MANILA, August 21, 2003 (STAR)  By Wilson Lee Flores  - Is economic poverty to blame for the culture of corruption which has hostaged our government, military, national police and other institutions for generations since time immemorial? In the high drama of the August 14 Senate public hearing on the Magdalo mutiny by junior military officers, Senator Joker Arroyo stressed several times that the country’s poverty was a root cause of the prevailing massive corruption. The veteran legislator articulated forcefully: "Poverty breeds corruption."

In the past, several politicians, military and police leaders repeatedly make the false claim that the poverty and low pay of ordinary men in uniform were the causes of kidnappings, bank robberies and other crimes.

Don’t Blame It On Poverty

Despite my respect for Senator Joker Arroyo and his sterling record of moral courage, I vigorously disagree with him. Do not blame corruption on poverty, but instead, national leaders like him should condemn and root out the systematic corruption – a true root cause of our never-ending crisis of massive poverty since the era of the shamelessly corrupt Spanish colonizers.

Poor people do not steal billions of pesos which worsen our budget deficit, they have no logistics and organizational means to engage in kidnap-for-ransom or highway robbery or multi-million peso bank heists. The poor may be forced to steal cellphones in the streets or pan de sal in the neighborhood bakery, shoplift in a grocery store or steal the bag of the lady inside the public jeepney, but they cannot – and do not – raid the state coffers. There was once a famous senator who once proclaimed that "the rich do not steal." The ugly truth is, in this country, many of the biggest thieves are those with economic means, with high education and with vast influence.

How come a small-time bureaucrat or government employee who is caught stealing is charged in high-profile cases of economic plunder, but many more "big fish" systematically stealing huge amounts continue to go scot-free? Why have all administrations never prosecuted any national-level politician, military or police general for the high crime of economic plunder?

Asian Countries Show The Way

How come during the Korean War in the 1950s when South Korea was devastated by Communist invasion, and the Koreans were poorer than postwar Philippines, their bureaucrats, soldiers, police, jurists and politicians were significantly less corrupt than their counterparts in our republic? President Park Chung Hee led South Korea to become an "economic miracle" yet, despite all this, he didn’t die a rich man. The power elite of South Korea, as personified by Park Chung Hee, was less corrupt and less craven than our Philippine power elite and politicians.

Even Taiwan, after the 1949 Communist victory in the Chinese mainland, was impoverished and more economically backward than the Philippines. Although he ruled for two decades as a virtual dictator, the late President Chiang Ching-Kuo didn’t die a rich man. He enriched Taiwan as a world-class economic powerhouse and the leader in information technology (IT) exports, but Chiang died not a rich man. In fact, his allies had to engage in a fund-raising move in order to ensure a decent lifestyle for the late beloved President’s widow.

How come after the disastrous economic losses and huge casualties of the Vietnam War impoverishing that country, the politicians, police, soldiers and other leaders of their power elite were much much less corrupt than our leaders in Philippine society? Do not blame corruption on economic poverty, but on the poverty of morals, ethics and sense of shame by many of our country’s leaders!

Worse Than Corruption

Although this writer does not sanction illegal military coups or mutinies, the nation must seriously address the accusations by rebel officer Lt. S/G Antonio Trillanes IV in his University of the Philippines master’s degree thesis, "A Study of Corruption in the Philippine Navy." An interesting part of his thesis listed nine ways with which the military, especially the Philippine Navy, engages in corruption – the traditional "lagay" (also identified as SOP, commission, porsyento, for the boys, etc.), tong, negotiated canvass or nego, rigged bidding or bidding-biddingan, ghost delivery or conversion, over-pricing, under-delivery and substitution. In other parts of the republic, numerous other government agencies and institutions have their own sophisticated and time-honored methods for stealing from the "kaban ng bayan."

In casual interviews with local tycoons and even multinational business executives, this writer gathered information that corruption itself was not the biggest problem impoverishing the whole Philippine society. There is corruption in America, Japan, China and Vietnam, but the corruption in the Philippines is more insidious, more scandalous, terribly systematic and has become a veritable culture.

In Thailand and China or other places in Asia, multinational executives give "grease money" or bribes, and their politicians and bureaucrats deliver, but what is so tragic-comic is that in our supposedly democratic republic, a lot of shameless and dim-witted bureaucrats and politicians receive bribes but often fail to even have the basic decency to deliver on promises! In other countries, there is honor even among thieves, but it is sad that in our country, many of our powerful thieves have no honor and no sense of shame!

Another sinister and dangerous aspect of corruption in our country is the terrible allegations that there are military, police and political leaders who are engaged in kidnap-for-ransom crimes, sharing of ransom money involving the hostages of the Abu Sayyaf, acting as protectors or masterminds of all kinds of illegal smuggling, godfathers of jueteng, illegal logging, illegal drugs operations and other nefarious activities. A European corporate executive told Philippine Star: "Your country is rich in economic potential, natural resources and human talents, but many of your leaders have failed you and conveniently blame poverty for corruption. No wonder your most famous exports are not industrial goods, or garments or minerals, but your overseas Filipino workers! I like living here in the Philippines, I enjoy life here and like the people, but you must do something to reverse the downward trend or else you will lose to other Asian economies."

Which is which ba talaga? Does poverty breed corruption or is it our grossly inefficient and dishonorable culture of corruption which continuously condemns the Philippine economy to its terrible state of perpetual poverty?

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Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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