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Campaigning in 2010, Benigno Aquino III identified corruption as the cause of Philippine poverty, and promised to put an end to it once he was elected President.

It hasn’t been as easy as he seems to have thought. As the network of corruption of which the 10-billion pork barrel scandal is only a small part is demonstrating daily — and as such cases as the textbook scam at the Department of Education, the misuse of the 728-million fertilizer fund in 2004, the $330-million ZTE scandal, the practice of “conversion” in the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and a veritable legion of other cases did in the past — corruption has so metastasized throughout government that none of its agencies seems exempt from the common perception that the theft of public funds is inherent in the public sector.

The Philippine Public Transparency Reporting Project estimates the cost of corruption in government at 250 billion a year. Most Filipinos have at least an inkling of the uses to which that huge amount, which the corrupt stash away in Swiss and Hong Kong banks, convert into homes and other assets abroad, and use to go on $100,000 shopping binges in New York, could have been put otherwise.

They imagine the school buildings that could have been constructed; the homes that could have been built for the homeless; the health clinics and hospitals that could have provided medical care to the thousands who die every year from curable ailments; the number of the hungry it could have fed; the scholarships it could have made possible; and the books and school supplies for the damaged and damaging public school system it could have purchased, among others.

Beyond these is corruption’s most pernicious cost: the making of a society whose members are so focused on self-aggrandizement they have little or no notion at all of the common good.

The persistence of the many-headed hydra called corruption does help explain why Philippine poverty and underdevelopment endure despite the torrent of words officials spend inveighing against it. But corruption is not as basic a cause of it as Mr. Aquino claims. Corruption is only one of the many consequences of something more fundamental: the class system created by the feudal order Spanish conquest imposed on the country as currently manifest in the social relations based on the archaic land tenancy system.

The system was itself built on corruption. In the late 16th century, the Spanish Crown imposed the forerunner of the hacienda system, the encomienda, in the Americas and the Philippines. Spanish soldiers who had helped conquer the islands and other loyal Spanish subjects were given authority over vast tracts of land, from whose native inhabitants (“ Indios”) they were tasked to collect tribute in behalf of the Crown.

These encomenderos, as they were known, were public officials charged with protecting the natives, helping missionaries convert the latter to Christianity, and promoting education. In practice, the encomenderos not only mistreated the natives supposedly under their care; they also began the now common practice of using one’s office to enrich one’s self by collecting more tribute than allowed by law, forcing the natives to work for them, and confiscating animals and crops without payment. It was in many ways a replication of the feudal system in Europe.

While the encomienda eventually gave way to the hacienda system in the 17th century, in which Spaniards (“Filipinos”), mestizos and members of the local “ Indio” elite received land grants, the feudal order basically remained intact. The landless “ Indio” masses who tilled the land occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder, while the landlords who owned it collected rent, and amassed great wealth as well as political influence.

The system could not but have an impact on social values. Among others it demonstrated not only that advancement was possible only through kowtowing to the wealthy and powerful; it also showed that grabbing everything that one can, and getting something for nothing, was the key to survival and even dominance in a society ruled by privilege.

Throughout the US colonial period and after, the system resisted abolition and even the most minimal reform, primarily because of the political power of the landed, many of whom were part of the US colonial administration and the recipients of US “tutelage” in “self government,” and who, after 1946, continued to be the country’s lawmakers, judges and even Presidents.

What is evident in the present is that the instances of corruption the citizenry has become aware of are only a handful among thousands of other undetected instances. The 10 billion lost in the pork barrel scam over 10 years, which means an average loss of a billion pesos per year, constitutes only 1/250th of the 250 billion estimated loss per year.

Corruption has thus become a way of doing things almost as a matter of routine. It is embedded in the very hearts and minds not only of officialdom but also of those private individuals and groups focused on enriching themselves at the expense of the citizenry, whose greed knows no bounds, and who are willing to kidnap and even murder for it.

Murder is part of the corruption regime, and merely one more means of assuring the perpetrators undisturbed access to the billions in public funds that, it turns out, are simply there for the taking for the unscrupulous and well-connected.

The web of corruption and violence in the misuse for election purposes of the 728 million in fertilizer funds in 2004 that were administered by the Department of Agriculture, for example, had a long enough reach to involve the journalism community, among whose members at least one — Marlene Esperat of Tacurong City — was killed for exposing it. Ninety percent of the journalists killed in the line of duty since 1986 were in fact exposing both criminal activities and corruption in the communities.

What those citizens still concerned with the well-being and future of this country has to deal with is not just one or two, or even a hundred instances of funds misused, “converted,” stashed in a Swiss bank account, and/or used to purchase houses, artwork and jewelry in the United States, Australia and Europe.

Corruption has become the lodestar of Philippine culture itself, the dismantling of which will take more than transferring a customs inspector from this to that post, devising protocols to control pork barrel allocations likely to be eventually circumvented, crafting a complicated system of procurement, or even impeaching Chief Justices.

The persistence of corruption is one more argument among many for the restructuring, and eventually, the reorientation of Philippine society away from the focus on self-aggrandizement to a commitment to honesty in both the public and private spheres as the indispensable base in the making of a progressive and free national community.

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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
8 August 2013

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  1. It’s a good historical recall of the humble beginning of an infamous metaphor known as corruption. The article would’ve been better and effective if it cited feasible, reliable and applicable ways to end corruption once and for all. Because seriously, I can’t think of any better ways to end corruption. I guess the only President who offered time and extra effort to medicate this cancer is PNoy. His undermined interventions are little steps to slowly but continuously change our culture and disease. I myself is a corrupt person, but somehow one way or another, having witnessed PNoys determination and enthusiasm to end corruption changed me a bit. And I guess, others (are changed) as well.

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