Lingering corruption in the Philippines

PHILIPPINES - Philippine President Benigno Aquino III rose to power on a strong anticorruption platform. In his first State of the Nation address in 2010, he talked about the virtuous path (or "daang matuwid") of governance that his administration would take, and the people were thrilled by the promise. Now, more than halfway past his six-year term, the perception of corruption remains high.

A Social Weather Stations survey has found that more than half of executives from some 1,000 enterprises in Metro Manila and six urban areas nationwide indicated "a lot" of corruption in the government last year. Fifty-six per cent of the businessmen claimed seeing "a lot" of corruption in the public sector, a 30-per-cent increase from 43 per cent in 2012. Put in context, the SWS survey showed that the 56 per cent was the second lowest since 2000. Still, more than half is a lot.

The same agencies long suspected as breeding grounds for corruption continued to score badly. Of the 26 institutions rated for sincerity in fighting corruption, the Bureau of Customs was the sole agency with a "very bad" net rating. Other agencies that were downgraded were Congress, the Departments of Education, of Interior and Local Government, and of Budget and Management, the Land Transportation Office, and the trial courts. Those with unchanged ratings but perceived to be highly corrupt were the Departments of Environment and Natural Resources and of Public Works and Highways, the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and the Philippine National Police.

According to the SWS survey, 42 per cent of the respondents said "most/almost all" companies in their business sector had given bribes to win government contracts in 2013. Forty-four per cent said they were solicited for bribes when getting local and national permits or licenses, paying income taxes, complying with import regulations, supplying the government with goods and services, collecting receivables from the government, and availing themselves of tax incentives. (Although still high, these figures for 2013 were the lowest since 2000, SWS said.)

There are a number of reasons for the lingering high perception of corruption in the government. One issue that many businessmen raise is that, after three years and considering the Aquino administration's portrayal of its predecessor as most corrupt, none of the proverbial big fish is in jail save for suspects Gloria Arroyo and Janet Napoles. The BIR's shame campaign has not accomplished much. Recent reports about corruption in Customs are also disheartening. From 2002 to 2011, the government lost more than 1.33 trillion pesos (S$37 billion) in revenue due to smuggling, according to the Federation of Philippine Industries, which comprises about 800 companies. Worse, it said, smugglers employed the "same old modus operandi," or the undervaluation, misdeclaration, misclassification and diversion of shipments.

What should the government do? In the SWS survey, 88 per cent of the respondents commented that the passage of a strong freedom of information law would have helped reduce corruption. An FOI law was among Aquino's many campaign promises, and after three years, all his spokesperson can say is that "passing the law is the responsibility of our lawmakers." It's widely known that the President has a very strong influence on Congress. Why then can't he push its passage?

The FOI bill long pending in the legislative mill is a transparency measure that will make public access to government records mandatory, particularly those pertaining to the disbursement of public funds. The measure has been described in the Philippine Development Plan as the "cornerstone of transparent and accountable governance."

The government last week announced some anticorruption reforms, including cashless and checkless government transactions that, the President said, would make it harder to misappropriate funds. This is a step in the right direction. But the administration is running out of time to show more tangible results of the anticorruption platform on which it ran in 2010. If it proceeds the way it has always done, the SOP of corrupt bureaucrats in revenue-generating agencies will again prove valid: Administrations come and go; they just have to lie low as they are protected by the law on the security of tenure of civil servants. They only need to wait for another corrupt administration to get elected and they can once more help themselves to taxpayer money.

This vicious cycle has got to end now.