The Unlearned Lesson From Martial Law -‘Back Off!’: The New Idiom of Corruption
The nation is marking the 37th anniversary of martial law’s declaration in a firmly non-celebratory way.
In fact September 21st conjures up most painful memories of how countless Filipinos fell victims to violations of their human rights.
Has our society learned from that lessons left by that dark chapter in our history?
Ask the guy on the street and he’ll likely respond in the negative, given how among the dark legacies martial law left in its wake is institutionalized corruption with the cancer reaching the very corridors of power.
At Midfield shares with its readers an insightful piece by law professor Raul Pangalangan originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2007:
Passion For Reason : ‘Back off!’: the new idiom of corruption
By Raul Pangalangan
Posted date: September 21, 2007
Thirty years ago, we celebrated Sept. 21 as Thanksgiving Day, as declared by President Ferdinand Marcos. A whole nation backed down when told to back off, and ended up celebrating the first day of the dictatorship, the day martial law was proclaimed, to sing hallelujah for their chains.
Jose de Venecia III has implicated no less than President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s husband as the “mystery man” who tried to bully him out of the National Broadband Network (NBN) deal. Already De Venecia’s life has been threatened and his phone bugged, and nasty personal innuendoes circulate. “Reformers” plot to oust his father as Speaker of the House of Representatives. The chief presidential legal counsel threatens him with jail — and reminds the Ombudsman of its “motu proprio” powers to investigate without waiting for a complainant — yes, the same Ombudsman who had to be prodded by the Supreme Court before it charged anyone — the small fry, mind you, not the big shots — in the Comelec computerization scam. And for a while, the government even claimed that the NBN contract was either lost or nonexistent!
The scale of the bribes purportedly offered and the crudeness of it all make it even more imperative to take a sober look at the policy issues, with none of the salacious charm of the konfrontasi at Wack-Wack Golf and Country Club but certainly just as telling. At an academic forum three weeks ago at the University of the Philippines (UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies, professor Raul Fabella, former dean of the UP School of Economics, presented his paper “Lacking a backbone: The controversy over the ‘National Broadband Network’ and Cyber-education Projects,” co-authored with his successor, dean Emmanuel de Dios. It is available at http://www.aer.ph, the Action for Economic Reforms’ website (which was recently hacked, by the way).
The NBN project with ZTE Corp. aims to build up our “information highway,” the network of optic fiber linking the whole country and giving us access to the rest of the world. That “backbone” supports our telephone and cell-phone calls, our Internet access, the call centers, the processing of ATM and credit card payments. Right now, two such backbones are in place, both financed successfully by private investors, by Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. and by the competitor telecom firm. (Two moribund government-held backbones apparently exist as well.) NBN will build a third active network.
NBN is an abrupt reversal of the settled policy of public-private partnerships in “information infrastructure” that shifts the costs to private investors and spares government funds from that burden. Moreover, the project, originally priced at P5.1 billion, has now bloated to a whopping P19.3 billion — all this to offer a redundant service already performed by private capital on its own.
If the goal of NBN is to extend “connectivity” to rural Filipinos, the solution, Fabella and De Dios say, is not to build another backbone. By analogy, if far-flung villages have no access to the main highways, the solution is not to build a new highway, but to build more farm-to-market roads. The “last mile” problem is best solved by smaller networks of country roads and wireless networks, the authors point out, as the recent Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient from Nepal, Mahabir Pun, accomplished with “spartan simplicity and [at] modest cost.”
A second justification (an apparent afterthought) is that NBN will serve as the exclusive government network. The authors have done their own math, and the vaunted savings don’t add up. Worse, an expensive government “backbone” doesn’t make sense, considering that government offices face more basic problems. They don’t have enough computers (by analogy, the vehicles by which to journey on the information highway) or don’t have trained staff to make the best use of these “contraptions,” as one dinosaur called them in my building here in UP Diliman.
Finally, the government is a tried and tested failure in running infrastructure, and that is why it has now privatized water, power and transport to deliver cheaper and more efficient services to the paying public. Its bureaucracy is simply too cumbersome, at its finest, and too corrupt, at its most venal, to keep technology modern and running. Conversely, government should instead make the most of its true advantage, its “procurement leverage” as a big buyer, in an industry where bulk use drastically lowers the seller’s cost.
Without the De Venecia testimony, these weighty issues might not have ignited public outrage. Contrast that to the drama of the Joseph Estrada trial, with the image of a “bayong” [big native bag] full of cold cash hand-carried by thugs to the “lord of all jueteng [underground lottery] lords.” This time, the thievery is far more suave, and players threaten one another in “coño English” in chic places.
In the Philippines, there is a class divide even in the treatment of witnesses. The Estrada trial flourished because of witnesses like the warlord Chavit Singson, who is a “Witness Protection Program” on his own, and the bank vice president Clarissa Ocampo, who has her own built-in credibility as a professional. In contrast, who remembers those witnesses against Malacañang in all the past scandals? The low-level minions have either recanted and apologized or been shredded to pieces, like T/Sgt. Vidal Doble earlier this week.
And then the young De Venecia came, with all the advantages of both Chavit and Clarissa. Hence the vicious attacks on his character, because the NBN debate is at its core a battle for the hearts and minds of the Filipino public. The UP deans conclude: “The only backbone the government needs today is a moral one, not fiber optic but “fibre politique.’”
The Ombudsman’s “motu proprio” powers? “Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war, that this foul deed shall smell above the earth….”
Two years since that essay was written what do we have?
The same Office of the Ombudsman supposedly resolving the NBN ZTE deal bribery scam with Filipinos left asking how the hell CERTAIN PARTIES are going away scot free and likely laughing all the way to the bank.
Oh yes there’s an obvious fall guy.
But what of his principals?