COLUMN:  CORRUPTION  STARTS  WITH  EACH OF  US

MANILA, January 24, 2005 (STAR) BIZLINKS By Rey Gamboa  -  Surveys repeatedly show the rising level of corruption in the Philippines. But nothing beats a recent Transparency International poll indicating that 54 percent of Filipinos polled believe that corruption in the country would only worsen, as compared to 45 percent of Indonesians actually expecting the problem to ease in their country.

I don’t know which is worse – that we Filipinos are too realistic for our own good unlike our counterparts in Indonesia or that we have completely lost faith in the government’s ability to address the problem.

Whatever it is, recent surveys – including the Asian Development Bank’s latest – reflect on our government’s ineptitude in reducing corruption, much more ridding the system of the malignant ill, despite serious and honest efforts of some public officials.

The ADB study involving 102 countries ranks the Philippines as second to Bangladesh in irregular payments, including bribery in public contracts. This level of corruption in the Philippines deprives the government of as much as P400 billion in revenues yearly.

This is the amount that lines pockets of corrupt officials who bilk the government of tax revenues instead of apprehending guilty taxpayers, who turn their back on entry of dutiable imports not passing through the rightful channels, who pad procurement contracts that makes the government pay more than it should. And the atrocities could go on and on.

Only for show

Last year, the Arroyo administration started out what looked like a credible anti-corruption campaign that included setting up an internal affairs office at the finance department to track down undesirable BIR and Customs officials. The BIR and the Customs are established corruption bedrocks in government.

After some highly-publicized cases, we don’t hear anything much now of either how the cases are progressing or what the finance’s internal affairs is doing. Even as Malacañang set up its own anti-corrupt task force, the situation simply became media hype rather than a focused and vigorous campaign against corrupt practices.

No big fish has been caught, the government continues to wallow in deficit and public perception that corruption is getting worse is also at its height. So are we really hopeless? The sad part is that more and more of us believe so. And more and more are accepting corrupt practices as a Filipino way of life. But like any problems in this country, the fight against corruption is something that we cannot give up; more so if we intend to stay here and make things work for our family and children.

Hong Kong’s experience

For those among us who are desperate, the Hong Kong experience can be a source of inspiration. Tony Kwok, the celebrated anti-corruption expert from the Crown Colony, said Hong Kong was suffering from intense corruption problems during the mid-70s. In 1974, the government set up the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) to address the endemic problem bugging the government, in particular the police system.

The move was not immediately successful because the agency, which was initially headed also by the police, reportedly just snooped on what the supposedly bad eggs were doing and simply rode on the deal. A classic case of "bantay-salakay." Swept by cynicism during the earlier days, locals referred to the ICAC acronym as "Investigating Chinese Ancient Customs" or "I Can Accept Cash".

So the Hong Kong government reconstituted the agency, gave it adequate powers – including investigating and policing – as well as sufficient resources to deal with the problem. And to keep matters on an even keel, a watchdog was created to ensure that ICAC would not commit abuses.

The anti-corruption agency was complemented with a holistic approach of educating the public and getting everybody involved in the campaign. Hong Kong did not have an easy time licking the problem. But it was sheer political will that eventually won the war.

Hurting ourselves

In the Philippines, the crux of the problem is that corruption and lack of political will seem to be almost intertwined. Plus the perception that corruption is a victim-less crime, unlike murder or rape where a victim is readily identified. Corruption is perceived not to hurt anyone specific and so perpetrators believe they are not really doing anything wrong.

Reality though is that corruption hurts the economy, the country and Filipinos. The estimated P400 billion lost to corruption is staggering. Just a quarter of this – or P100 billion – in additional revenue each year would free up more funds in the annual budget for basic infrastructure, education and health care. It could fuel the economic machine so it could churn out more jobs for the people so that Filipinos would not have to go abroad, take their skills outside of the country, and leave their families in disarray.

Corruption is the cause of most of our woes including poverty and societal breakdown. It is the reason why even the once fully respected institutions like the judiciary and the police are no longer held in high esteem.

Individually, we can stop corruption

Corrupt practices plague almost all our systems, actions we may have resorted to or condoned at one point for our own convenience. It could help if all of us would realize that fighting corruption is not the sole responsibility of the government. Keeping in mind that for every bribe-taker there is a bribe-giver, we could start by not bribing a traffic enforcer or "fixing" a bureau clerk so our papers would move faster. Do you think you can do it?

Politics and extortion threaten infrastructure programs

Huge financial requirements of government infrastructure programs require tapping alternative sources of financing. Various Tollway Operation decrees, supplemented by recent Build Operate Transfer (BOT) legislation, provide the guiding framework for private sector participation in tollway infrastructure projects.

These laws grant incentives to mobilize private resources for infrastructure projects normally financed and undertaken by the government. These incentives include authorizing the project proponent to collect toll fees that allow reasonable return on investment, a climate of minimum government regulations, and specific government undertakings in support of private investors.

However, many government and private sector agreements and contracts that have undergone complete approval process have been subjected to political pressure. And this intimidation, if not plain extortion, usually occurs after the project is completed and investors‚ money has been spent. The case of the independent power producers (IPPs) contracts is an example that easily comes to mind. Unless the current leadership rectifies this situation, the much needed private sector participation in infrastructure development will remain an illusive dream.

What incentives were given to Manila North Tollways Corp. (MNTC) to undertake the North Luzon Expressway reconstruction project? Are the agreements covering the North Luzon Expressway reconstruction project between the government and private investors well defined and approved? By whom? Why are some politicians interfering and noisily objecting to the implementation of the agreement?

The above questions and more will be discussed on "Breaking Barriers" on Wednesday, 26th January 2005, IBC-TV13 (11 p.m. every Wednesday) featuring Ms. Marlyn Ochoa, asst. vice-president and head of public relations, Manila North Tollways Corp.

Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 4th Floor, 156 Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at reygamboa@linkedge.biz. If you wish to view the previous columns, you may visit my website at http://bizlinks.linkedge.biz.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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