Earlier this week, a disturbing rumor I first heard a part of some months ago was confirmed by an eminently credible source in an on-the-record discussion: It seems that there are people within the Department of Education who are providing lists of teachers whose net pay is above a certain threshold to lenders—banks and finance companies—who then offer loans to the teachers. The loans are usually for very large amounts, several hundred thousand pesos in many cases, and usually have very attractive interest rates.
Teaching is among the lowest-paid professions in this country, and what makes many of these prospective borrowers even more susceptible to the lenders’ marketing is that many of them are young, recent graduates who have suddenly found themselves responsible for their own finances—and not at all well-trained to handle it—after having been supported by their families for all their young lives. Naturally, having their lack of experience taken advantage of by unethical lenders (and not insignificantly, people in the government department that is supposed to be protecting their interests) leads many of these teachers into a debt trap that is usually only escapable if they forego their chosen profession for something a little more lucrative, such as an unrewarding service-industry job overseas.
Stories like this are all too common, and most of them never see the light of day, because there is little evidence one can present to support them—the Filipino love for excessive paperwork and record-keeping does not extend to criminal and other abuses in government agencies or elsewhere. For example, just try asking anyone in the Bureau of Customs about the revelation made a few weeks ago by the head of a major industry association that a “hidden cost” faced by that group’s 200-odd members is a P500 “transaction fee” (for which receipts are not issued, naturally) for any transaction, no matter how inconsequential; at a monthly average of around 40,000 transactions per month for this particular industry group, this amounts to an extortion racket worth around a quarter of a billion pesos per year.
Not that any of this is actually a surprise; stories like these have been part of the grapevine since time immemorial. What is a surprise to many, however, is how stereotypical the government of President Benigno S. Aquino 3rd has turned out to be. Most business people, if for no other reason than simple practicality, have up until now been inclined to give President Aquino the benefit of the doubt. Shenanigans like those described above were supposed to be stopped but no one expects everything to be fixed overnight; as long as things generally appear to be moving in the direction of greater consistency and process accountability—and as long as the general business environment is still profitable, of course—business people, being a rather politically conservative lot, keep their complaints to a minimum.
The revelations of the past week, particularly those about the so-called “Disbursement Acceleration Program,” or DAP, have destroyed the last of that goodwill. The DAP appears to be an illegally contrived slush fund used to bribe legislators—to hear it characterized as that by a high-level commercial banking executive and unapologetic financial backer of the Liberal Party is unnerving, to say the least—and is a stark reminder of how “unprogrammed funds” such as the Priority Development Assistance Fund, the President’s Social and Special Purpose Funds and the Miscellaneous Personnel Benefit Fund have ballooned under President Aquino. As more than one business leader has pointed out, even if the creation and use of the DAP and other funds is completely legal and backed by honest intentions on President Aquino’s part, they are economically unsound to the extent that they have had a negative impact on the economy that cannot be overlooked or tolerated any longer, no matter how sincere B.S. Aquino might be.
And very few believe B.S. Aquino is actually sincere at this point; that might be unfair, but the disclosures being made certainly leave that impression—and as a consequence, there is a growing discussion among people who ordinarily would be loathe to raise the topic, speculating whether it is possible that the Aquino administration could be brought down, and whether that would actually be better for the country.
Most cooler heads now agree that yes, it is possible, and that is a prospect they do not welcome. The memory of the criticism leveled at the country after the ouster of Joseph Estrada, even though he was replaced with someone whose qualifications were well-known and respected by the international community, has not gone away. Any sort of extralegal change in government will have deeply negative ramifications for the Philippines’ United Nations-level dispute with China, its standing within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and its still-necessary close relationship with the United States. And there is no clearly better alternative; no one has emerged as a possible leader with a significantly better plan for the country.
The better solution, at this point, would be for President Aquino to listen to some hard advice for once and do the job that he said he would do, if that is indeed his intention; if it is not, then he should resign and allow the country to form a caretaker administration under Vice President Binay for the remainder of the term. Fixing the system and reestablishing his personal credibility involves just a few steps, but they are big ones.
First, the 2014 budget now before Congress must be torn up and replaced with one that eliminates all “unprogrammed” or “undesignated” funds of any kind, most especially the P1 trillion earmarked for the Office of the President. Budget Secretary Florencio “Butch” Abad, who is seen as the chief culprit in the financial malfeasance being revealed, and Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima should be compelled to resign, along with every Executive Branch official implicated in the ongoing “pork barrel” scandal, the alleged misuse of the Malampaya Fund, and other cases that might arise. The Commission on Audit (COA) must be provided all the documents now being withheld from it by the Budget Department, and be able to make a full public report. An Executive Order making all finances of any government entity—that is, eliminating exemptions now granted to certain funds of the President and other offices—subject to COA oversight must be made. The ongoing “hearings” in the Senate—which provide nothing more than entertainment value, even more so because suspects are conducting their own inquest—must be immediately halted to allow the appropriate agencies to conduct a thorough investigation. And finally, all personalities, regardless of affiliation, for whom sufficient evidence is present to warrant charges, should be immediately charged and subjected to a fair but thorough trial.
If President Aquino is not willing to take those steps, which, he should be reminded, are those outlined by important people who finance and support his and his party-mates’ elections and continuing terms in office, that is his prerogative. He may step aside and pass the challenge on to his successor, and he would probably be regarded without prejudice for doing so; what he needs to realize is, it’s not about him—it never was. It’s about what’s best for the country.