Many readers have written and wondered why it is that in Japan, government officials quickly leave office in the face of public scandal and the massive failure of public policy—whereas here in the Philippines, our officials cling to their positions like glue, despite the exposure of corruption, perfidy and other sins.
For some weeks now, I’ve been doing research on this intriguing question, and I have looked as well into the practices of other democracies when faced with scandal. In addition to Japan, I researched America’s record of dealing with scandal and corruption.
My research has yielded many interesting insights and revealing information. Here are some of my findings:
Japan:The power of moral consensus
In Japan, public officials, whether elected or appointed, readily quit in acceptance of their responsibility, or in shame and sorrow, because according to the writer Ellen Goodman, Japan is “ruled by moral consensus.”
This consensus on high ethical standards and correct official conduct is recognized by the entire gamut of Japanese society. Ethics codes do not need elaborate enforcement mechanisms to be effective. Even the underworld (Yakuza) has its code.
When combined with the keen Japanese sense of honor, moral consensus constitutes a powerful weapon that makes it impossible and suicidal to resist resignation. Sometimes the pressure can be so great, and the sin so shameful, that some commit hara-kiri.
Philippines: Clinging to position like glue
As a rule, Filipino officials do not quit office when they are embroiled in a scandal or controversy. When the office is elective, they fight tooth and nail to remain in office. When the office is appointive, the decision of the appointing power to fire them normally suffices to make them quit.
Public officials and politicians cling to their positions and stonewall demands for their firing and resignation, as a matter of strategy and in the hope of being miraculously rescued by (a) a legal maneuver or technicality, (b) a timely intervention by the appointing authority, or (c) public weariness and loss of interest in the scandal or controversy.
The single biggest reason why Filipino officials do not quit is the belief of officials and the public alike that resignation is an admission of guilt.
The prime exhibit for this official attitude and behavior is not the senators or congressmen now implicated in the pork barrel scandal. Most are still waiting for charges to be formally filed against them in court. Being elected representatives, they have a plausible argument for not rushing to the exits.
The more illustrative examples now are appointed officials in the eye of scandal, like Budget Secretary Florencio Abad Jr., around whose head multiple controversies are now swirling.
Abad is clinging to his post like crazy because his boss, President Aquino, through his spokesmen, has openly defended him. Aquino could be just exercising self-protection lest Abad sing like a canary and implicate PNoy in the budget mess.
Abad must also worry about the fate of his entire family clan (with 11 members employed by the government). Their jobs and their huge official ATM are tied to his keeping his post.
Abad’s no-nepotism defense is not winning him supporters. Only Edwin Lacierda agrees with him.
Similarly, his Napoles-is-lying defense is not working in the court of public opinion. It won’t work in the graft court either, where Napoles and Suñas will testify against him.
America: The ethics of defensive politics
Litigation is the rule in the American system and American culture.
American public officials generally do not resign when faced with scandal and controversy. They turn to their lawyers to battle government prosecutors in court. As a result, quite a number of them land in jail. But they can tell their grandchildren that they never resigned.
I got much of my information from a perceptive essay by Ellen Goodman in her book Value Judgments (Farrar, Straus Giroux, 1993). She wrote:
“In addition to defensive business and defensive medicine, Americans also practice defensive politics. Politics by advice of attorney. Politicians who get in trouble usually answer questions about right and wrong with answers about legal guilt or innocence . . .
“There are some 700,000 lawyers in America available to take sides, to keep us on sides. One lawyer for every 350 Americans… The closer to the top, the greater the protective barrier of lawyers.
“Ultimately, under the rule of lawsuits, it has become far too easy to confuse moral and legal responsibility. We mix up the long words like “culpability” and “liability.” And in that linguistic and ethical confusion, it becomes harder and harder to express something as simple as regrets, dismay and sorrow.”
America’s system of laws and suits have sent a considerable number of public officials and legislators to jail, including one vice-president, seven senators, two former House speakers, and many former cabinet officials, for official misconduct and corruption.
Moral consensus works in PH too
Overall, we Filipinos are not total slouches in combating corruption and official abuse in government. Indeed we talk about it all the time, and suspect every public official of wrongdoing.
No one buys Malacañang’s propaganda about Aquino’s incorruptibility, which is self-proclaimed and is as incredible as papal infallibility.
Filipino handling of public scandal and controversy shows our adherence to both the power of moral consensus, and the usefulness of litigation.
If in this country, public officials oftentimes deflect calls for their resignations, it is not because we don’t have clear standards of ethical conduct in public office. Indeed, we have many laws and regulations that must be strictly observed by officeholders, beginning with the constitutionally-mandated filing of an annual statement of assets and liabilities and net worth (SALN).
The pressure of moral consensus has also operated effectively in the Philippines, sometimes with tragic results.
Under the heat of a Senate inquiry into alleged military financial irregularities that exposed and shamed him on live TV, former Defense Secretary and former AFP Chief of Staff Angelo Reyes took his own life by his mother’s graveside on February 8, 2011.
Former Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri resigned from the Philippine Senate on August 3, 2011, following allegations of poll fraud during the Senate elections in 2007, and to spare himself and his family from public scorn
Zubiri is the first senator on record to formally resign his office. All previous resignations from the Senate involved senators leaving to assume other positions in the government.
In each of these celebrated incidents, there was intense public and media focus on the issues.
Allegations of financial fraud in the armed forces had been building up . . . Members of the Senate blue ribbon committee went to town exploiting the issue.
In a striking twist, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, one of the toughest interlocutors of General Reyes at the time, is now himself under the microscope for alleged involvement in the P10-billion pork barrel scam.
Like his fellow senators, his defense against unethical brehavior is: “I have done nothing illegal.”