By Dr Dan Steinbock
Dr Steinbock is the founder of the Difference Group and a visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore). Its official website is http://www.differencegroup.net/
On October 4, 2017, President Duterte signed the Executive Order No. 4, creating the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC). The Commission is mandated “to directly assist the President in investigating and/or hearing administrative cases primarily involving graft and/or corruption against all presidential appointees.” The opposition has renounced the PACC as “unconstitutional”, “redundant” and “afflicted with congenital infirmity.” While some critics have expressed legitimate concerns, others may have a more self-interested agenda.
Yet, the fact remains that the Philippines ranks 101st in the current Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI)–well behind China, India and Indonesia. Clearly, there is a reason for a strong and different anti-corruption initiative. The former is critical for effectiveness, the latter is vital because other efforts have failed.
In light of the historical and international evidence, the effort to raise living standards in the Philippines is not viable without a broad and deep anti-corruption initiative.
Historical realities of corruption
When the Ramos era ended in the late 1990s, average Philippine per capita income was about $3,100, which translated into 112th rank in the world. In the CPI, it scored 3.3–one of the lowest in the world. Later, in the Estrada rule, per capita income grew to $3,600. However, after a hopeful start, the country fell further in the Index. In the Arroyo era, per capita income climbed to more than $5,500 but corruption remained widespread and got worse in the subsequent political turmoil.
In 2010, President Aquino began his term with a stated anti-corruption campaign. Barely three years later, the Inquirer cited his speech at the World Economic Forum: “Anti-corruption program [is] now bearing fruits.” In May 2016, at the eve of the presidential election, the Rappler headlined: “PH anti-corruption drive most improved,” relying on consultant experience of 16 countries.
Yet, in light of the global corruption index, Aquino’s mid-term showed only slight improvement as the Index initially climbed to the Estrada-era level, only to fall back to Ramos-era figures. So after two decades and much talk about progress, the Philippines corruption score was where it had been in the late 1990s—as if nothing had happened.
Figure: Corruption and slow progress in per capita incomes in the Philippines
If anything, corruption moved to an entirely new level as drugs proliferated from shantytowns to chic clubs with the Philippines becoming a transhipment hub for drug syndicates operating in East Asia and cooperating with Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. Duterte’s warning about the coming of a “narco-state” during his campaign was bypassed as political propaganda until the abundant evidence became available about the spread of narco-money. This only goes to proves that corruption, poverty, illicit finance and bribery tend to go hand-in-hand.
However, examples of anti-graft campaigns from other countries paint a different picture.
Today, Singapore is one of the world’s most attractive destinations: clean, wealthy and known for its strict rule of law. Yet, in the postwar era, corruption was rampant in the city-state. In 1952, the British colonial government created the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) at the Attorney-General’s Chambers. However, not much happened till 1959 when Singapore attained self-government and Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew moved the CPIB into his office so that it would be independent of the police force and other government agencies. Today, Singapore ranks 5th in the global corruption index, well ahead of Canada, Germany, and the UK.
Hong Kong learned from Singapore. In the 1970s, the former was still widely considered one of the most corrupt cities in the world. Reforms came only after huge protests, which led to the launch of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) that had wide investigative and executive powers and was answerable to only the Governor of Hong Kong, unlike the old police Anti-Corruption Branch. Today Hong Kong ranks 15th in the corruption index, before Japan, US and France.
China, too, achieved results by adopting a similar strategy. Upon taking office in the early 2010s, China’s President Xi Jinping pledged to crack down on “tigers and flies.” The anti-corruption campaign has been executed largely under the direction of Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and its smart and tough secretary, Wang Qishan, along with other corresponding judicial and military bodies. The CCDI has gone after both high-level officials and lower-level civil servants. As of 2016, the Chinese campaign had ‘netted’ over 120 high-ranking officials, including about a dozen high-ranking military officers, several senior executives of state-owned companies, and five national leaders.
Several common denominators can be found in the successful examples from Singapore, Hong Kong and China.
In each case, despite several talks around the issue of graft, the anti-corruption struggle became effective only when leaders executed a truly independent campaign against graft. Also, in each case, critics initially accused the anti-corruption campaign of being political purges, personal vendettas and economic destabilisation. In reality, the latter often proved to be a pretext for an effort by corrupt officials not to get caught, and to retain looted funds and illicit economic privileges. Further, not much success was achieved until truly untouchable, independent officials took charge of the campaign while reporting directly and only to the nation’s leader.
The case of the Philippines is no different. After two decades of anti-graft rhetoric, an effective initiative requires independent leadership that must target both “tigers and flies,” and report directly to the country’s chief executive. In the long term, corruption, if left unpunished, will doom all branches of government, including state, society and church along with police and military–as evidenced by the recent Philippines history as well.
Therefore, what the Philippines needs is a tough but humane, independent but responsive, broad but deep anti-corruption initiative. Without such a campaign, even rapid growth will only mean polarisation and poverty to most Filipinos.
The original article was a commentary and was released by The Manila Times on October 9, 2017.
Featured Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons
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