Fasten Seat Belts

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

If corruption is endemic and deeply embedded in both government and collaborators in the private sector, its cure can only be even more disturbing. A force that needs to be changed demands a greater counterforce. A people and nation long afflicted with corruption and abuse of power from the top must experience turbulence powerful enough to cleanse society.

The removal of dictators or authoritarian governments has often been easier than achieving the desired change that precipitated their removal. Disposing of unwanted leaders can happen fast, but building a new culture of governance grounded on the straight and narrow can take a long, long time. This is especially true when the change agents did not prepare themselves and the public to be led by a new set of values.

The nature of change once it gets going is that it is unpredictable in both intensity and form. When change hits an environment, it cannot be told what to do – and what not to do. It moves into areas where there were no previous intentions of change. It is like water that seeks into its own level. That is why revolutions have been known to eat their own children.

The vulgarity of the misuse of the PDAF and the pork barrel system has triggered a reaction among Filipinos that surprises even me. For so long, the general public has been very tolerant of corruption. There was a general feeling of resignation, even acceptance that those in high positions were entitled to enrich themselves in office.  This is understandable when one thinks of what the history of governance had been for centuries, when the people served their governors instead of being served.

Democracy is a strange animal for people who have followed datus and foreign masters for centuries. It is strange for those who govern to be the servants of a public who have long been their subjects. It is equally strange for the governed to understand that the elite are public servants when they had always been their rulers. There is a great learning that has to take place in the relationship between the governors and the governed.

Even today, the masses have yet to be that actively involved in protest actions against corruption in government. As in Edsa One and Edsa Dos, the poor who make up the majority of the population have always been the least involved. Surviving is a serious business; if a family is poor, anything that does not bring bread to the table is a useless diversion of time and attention.

But, again, as in Edsa One or Edsa Dos, the masses may not have been actively participating but they were largely sympathetic. This sympathy, this oneness with the cause of the actively protesting, creates a general environment that is encouraging to change. The most potent force in Philippine society is the emotional solidarity of the poor in any issue. When it reaches a critical point, it seeks only that charismatic leader to follow.

From late 2009 when Noynoy Aquino was anointed by a great number of Filipinos to be their emotional choice as presidential candidate, he had always stood for change in a special way – the white knight who would do battle against the corrupt because corruption was the worst enemy of the poor. It is widely accepted in his inner circle during his electoral campaign that he himself thought of, or caused the coining of his slogan, “Kung walang kuasp, walang mahirap.”

Columnist Conrad de Quiros always regarded the candidacy of Noynoy Aquino as “an Edsa masquerading as an election” owing to the revolutionary character of the mood then. The people, including the poor, did believe that the candidate, later turned President, would be their champion against corruption, their hope against poverty. It is that backdrop, it is that great expectation, that catapulted Noynoy to become P-Noy, and that has kept his trust and approval rating at unprecedented highs.

What has to be understood by a most popular President, as well as by people who speak for him, is that most Filipinos do not expect him to be a bureaucrat, even if he is a good one. Maybe it is because they did believe him when he said that if there is no corruption, there will naturally follow the disappearance of poverty. Filipinos may have grown tolerant of corruption, but they have not lowered their expectation that P-Noy will be their foremost champion against the corrupt.

As the focus of people’s attention and emotions continue to be on the PDAF and the pork barrel, it is understandable that the anger over these will spill over even to the innocent. We must not forget that the three most powerful, traditional political forces connected to three former presidents – Marcos, Estrada and Arroyo – have members of their families connected with new cases of plunder. We must not forget that two of these three former presidents in Marcos and Estrada are among the top ten of Transparency International’s World’s Most Corrupt Leaders with billions of dollars of suspected hidden wealth.

When the counting is over, though, Arroyo stands a good chance to have more hidden wealth than them.

The guilty or the most corrupt with plunder cases against them will not scrimp in the effort to discredit the reputation of P-Noy. If they succeed in making him look as corrupt as them, the wrath of the people will focus on his because their expectations of him are opposite their expectations of them. He is their white knight while they are the thieves.

Noy is expected to take the offensive against corruption. Yet, the sound bytes from those who speak for him come across as quite defensive. Whoever designed and implemented the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) may have thought it was not illegal but they did it without transparency. More spending on infrastructure or projects to benefit the public is something to proud of, not a secret.

The struggle to rid government of thieves has only begun and far from peaking. P-Noy is expected to be Richard the Lion-Hearted just as his Cabinet members are expected to be Knights of the Round Table. Either he leads the charge or becomes just one of us – riding a roller coaster with seat belts fastened.

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