls the startup or completion of business projects.

Worse, the rich most often have an upper hand in cases against the poor.

Remedies

We have an Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act that promises to go after reported corrupt acts, but this has been found wanting. For example, facilitation payments should be penalized in the same way that those in the private sector who commit bribery should be apprehended.

Fighting corruption needs to be institutionalized further in the ranks of government. Various laws need to be systematized and synchronized to gain maximum effect.

The seeds of good governance and moral ethical standards have been planted, but definitely needs a lot of watering, grooming and mulching to become healthier.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reydgamboa@yahoo.com. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.

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