As my colleague Mike Wootton explained earlier this week, we business columnists would prefer not to delve too deeply into the realm of pure politics, but there are times it is impossible to avoid.
The last few weeks have been one of those unfortunate periods in which the cesspool of Philippine politics has overflowed to pollute the business environment.
Although one of the political problems—the embarrassing attempt by President BS Aquino by way of his abysmally incompetent Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla to secure “emergency powers” (and the P6 billion or more in funding that would be included with them) to deal with a phantom energy crisis—seems, at least for now, to have been solved by a sudden glimmer of legislative independence in the House of Representatives, another shows no signs of abating.
The ongoing farce being conducted in the Senate about the assortment of allegations lodged against Vice President and former Makati mayor Jejomar Binay are perhaps the best example this country has ever had of everything that’s wrong with Philippine politics and society at large, and the biggest reason why this country will never even approach its real productive potential.
Among other things, Binay has been accused of rigging bidding and contracting processes for municipal projects to favor preferred suppliers and builders and accepting kickbacks in exchange for city contracts during his long tenure as mayor of Makati. These are precisely the sorts of issues that frustrate business investors and perpetually keep the Philippines in the lower strata of the rankings of countries in terms of “ease of doing business.” They are manifestations of a pervasive culture of corruption that no national leader has been able to change to any perceptible degree, and the reason for that has been staring everyone right in the face all along: Far too many people in this country simply do not have any grasp whatsoever of the concepts of propriety and accountability, and simply cannot even identify, let alone follow, general ethics applicable to any organized 21st-century human society.
Put another way, they are incapable of stopping corruption because they do not understand what the opposite of corruption is, and instead rely on pitifully shallow cues such as popular (or the most widely-disseminated, at any rate) opinion or the hierarchical rank of the one delivering the message to make judgments of right and wrong. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the endless succession of Senate hearings “in aid of legislation,” and none have been so exemplary of this than the current one being conducted to “discover the truth” behind the accusations against Mr. Binay.
As another one of my colleagues, Ric Saludo, pointed out in his column this past Thursday, the current Senate hearing, just as most previous similar Senate hearings have been, is an inquisition: Accusations are heard, and the accused is called upon to present evidence to refute them. And of course, no legislation has ever emerged from any “hearing” of this sort, and it certainly will not this time. But because it is being conducted under the authoritative mantle of the Senate—they are “lawmakers,” after all—the complete bastardization of any normal ethical process, such as compelling those making a claim to present evidence to support it (rather than the other way around), or even something simple like following the Senate’s own established rules of procedure is completely overlooked.
It’s an eminence front. It’s a put-on.
The Senate is not a trial court, but because the institution is entitled to some vague notion of respect for authority, its antics are given the same weight in the media and public perceptions, all of which only perpetuates a bad system that eschews objective process. Vice President Binay, Agrinuture chairman Tony Tiu, or anyone else who has had to endure the hectoring of the insufferable Senator Trillanes IV would have been within his rights—and would have been absolutely correct—to point out to the former supply clerk that the hearing, and any information gleaned from it, are completely invalid since he and his committee did not bother to specify what legislation was being “aided” by it as required by law. But that, of course, would be suicidal, and so the improperly accused are compelled to play along, which only serves to give further credibility to the whole faulty process and embed the deeply-flawed thinking of “guilty until proven innocent,” as Ric Saludo so concisely explained it, in the national psyche.
Note that I said “improperly” rather than “falsely” accused. For the record, I am not taking sides. They are serious charges, and if they have real merit, they should be pursued through the judicial system the laws of the Republic of the Philippines provide for that purpose.
End of story. It would be wonderful if this country’s media and its audience saw it that way, too.
But a country that stubbornly refuses to follow its own rules will never achieve any of its objectives or live up to its potential. Even if an investor understands upfront that the rules will not be followed, there is no consistency in the way they are violated; there are no “rules for not following those other rules,” so to speak. That is too big a risk factor for most sensible investors to accept, and so they stay away.
And they will continue to do so until the people in this country accept that they must demand better of themselves and the institutions they have created.