The late great Singapore Elder Leader Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) wrote about the obvious in his 2000 book From Third World to First…
A precondition for an honest government is that candidates must not need large sums of money to get elected, or it must trigger off the cycle of corruption. Having spent a lot to get elected, winners must recover their costs and also accumulate funds for their next election. The system is self-perpetuating. To be elected to Taiwan’s legislative yuan in the 1990s, some KMT candidates spent as much as US$10-20 million. Once elected, they had to recoup and prepare for the next round by using their influence with government ministers and officials to get contracts awarded, or to convert land use from agricultural to industrial or urban development. In Thailand, a former government minister described it as “commercial democracy, the purchased mandate.” In 1996, some 2,000 candidates spent about 30 billion bahts (US$1.2 billion). One prime minister was called Mr. ATM (Automatic Teller Machine) because he was renowned for dispensing cash to candidates and voters. He retorted that he was not the only ATM.
Today, 15 years after Mr Lee’s words appeared in that seminal book that recounted “The Singapore Story”, we sadly see his message continue to be wasted on countries like the Philippines where the aspiration to “eliminate” corruption resounds during every election with so much irony. Indeed, every one of those elections (where virtually every candidate trumpets one “eliminate corruption” slogan or the other) is an anti-thesis of LKY’s simple “precondition for an honest government”.
It therefore remains quite baffling that many Filipinos continue to look to their affluent neighbour forlornly and wonder why their country remains at the bottom of the heap while a resource-poor pipsqueak of a city-state populated by the descendants of indentured labourers mainly from China and India booted out of the Malay Federation in 1965 towers above the rest today. What did Singapore do that the Philippines could not?
Sour-grapers deride Singapore as being merely “lucky” to be a small easily-managed country that happened to have been continuously led by a single brilliant visionary. It was all luck, see. But then the Philippines, too, was a lucky country. It was “blessed” by an abundance of natural resources and physical beauty and remained secured for the most part of the several decades following its independence in 1946 under the military umbrella of its former colonial master, the United States.
Unfortunately for Filipinos, history tells us today that while Singapore expertly capitalised on its “luck”, the Philippines all but squandered its “blessings”.
Suffice to say, it takes more than an ounce of imagination to envision a promising — but realistic — future for one’s country. And Lee had pounds of imagination to underlie his vision for Singapore from the very beginning when he and his ministers “made sure from the day we took office in 1959 that every dollar in [state] revenue would be properly accounted for and would reach the beneficiaries at the grass roots as one dollar, without being siphoned off along the way.”
Compare this resolve to be in it for the long haul armed with a clear strategy of how to achieve one’s vision with the way Philippine presidents today routinely fail miserably to articulate a strategy and a plan to execute it over a mere six-year horizon. Instead, Filipino politicians see six years not as a period to execute a plan but more as a payback period for moneys invested in winning elections.
Perhaps this is the reason why Philippine elections have never been about the real and pressing national issues and the solutions candidates stand for. Rather, Philippine elections are more about candidates’ winnability. The winning is the whole point of the exercise and not about whether or not the candidate is qualified to be president. The result — Philippine-styled “democracy” — is a sad perversion. In his Huffington Post article Philippines’ Survey Republic: Popularity and the Making of Presidents, Richard Javad Heydarian writes…
Philippine elections are sometimes more like a beauty pageant than a serious public affair. It is mostly about selecting motherhood statements, (numbing) jingles, and catchy buzzwords, which will resonate among voters. Not to mention, the power of family names — especially in a country that sometimes looks more like a collection of little kingdoms and unruly dynasties under a weak emperor, rather than a modern, egalitarian society.
It highlights the confronting fact about Filipinos’ political prison of their own making:
If Filipinos cannot take their elections seriously, they cannot have a basis to aspire for good government.
The administration of President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III is enough proof that elections won on the bases of clever slogans and catchphrases alone will not make the Philippines a better-governed nation. President BS Aquino rose to power in 2010 on the back of clever catchphrases — his Daang Matuwid (“straight path”) doctrine that underpins his lyrical election slogan “Kung walang kurap walang mahirap” (“Where there is no corruption, there will be no poverty”). But while these slogans so effectively resonated with an electorate that has long been incapable of thinking beyond the heady circus of Philippine-style elections, they were utterly useless in the midst of the job at hand to govern a nation of 100 million people. Writes LKY in his book as if he were alive today to witness the circus unfolding yet again in the Philippines…
It is easy to start off with high moral standards, strong convictions, and determination to beat down corruption. But it is difficult to live up to these good intentions unless the leaders are strong and determined enough to deal with all transgressors, and without exception.
The late Filipino comedian Dolphy once quipped after being asked if he would be willing to run for president (a sure winnable at the time on account of his vast popularity): “Running for president is easy. But what if I win?”
If only the Philippines’ presidential candidates — and those of the future — were as reflective as these late great men.
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