Thursday, July 22, 2010


“A good intention clothes itself with power.” -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yes, but sometimes, the Emperor wears no clothes.

That’s not to call President Benigno Aquino III a fraud. You cannot say that of a man who won by a landslide. The son of martyred senator Benigno Aquino Jr. and the late President Corazon C. Aquino managed the feat by repeating what has become the nation’s mantra of hope: “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap.” (Without corruption, there would be no poverty.)

It may sound simplistic but that line contains a lot of truth.

Governance watchdogs say that much as 30% of the national budget is lost to corruption. Thirty percent of the 2010 national budget of P1.54 trillion is P462 billion. Here is what that amount of money can buy:

• Core shelters, if each costs just P300,000, for 1.54 million families (or 6.16 million Filipinos if all families only have four members);

• At P30,000 tuition a semester in the tertiary level – and this is a very low estimate -- the complete four-year course of 1.925 million students;

• The cost of a complete anti-TB protocol (at the high private pharma rate of P17,600 instead of P550 under the Global Drug Facility) for 26.25 million patients.

So I applaud Mr. Aquino’s vow to restore integrity and transparency to Philippine governance. And I agree that, “there can be no reconciliation without justice.”

But just how serious is the President about his vow?

The war against corruption largely hinges on a system of checks and balances. Even at its most cynical form, say that of an obdurate Senate hassling an executive branch with probe after probe, oversight plays an important role in bringing to light crooked deals.

But the real point of reforms is to prevent conditions from reaching a stage requiring legislators’ intervention. That means putting up natural barriers to collusion.

The opposite is what you achieve by appointing three members from the same family to key executive department positions (chief of the budget department, chief of the Presidential Management Staff handling Mr. Aquino’s discretionary fund, and chief of staff of the finance secretary) -- especially if their lone elected representative also becomes vice chair of the House appropriations committee.

Even if all the Abads are saints, it does not detract from the potential for abuse. And the potential is what Mr. Aquino should ultimately kill.

The other development is even more problematic.

To head the Truth Commission, the body tasked to lead the charge against perpetrators of corrupt deals and other abuses of the last decade, Mr. Aquino has chosen former chief justice and envoy to the United Nations, Hilario Davide Jr.

The problem is, ousted president Joseph Estrada, has accused Davide of actively lobbying for the CJ post, with no less than controversial taipan Lucio Tan as his chief patron.

Mr. Estrada claimed Tan summoned him to a meeting in the taipan’s penthouse and that Davide was present in that event. This story, of course, casts as much light on Estrada’s Presidency as it does on Davide’s very huge feet of clay. And that is why the former leader’s tale has the ring of truth.

Considering that Tan faced a billion-peso tax-fraud case at the time he sponsored Davide’s appointment, Mr. Estrada’s claim is highly disturbing. But not as disturbing as Mr. Aquino's cavalier dismissal of Estrada’s allegations – which neither Davide nor Tan have denied.

In the President's world view, if he chooses a person then there can be no question of that person's integrity. But last I checked, Filipinos had elected him President, not God Almighty.

I have praised Mr. Aquino for some actions in the past weeks. But there has been a consistent and troubling display of hubris on his part, even from when he was just one of the candidates for the land's highest post.

Mr. Aquino, sir, you cannot impose one standard for the enemy and another for your people. That is precisely why this nation has lurched from one crisis to another in half a century.

You certainly cannot defeat corruption by letting crooks conduct that war. And if you do not understand why Davide does not deserve to head a commission, much less one devoted to the unearthing of truth, then you, sir, give lie to very lynchpin of your campaign.

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