Transport Undersecretary for Rails Cesar Chavez was not in command of a government department when he resigned, as his post was essentially subordinate to that of the secretary of the Department of Transportation (DoTr). But because of the circumstances of his departure from office and his announced reasons for quitting, we believe that his resignation deserves to be highlighted in its own way.
It has much to teach the nation about the long entrenched fact in Philippine bureaucratic and political culture that no incumbent official resigns his or her office. Resignation is regarded as unthinkable and anathema by public officials, appointed or elected, because doing so would imply culpability or guilt.
Chavez’s resignation should be treated as an opportunity to exorcise our bureaucratic and political culture.
It is commendable, although not heroic, that Undersecretary Chavez announced Thursday morning that he has tendered his irrevocable resignation from his post over the sorry condition of the Metro Rail Transit Line 3.
His resignation came after a coach detached from a train last week and after an accident that severed the arm of a passenger who fell onto the tracks. It must be pointed out that the woman, whose arm was reattached, was not pushed and had received prompt medical assistance.
In his letter of resignation, Chavez wrote: “I hope the President understands that in light of recent events involving the MRT 3 system, a simple sense of delicadeza (propriety), which I have adhered to throughout my professional life, gives me no choice but to resign from my said position.”
By implication, he was taking responsibility for the recent accidents in the MRT-3 system during his watch. He did not refer to the far bigger failures of the system under the watch and direction of previous transport officials under the Benigno Aquino 3rd administration.
Significantly, Mr. Chavez made his resignation irrevocable and effective immediately. He said that his move to step down was a personal decision. He expressed hopes that his resignation would lead to the appointment of someone “better qualified to perform the duties and responsibilities” of the office.
The immediate contrast that Chavez’s resignation will draw is with the position taken by his boss, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, who has not owned up to any responsibility for the parlous state of the MRT-3 service, and who rejects outright all calls for his resignation. He says only President Rodrigo Duterte can ask him to do so. The point is debatable, because it is the people who are sovereign in our system of government. Of course, the people or the public can demand that he resign.
The bigger contrast that we want to emphasize is the stark contrast that Chavez’s decision draws with all the public officials, appointed and elected, who have clung to their office tenaciously despite scandal, failure or incompetence.
In our bureaucratic and political culture, bureaucrats and politicians are embodiments of Konrad Adenauer’s quip, that “a thick skin is a gift from God.” No failure is so gross, no scandal is so damning that they will remove themselves from our public life.
Against such obstinacy, the only sensible response is sweeping reform of the culture. A new ethic must govern the entry and stay of people in our government service.
Chavez laid down his office because he saw the reality of the situation in the MRT system, and its potential tragedies and horrors. He had enough sense of honor to quit while he still had some left.