Corruption Not Invincible After All

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Napoles begins to crack, and the crack can be major. It goes beyond the smaller details that most commentaries are focused on. Rather, Napoles spilling some or all that she knows about what she did and whom she did it with breaks the myth that crime pays.

Certainly, I have no illusions that some will get away. I have no doubts either that many will not, especially when they thought they had already covered their tracks. There is a wall that seemed invincible except by People Power. After all, two versions of People Power did trigger plunder raps against two presidents.

Today, though, another former president faces plunder cases. It did not take for people to rush to the streets, it just asked people to support PNoy when he took on a disgraced and impeached Chief Justice. That now removed Chief Justice appeared to many as one who would provide legal cover to a plunder that may yet prove to be worse than the Marcos experience.

Decades of corruption not only stole hundreds of billions of people’s money but, in fact, skewed the very standards of accepted morality. Corruption from the very top produced two presidents who found their way to being named among the top ten of the world’s most corrupt leaders. A third, Gloria Arroyo, can find herself in that dirty global list when more whistleblowers come into play.

The corruption of presidents effectively extended the era of colonial masters when the Filipino people and their natural wealth were looted legally. Colonial rule was done by Spain and the United States for primarily one reason – to take what belonged to the natives, whether these be their slave labor, the fruit of that, or the hordes of gold and silver of our land. Japan would have done the same had it been given more time.

Independence, then, was what corrupt presidents stalled from growing in the hearts and minds of Filipinos after 1946. Because societal leaders became as rapacious as the colonial masters they replaced, the majority of Filipinos have felt no difference in their impoverished state. The wealth of the land was denied them, especially as the land that was first grabbed by Spain from our ancestors has not been returned to the rightful owners.

The attitude of submission that emerged from centuries of foreign rule aided by local warlords or collaborators, the Filipino people lived with resignation and acceptance of wrong being right if it is so mandated, or modeled, by those in society who rule them. This attitude of submission has persisted beyond colonial rule. Native leaders who took over after 1946 did little to empower the people but did much to extend the two-tiered, contrasting reality of status and opportunity. How else could two presidents become part of the world’s most corrupt elite and another one on her way if the people had not accepted their deprivation even in the face of scandalous wealth of public officials?

Over the same centuries, and especially over the last 45 years since Ferdinand Marcos, corruption defined governance. Even Corazon Aquino, unwilling to use her revolutionary powers to cut deep incisions into a cancerous bureaucracy ably complimented by private sector greed, could not fire a single dirty employee of government without having to go through court. A wall of invincibility fortified the corrupt as long as they had money or position – and they had both.

It cannot be but by destiny that President Noynoy Aquino took on corruption as his primary cause when he ran for the presidency, and mean it beyond the usual campaign politics. It cannot be but destiny that PNoy gave his fundamental reason why he did so. That was the heart of his inaugural speech, “No Wang-Wang”, a declaration that Filipinos are equal in worth and dignity – and the law. That statement of equality between the ordinary and the high-ranking established that government resources are not the private domain of public officials, that they are mere stewards and must accept accountability for their theft.

The protective wall that shields the powerful from prosecution and conviction combined well with the submissive attitude of the population, especially the majority poor, for corrupt not only to thrive but become a sub-culture of public service. The aggressive arrest of Gloria Arroyo followed by the impeachment case and conviction of Rene Corona showed the resolve of one man to take on the invincibility of corruption. I believe that with his radical initiatives, PNoy opened the doors of possibility in the hearts and minds of Filipinos who pursued the bold trajectory by going after the PDAF with hammer and tongs – and succeeded!

The moment of equality is upon us if the resolve of a president is matched by a resolve of the people.  PNoy and the people may not agree over which issues represent their priority, but they have not disagreed about corruption itself – that they both must persevere in dismantling it. At the same time, PNoy and the people must be clear about the nature and status of corruption in the Philippines, that they do not deal with what is on the surface but also what rots in the inside, what is now a part of our assimilated history.

What is important is that the trajectory continues, and the beginning of the unraveling of Janet Napoles is a powerful symbol that what was invincible is now beginning to crack. Thieves and liars, faced with the combined resolve of the destiny of a leader and the people, will have to weaken and wilt in their arrogance, recognize that their doom approaches, and begin to do what they do best – betray one another. After all, their thieving and plundering ways had been continuing acts of betrayal against the people they swore to serve.

What lifts my optimism is not only that something great has begun, but that the new generations are here to sustain this trajectory towards nobility over corruption. By a miracle, many of our own children and grandchildren, including those of the corrupt, have not been stained enough to lose their idealism. They will save us yet.

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