New Year reflections on corruption

Published December 31, 2019, 12:00 AM

by Justice Art D. Brion (ret.)

J. Art D. Brion (Ret.)
J. Art D. Brion (Ret.)

The turn of the year into a new one once again offers us the opportunity to re­flect on where we had been and where we are going.

A problem now loudly calling for solution is the pervasive corruption in our midst. Corruption can devas­tate us, not only economically and politically, but more importantly, through the erosion of our mor­als and spirit as a people. A saving thought for now is that despite its alarming proportions, we are not totally helpless.

Corruption’s pervasive presence is not based solely on surveys. Ask Juan, the ordinary man on the street, and he will say “lagay” is a usual part of everyday life.

In government, the bribe-taking traffic policeman is the oft-cited example. But the sad reality is more inclusive; corrupt practices occur at all levels and in all branches of government.

Our DAP and PDAF experiences are too recent to be forgotten. In these experiences, we saw how both the legislative and the executive greedily fed from the same public trough.

Even the judiciary has not been excepted. Ask the active law practi­tioners and they will only give you a sly and knowing smile. They cannot admit corruption as they themselves may be participants; law offices many times are chosen not only for legal skills but for their extralegal capabilities.

Thus, even the public is involved, not only as irresponsible uncaring parties, but as greedy participants in the mostly two-party crime of corruption.

Significantly, corruption does not appear to be particular to office functions or positions; they only provide the opportunity. Greed, more than anything else, is the trig­ger and major element; it has given us a taste of easy and undeserved public money, and this taste has lingered.

Did we learn enough lessons from our past experiences with cor­ruption to prevent or avoid its rep­etition? People invariably say that the feeding frenzy has not abated; it has only become discreet.

In literature on corruption, esti­mates have been made on its cost to the country. But no one really knows for certain the extent of our actual losses. The uncertainty is hardly surprising as the biggest incidents of corruption are committed in the dark of night, while the petty ones during the light of day have become part of the invisible normal.

Rather than count our peso losses, let us pay greater attention to the hidden costs that really mat­ter – on the corrosive effect on our moral character as a people and on public service and governance.

Corruption invariably blurs dis­tinctions be­tween right and wrong. The intrinsic wrong that stealing has always been, is right to the corrupt; by necessity and convenience, he has to lie even to his own conscience. The blurring deadens our sense of shame, and degrades our values and respect for the law.

These effects and costs are in­calculable as they ultimately devour our sense of community as a people, leading us to a potentially fatal downward spiral. From baby steps, a government official or employee can end up in no time as a fast runner oblivious to the potential costs and consequences of his illegal run.

As a deed happening across gov­ernment, corruption and its conse­quences could be terrifying.

Corruption could account for the reason why a knowledgeable lawyer or a usually responsible politician, reviewing a government public utility contract, overlooks the con­sequences of the covered transaction on the community and the nation.

It can point to how and why the sources of illegal drugs in the coun­try remains bottomless.

It can partly explain how and why we can lose our sovereignty without even a show of defensive resistance.

Interestingly, corruption in govern­ment does not need to be wholesale to lead to its pernicious effects. The acts of only one or two may be enough for cor­ruption to effectively do its worst.

In collegial tribunals, for example, it is generally known that a corrupt law­yer does not need to “reach” the whole tribunal; only one or two magistrates might be needed to “lawyer” there for the corrupt.

Problems invariably accompany cor­ruption as its ugly head can hardly be hidden. It carries its own peculiar sounds and smells that amorphously pervade the atmosphere and can thus be sensed even if unseen.

Problems arise even if the corrupted ruling is not legally incorrect. For, other magistrates will either have to toe the lines of legality (and thus feel personal affront when corruption comes to light); or, imaginatively approach the pending matter to thwart the incipient illegality, thus skewing established jurisprudential lines; or, disrupt the tribunal’s harmony and relationships through accusatory insinuations.

The end result, though not immedi­ately obvious, could be disastrous. At the worst, magistrates could lose heart and give up the fight even without joining the corrupt, leaving the tribunal a cor­rupt institution.

Most importantly, the public may simply conclude that the system is flawed and cannot be trusted. Trust, of course, is easier to lose than to earn or regain, and is not automatically re­gained by ubiquitously heralded reform programs.

From these beginnings, corruption spreads to destroy individuals and in­stitutions…and the nation.

Governance, government services and public interest are thrown out of the window, while personal gain and convenience assume primacy. Efficiency suffers and public trust is lost. We lose our senses of nation­hood and of the common good – the foundations of our democratic way of life.

All these, of course, will only transpire if we continue to lose heart and forget that corruption can be controlled and prevented. Righteous­ness can still prevail if only our lead­ers would choose to be determined and focused in their avoidance and deterrent efforts, and if we, the public, would live up to our own re­sponsibilities.

Our dismal failure up to this date cannot but be a testimonial to our permissiveness, laxity or incompe­tence as a society in confronting the plague of corruption. Indeed, none can be so blind as those who do not want, or are too busy, to see.

At the worst, our failure could be indicative of our own insatiable greed and complicity. When this happens, we may ultimately ask – do we still have the ties required for us to exist as a democratic nation?

If not, what recourses are still open to us, and are we brave and ma­ture enough to undertake the required change of perspectives to preserve this nation ?

Lest we forget – time is a luxury in governance, particularly for the des­perate, and it could be running out!