Crime and punishment

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

The big news in ASEAN last week was the decision of Malaysia’s top court to uphold the conviction of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak on charges related to a multi-billion-dollar graft scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

The punishment was immediate as the court ordered the former prime minister to begin a 12-year prison sentence. According to Reuters, court officials and sources close to Najib said he was taken to Kajang Prison, about 40 km away from Kuala Lumpur.

The conviction was stunning because until a few years ago, Najib governed Malaysia with an iron grip. He fired the attorney general investigating him. He suppressed local investigations of the 1MDB scandal.

Investigators have said some $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB – co-founded by Najib during his first year as prime minister in 2009 – and that over $1 billion went to accounts linked to Najib.

Najib is a British-educated son of Malay nobility, the eldest of second Malaysian prime minister Abdul Razak’s six sons, and the nephew of the third PM Hussein Onn Najib who held the premiership from 2009 to 2018.

Reuters reported that public anger over the graft scandal brought election defeat, and dozens of corruption charges were lodged in following months. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said the verdict proved the power of the people.

“The people made the decision in 2018 to ensure an independent judiciary and that the country is clean of bribery. That decision allowed proceedings to be brought professionally,” he said.

Surprise, surprise to us Filipinos. The Malaysian justice system works.

We, Filipinos, can only sigh and dream. One of our past presidents was actually convicted by the Sandiganbayan, but was pardoned within minutes by his successor in Malacañang.

Given how corruption is a way of life in our government, one of the mysteries of the universe is why no Filipino high official has gone to jail. Imelda Marcos was convicted by the Sandiganbayan, but the national police has publicly admitted they have no plans of arresting her.

Another former president was also indicted before the Sandiganbayan. The Office of the Ombudsman conducted the preliminary investigation and prosecution of the cases, which included one for plunder and corruption for entering into a manifestly and grossly disadvantageous contract with a telecommunications firm. But was exonerated by the Supreme Court.

Punishing former presidents isn’t such a novel idea among our neighboring countries. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) observed that “half of all living former South Korean presidents are now in prison.”

The last two South Korean presidents who were jailed for corruption were former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. Lee was sentenced to 15 years for charges involving 24.6 billion won (roughly $22 million).

Disgraced ex-president Park Geun-hye, was also given a 25-year sentence for various charges of corruption. Lee and Park’s lengthy prison sentences may seem striking for an established democracy, the AEI commented.

Newsweek observed that “at the root of South Korea’s corruption is the cozy relationship between government officials and the large family conglomerates running the country’s biggest corporations, who too often end up in jail on bribery and embezzlement charges.”

Sounds familiar except for the portion about officials and captains of industry involved in corruption ending in jail. Doesn’t happen here.

Former BSP deputy governor Diwa Guinigundo cited former deputy Ombudsman Cyril Ramos, who reported in 2019, his personal calculation that the Philippine government lost around P1.4 trillion in the previous two years or P700 billion a year, because of corruption.

“This was about 20 percent of the annual budget of the Philippine government. This was estimated as the equivalent of 1.4 million housing for the poor, medical assistance for around seven million Filipinos or a rice buffer stock for over a year.

“Somebody estimated that a kilometer of road, 11-meters wide or two-lanes on each side, would cost around P100 million. This means we could have had an additional 7,000 kilometers of road – that is all the way from Ilocos Norte to Bicol, seven times.

“Many years ago, the Department of Education estimated an average of about P1 million per classroom in the public school… Without corruption, we would have at least 700,000 classrooms.”

In recent months, we had the Pharmally multi-billion peso scandal over the purchase of medical supplies during the pandemic.

A few weeks ago, another scandal involving the same purchasing unit under the Budget Department was revealed. The Commission on Audit (COA) censured the Department of Education (DepEd) for failing to deliver on time P5.53 billion worth of computers… that were supposed to have been bought in 2020 from the PS-DBM, the very same PS-DBM involved in the Senate inquiry on Pharmally.

The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee uncovered telling details of “the deals, worth over P8 billion in all, were grossly and manifestly disadvantageous to the government.”

The ease by which the Pharmally and PS-DBM executives were exonerated by Duterte himself was amazing. Nothing much happened. And nothing is expected to happen.

The Ombudsman, who is supposed to fight corruption in government, doesn’t even want to make SALNs public. That would at least make it easier to figure out if a public official is making illicit money while in office.

Some senators have been implicated in the Napoles scandal involving misuse of pork barrel funds, but not one ended in jail.

One senator was re-elected after being cleared by the Sandiganbayan even as he was ordered to return P124 million to the national treasury. But his chief of staff, his co-accused, was convicted of plunder for the diversion of P224 million from the senator’s pork barrel funds. He died while serving a 40-year prison sentence.

Today, only the poor chief of staff of one former senator is still in jail.

Guinigundo observed that corruption has economic consequences.

“Recipients of public spending could lose what has been earmarked for them. Due to corruption, both investment and economic growth could drop. Like a tax, corruption discourages economic activity…”

Filipinos are apparently comfortable electing officials accused of corruption. That’s why there is no fear in raiding the national treasury with impunity.

When will the Filipino people be angry enough to punish those committing the crime called corruption?



Boo Chanco’s email address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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