Gift-giving culture
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 16, 2019 - 12:00am

Some expats from advanced Western economies have told me they find it noteworthy that Filipinos make such a big deal of birthdays.

They also celebrate birthdays, they said, but these are usually low-key affairs, with only loved ones and perhaps close friends present. And they don’t have the extensive gift-giving that is common in our country not just for birthdays but also for all significant occasions: personal achievements, baptisms, and of course Christmas.

Commercial establishments have learned to take advantage of this aspect of our culture, by hyping up special events. We used to celebrate only birthdays, Christmas and New Year. Valentine’s Day later became a big thing for gift-giving and eating out.

Now we celebrate Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Grandparents’ Day. We trick or treat on Halloween and even some non-Tsinoys give out ang pao during Chinese New Year.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing: we like giving gifts. To celebrate, express gratitude, or express appreciation for some service rendered.

How do you reconcile this with laws that prohibit all government officials and employees including cops from accepting gifts?

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This week on Cignal TV / One News’ “The Chiefs,” we tried to make sense of the interpretation of the different laws, and came out still confused.

Commissioner Aileen Lizada of the Civil Service Commission told us that Republic Act 6713, the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, is unequivocal: accepting gifts from people government workers serve is prohibited.

This is the specific provision on gifts: “Public officials and employees shall not solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, any gift, gratuity, favor, entertainment, loan or anything of monetary value from any person in the course of their official duties or in connection with any operation being regulated by, or any transaction which may be affected by the functions of their office.”

For cops, this covers the entire population.

Greco Belgica, head of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission, on the other hand said if the gift is given with no expectation of anything in return, out of gratitude for example, then no crime is committed.

Belgica cited as an example an airport employee who finds P1 million in cash left behind by a passenger, and decides to return it. Out of gratitude, the passenger gives the employee P100,000. What’s wrong with accepting it?

Our discussion became even more confusing when Belgica was asked if he didn’t think P100,000 constituted an “excessive” gift.

Belgica said for the airport employee, P100,000 could be a lot of money. But for a passenger who can afford to give away P100,000, the amount is probably “nominal” or just right as a token of gratitude.

What should the airport employee do with it?

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Brig. Gen. Bernard Banac, Philippine National Police spokesman, says that PNP members are mandated to assist the public and must not expect – or accept – anything in return.

Banac, who also faced The Chiefs, said gifts are fine if given to the PNP and its units, but not if given to an individual. So gifts of food such as lechon and noodles or pancit are shared with the police team.

He said large-scale donations to the PNP from civic groups, such as police patrol cars, are also OK.

What if the donor is a jueteng lord? Some years ago, PNP officials admitted that jueteng barons made substantial contributions in cash and kind for police operations in areas such as Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog.

Banac said he was not familiar with this story, but he stressed that cops are not supposed to accept money from illegal activities.

Still, the “donations” given by the jueteng lords to the PNP (and individual police officials) are undoubtedly among the biggest reasons for the persistence of illegal numbers games nationwide.

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Even the idea that it’s OK to accept gifts as long as nothing is expected in return can be a slippery slope.

The typical gift to a government official is an investment in goodwill. It comes with the hope that the gift giver will be remembered if ever a time comes that the giver will need the official’s service, or at least help in facilitating a service provided by the official’s agency.

Obviously, a gift of pancit or even lechon for the team will not buy immunity from arrest for an offense such as murder or, in this age of tokhang, drug trafficking.  

Perhaps this is what Malacañang officials refer to as tokens of appreciation that cops can accept.

Like tips in restaurants, however, there can be more spring to a cop’s response for help from someone who has given gifts in the past – a guy, for example, who has bankrolled the police unit’s dinner parties – than to someone who has not.

Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who cracked down on kotong cops when he was PNP chief, has warned that from accepting tokens of appreciation, cops can move on to accepting bigger “gifts” that can compromise their integrity.

Lacson issued the statement after President Duterte effectively gave the PNP the green light to accept gifts – and it looks like the Chief Executive was referring not just to token or nominal items.

Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, who as PNP chief had accepted a junket for himself and his family from Sen. Manny Pacquiao to watch the boxer’s fight in the US, has admitted receiving lechon, a Lacoste shirt and wristwatch, among others.

The junket would have sent lesser mortals in the civil service straight to prison. The lechon must have been shared with other cops. The Lacoste and wristwatch, for Dela Rosa’s personal use, are in the category of Belgica’s P100,000: where do you draw the line between token or nominal and excessive? Would a Tag Heuer wristwatch be considered a token? What about a G-Shock?

Lizada thinks the law is clear enough about the prohibition on the acceptance of any gift. But lawmakers can consider tweaking the pertinent laws for clarity.

There are Filipinos who are genuinely generous and hospitable, who enjoy giving gifts without expecting any payback, and they don’t make distinctions between government workers and the rest of the population. And there are Filipinos who think declining a gift given in good faith is rude, silly or even an invitation to bad luck.

But there are also bribers and the corrupt who are covered by anti-graft laws, and who use the culture of gift-giving as an excuse for their criminal activities.

Where to draw the line has been a continuing challenge.

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