Benjamin Diokno, reformist official

THIRD EYE - Ramon J. Farolan - The Philippine Star

Two weeks ago, Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno introduced to members of media “the elephant in the room,” referring to his proposal for needed reforms in the military and uniformed personnel (MUP) pension scheme. He lamented that the current situation “is not sustainable” and could result in fiscal collapse.

As I recall, it was in January 2018 that Diokno announced at an annual general meeting of the PMA Alumni Association that, effective January 2018, president Duterte has doubled the compensation package of soldiers and policemen. He said it was the fulfillment of a campaign promise made by the president during the last elections.

He also announced that the pension of retired officers and men of the security forces would be adjusted according to rates called for by law, starting in 2019. For many of us in the retired sector, this was the first significant increase in our pension after years of service in the military.

My question: If the MUP pension scheme was unsustainable and could lead to fiscal collapse, why was it approved and implemented by civil government officials including Ben Diokno? If he did point out the adverse effects of the pension scheme and his voice was overruled, perhaps he should have considered politely tendering his resignation, saying his “health was in serious condition” or simply stating what he felt that he possibly could not go along with the scheme, considering the effects on the budget. But he preferred to go along – get along, go along.

Why is it so difficult for Cabinet officials to tender their resignations when they have a fundamental disagreement with the president involving the safety, the financial and military security of the nation? In December 2018, after president Donald Trump announced that US troops would be pulled out of Syria, Defense Secretary James Mattis, highlighting the importance of supporting US allies, disagreed with Trump’s position and tendered his resignation. Part of his letter to the President read: “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on this and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

Second, in the Bible according to Matthew, Chapter 7, the Almighty declared: “Why, then, do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye? How dare you say to your brother, ‘Please, let me take that speck out of your eye when you have a log in your own eye? You hypocrite! First take the log out of your own eye and then you will be able to see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.’”

According to a report of the Commission on Audit, for the second time in a row, as BSP governor, Benjamin Diokno is the highest-paid government official, having received P41.8 million in salaries and allowances last year. The same report said that Diokno’s pay in 2021 was more than double the P19.7 million he received in 2020. He was also the highest-paid government official that year, the COA said. People must be wondering what spectacular financial activity did he carry out for the nation in 2021 that resulted in his take-home pay being doubled.

Third, why is the MUP pension scheme the only target of Ben Diokno? If reforms are indeed needed to prevent fiscal collapse, why not call upon the entire nation to make some sacrifices? Otherwise, we might have a bloody revolution on our hands.

Let us start with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. Perhaps they could reduce their salaries and allowances. After all, when they leave government service, they are easily welcomed with high-paying jobs in the private sector as consultants or advisers or board members.

Let us look at the judiciary. The pension scheme for retiring judges is much more elaborate than that of the military. Even before retirement, for every three years of serving in the judiciary, justices and judges and court personnel receive a percentage increase in basic salary. The standard retirement package for a justice or judge includes: After five years, the monthly pension pegged to their last service rank is adjusted to the same salary rates as the judges or justices still in the service. There is no mention of the judiciary by Diokno.

We have a bloated bureaucracy with so many undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, executive assistants and deputy executive assistants. We keep talking about streamlining the bureaucracy to save money but instead we simply get more and more people in to the system, with little corresponding benefits for the average citizen.

Let us also look into the huge discretionary and intelligence funds of the different government agencies who have little to do with problems of security. Perhaps, this will contribute to better utilization of available budgetary finances.

Finally, if I may add, the biggest “elephant in the room” is not the MUP pension scheme. It is corruption in government and inequality in society. We have one law for the high and the mighty, and another for the ordinary or marginalized sectors of society. The latest Transparency International Report ranks the Philippines in no. 116 among 180 countries in the 2022 Global Corruption Index. It shows the Philippines as among the “significant decliners” in the Asia-Pacific region. In simple language, we are actually deteriorating when it comes to the problem of corruption.

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