The wealth of politicians

FROM FAR AND NEAR - Ruben Almendras - The Freeman

The news in main and social media on the confidential and intelligence funds of some Filipino politicians has been on for weeks and still going. The speed with which it has been disbursed is amazing. The complicity and lack of ethics/morality of many lawmakers/politicians isn’t amazing or surprising, even if they had to eat their own words in previous positions. These funds seem to be the ultimate “blank check” for our politicians to spend government funds or people’s money without accountability.

Last week US Senator Menendez of New York was indicted for corruption after police found $560,000 cash, gold bars, and a luxury car in his residence, allegedly bribes from business and political lobbyists. He denied allegations, but there’s strong pressure from other senators and congressmen, even from his own party, for him to resign. This is just one way a politician becomes wealthy. In the Philippines there are many ways.

Unless a Filipino politician is already wealthy before he runs for office, the initial funding comes from donations/contributions from family, relatives, friends, businessmen, and the political parties. Some give with no strings attached but most expect payback if the politician gets elected. As soon as he assumes office, depending on the position and the size/financial resources of the town/city/province, he gets salaries and allowances and budget for the office which actually includes personal and living expenses. These may include salaries for some relatives, drivers, and even kasambahays, which are included in the official payroll. A one-term congressman told me that on his first day in office, checks totaling over ?1 million were on his office table. He didn’t run for another term as he felt he had enough money as a private businessman. This was in 2002.

Then, there are pork barrel funds, which are actually overpricing of government projects and programs that incumbent politicians get some 10% to 40%, that Mayor Magalong finds excessive. There are also undeclared commissions politicians get from granting permits for sand/gravel extractions and other natural resource exploitations, and in some localities even building/construction/business permits. If suddenly a small town mayor acquires a ?4-million SUV and a Ducati motorcycle, we should wonder.

In all societies and religions, corruption is disapproved and condemned not just because of morality but because it’s destructive to orderly living and co-existence. It’s unjust for people to get what they haven’t worked for or deserve. It’s a disincentive to productive endeavor and encourages idleness and mendicancy. It distorts resource allocations in a market-driven economy, skews priorities and retards economic progress. All these are known by great world leaders, government officials, academicians, government officials, and the politicians. In the real world, in all type of governments, democratic, socialist, autocratic, communist, etc., the objective is to keep corrupt practices of politicians at tolerable levels. As an undersecretary in the Arroyo administration once said, “moderate your greed”.

Singapore’s prime minister is paid $200,000 (?11,000,000) per month, Cabinet ministers get $100,000 (?5,600,000) per month, and members of Parliament gets $20,000 (?1,200,000) per month. Parliament members who aren’t ministers work full time in their own businesses and careers. Singapore has the least government corruption cases worldwide. The salaries with allowances of Philippine senators and congressmen come to ?5,000,0000 and ?2,000,000 per month, respectively, plus the extracurricular income from various sources. Our governors, mayors, and other local officials get between ?100,0000 to ?400,000 per month. Considering the lower standard of living in the Philippines, Filipino politicians aren’t underpaid. This is why all our elected politicians are wealthy.

Many years ago, while attending a World Bank-IMF forum in Manila, I sat beside then New Zealand Prime Minister Muldoon during lunch as he was alone. He told me that as prime minister he lives in his own house, drives his own car, has no bodyguards, and his neighbors drop by his home to complain even on weekends. I told him this will never happen in the Philippines. This was in 1976.

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