May 13, 2005 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - President Arroyo gave herself yesterday three years to win the war against corruption and vowed to achieve what Hong Kong, through an independent anti-corruption commission, was able to accomplish in seven years.

In a speech during the launching of a corruption prevention project to be funded by the European Commission (EC) yesterday, the President said that with political will the country can duplicate the achievement of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).

Through ICAC, Hong Kong has become one of the most honest societies in Asia.

"We shall win this war against corruption, hopefully in three years, and most hopefully by the end of my term through better investigation, electronic procurement, stricter bidding, anti-corruption education and other strategies," Mrs. Arroyo said.

The EC is funding the government’s anti-corruption project through a grant of 2.9 million euros (P203 million) over a period of three years. The Office of the Ombudsman contributed 600,000 euros as the counterpart fund.

Tony Kwok, former chief of the Hong Kong’s ICAC, was hired as an adviser for the project and was present at yesterday’s affair.

Kwok assured Mrs. Arroyo and Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo of the EC’s support for the government’s anti-corruption goals.

Meanwhile, the head of the delegation of the European Commission to the Philippines, Ambassador Jan de Kok, yesterday called for zero tolerance of corruption at all levels of society.

De Kok urged the Philippines to speed up the prosecution of cases and show the public how serious it is in the fight against corruption.

"Engaging in an act of corruption is just as bad as allowing someone to engage in the act or allowing that person to go unpunished," De Kok said.

De Kok stressed that as with all crimes, the deterrent would be the certainty of being caught and being justly punished.

"The chances of getting away with the criminal act of corruption still seem big. In other words, too many people still get away with it," he said.

The EC-OMB project, he said, aims to strengthen cooperation between the Office of the Ombudsman, civil society organizations and government agencies.

"The fight must be relentless. It must be intensified. And it must be indiscriminate," he added.

De Kok assured Mrs. Arroyo of the EC’s continued support for government policies that specifically promote democracy, respect for human rights, good governance and the rule of law.

On average, the European Union provides 20 million euros in aid to the Philippines. It is the world’s largest provider of Official Development Assistance to developing and least developed countries.

Marcelo said that the EC grant would finance, among other things, a training program for volunteer observers in bids and awards committees, volunteer monitors in the implementation of awarded contracts, internal revenue allotments and lifestyle probes.

He said one of the major activities of the project is the conduct of an integrity development assessment of 16 participating agencies and the training of more than 1,000 public sector managers.

In her speech, Mrs. Arroyo noted that so far, two ranking officials of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), four from the Bureau of Customs and six from the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) had been dismissed for corruption charges.

"Another high-ranking Customs official is now under preventive suspension while being investigated for having a lavish lifestyle on a salary of less than P30,000 (a month)," the President said.

"These individuals are being charged criminally and forfeiture proceedings of their ill-gotten wealth are now underway," she added.

Mrs. Arroyo also said that her fiscal reform measures are being accompanied by a relentless drive to fight corruption so as not to waste the government’s money.

"I assure the people that the returns from the implementation of the fiscal reform measures will be invested wisely. And there is no more important use of that money than to invest in strengthening our anti-corruption efforts," she said.

When schools open next month, the government will also start implementing a new curriculum with a strong values education component in an effort to reverse the well-entrenched culture of corruption.

Educational reform, she said, should go hand-in-hand with the stepped-up campaign against graft, tax evasion and smuggling.

"I have faith in our nation and in our people, but to fight poverty and grow the economy, we must purge the system of corruption, eliminate government waste, increase tax collection and invest in our nation through revenue increases to help the poor," Mrs. Arroyo said. — With Pia Lee Brago

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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