The raging controversy surrounding pork barrel thievery in Congress and Malacañang highlights just how weak a state the Philippines is. It is weak because its people rely on “strong leadership” as a proxy to what should be a grassroots bottom-up approach to applying what, by now, should be a deeply-ingrained sense of civic duty. Instead of the latter approach, Filipinos have sought a patronal comfort from their wretchedness in the arms of their politicians who, with all gusto, stepped up to the godfatherly role that has come to be expected of them by their constituents and used this to justify their sense of entitlement to the pork barrel.
This is why the notion that a whole portfolio of supposedly “altruistic” initiatives — “scholarships”, “community-building” projects, and local small-scale “civil” works (read: waiting sheds and “welcome” arches) — will be put in jeopardy if pork is withheld and the National Budget eventually purged of it has become a strong selling point for pork apologists. It is because Filipinos have forgotten a simple tenet of the proudly self-reliant; that money is earned, not begged for. This simple but powerful principle is made more resonant when expressed in the vernacular:
Ang pera ay kinikita, hindi hinihingi.
Unfortunately for the true but rare Reformati (with a big “R”) who champion self-reliance as the only real path to sustainable development (as opposed to the profoundly-ingrained sense of self-entitlement in primitive societies), this is the Philippines where populist arguments resonate strongly among the ill-informed and the fatally-misguided. This is a society that has produced an electorate that see their candidates as their future Santa Clauses and check the boxes on their ballots on the basis of that expectation.
So for whatever merit one would find in a Philippine president having access to discretionary funds (whether it be for stimulating an ailing economy or dispatching emergency resources in times of calamity) can only be evaluated in the context of the reality of the weak character of the Philippine nation — that we are a people made mendicant by our being beholden to Robin Hood figures and a society hobbled by a low level of collective trust. Think then of the level of discretionary power we might give to a President as something that can be controlled by a lever. The more collectively trustworthy and self-reliant a people are, the more you can push the lever towards applying a higher level of discretionary power to a sitting president. The less collectively trustworthy and self-reliant a people are, the more you will have to pull that lever down to lend less discretionary power to a president.
This isn’t too different to the idea of a supervisor giving less latitude to an unreliable employee and more autonomy to a mature and results-driven high-performing employee. The risk of abuse is high among 16-year-olds and low among middle-aged experienced professionals. Perhaps someday, we will see a society where, for the most part, Filipinos can trust one another to do the right thing. For now, this is something we can consider to be all but beyond our wildest dreams. As such, controls need to be in place to mitigate a high risk of theft. It should start from the top. The president, if he is sincere about guiding a clearly immature democratic society down a “straight path” should set an example by pulling the lever of discretionary power his own office enjoys over public funds down to its lowest level until such time that there is evidence of a proper and respectful regard among all government officials for money entrusted to them by the Filipino people.
It’s been said many times: to enjoy the privilege of wielding a lot of power, a leader must possess good character. The reason democracy came into being is that powerful people who are, at the same time, good are a scarce resource. Indeed, clearly a lot of the world’s problems are the result of the actions of leaders with bad character enjoying a lot of power. The Philippines enjoys no shortage of such powerful people. The results are self-evident.
Admittedly, there are disadvantages to implementing draconian controls that may potentially hobble effective governance. Jaime Licauco in an Inquirer article dated 22 May 2001 went as far as saying that: “A nation whose policies and rules are based on the assumption that everybody is a cheat and liar unless proven otherwise cannot long endure. Take a close look at our bureaucracy and its rules. It is burdened by elaborate and often unnecessary checks and balances so that nothing ever gets done in the process.”
The solution is obvious: Our best approach to combating corruption lies in creating an environment where mutual trust can take root. And a good starting point is to create fair, simple, and transparent governance frameworks where accountability rules; not controls.
And so it really is quite simple. Legislators’ access to discretionary funds should be cut clean if we want a strong Executive branch that is better-equipped, better-constituted, and better-entrusted to be at liberty to govern effectively. In such a way, members of Congress will be more strongly motivated to perform around what they were supposed to be focusing on to begin with, crafting laws, complemented by an Executive branch unequivocally accountable for delivering results. Only then can we consider the Philippines to be squarely barreling down the “straight path” to prosperity.
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