To beat sleaze, defend honest public servants

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Second of three parts

At the May 8 talk this writer gave to directors of a major government department under its 17-year-old reform program, a true patriot, democrat and lifelong public servant also gave his thoughts and recollections.

Yet more than his half-hour presentation on the legal and moral principles of good government, it was the life of martial law detainee, 1971 constitutional convention delegate, and Senator of the Republic Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. that gave the most eloquent testimony that selfless service to the nation is both possible and indispensable.

Pimentel protested the 1973 Marcos-manipulated constitution and the 1978 rigged parliamentary elections, landing in jail on both instances. And one thing that helped sustain his principled resistance was the help and encouragement he and his family received from silent supporters.


“One day in jail,” he recalled, “a friend just would tell me that my children had been enrolled in college with tuition paid.”

The Local Government Code principal author also told of how, as Cagayan de Oro City mayor in 1980-84, he told business people offering bribes to just reduce their prices by the amounts they were willing to kick back. Sadly, officials of other localities took offense, because Pimentel’s actions led the Commission on Audit to question much higher procurement costs in those cities and municipalities.

It’s lonely on the righteous path
Which brings to light the biggest challenge and obtacle facing do-gooders in government: we don’t really want them around. Yes, we: not just the corrupt, but even upright citizens like you and me.

Grafters hate the good guys, of course, and do their utmost to put down, persecute, and otherwise pressure those who put principle over personal gain. But the silent majority aren’t much better. Allergic to conflict and controversy, many Filipinos wish the upright would just go away and not prick their consciences.

Even those who rage against abuse much prefer to wage war on crooks, more than praising and protecting the principled. Media, too, finds more headline material in crusades against and scandals about the corrupt rather than applause for the honest and heroic work of often unknown, boring public servants. Fighting devils is sexier than cheering saints.

Ostracized and penalized by the corrupt and powerful, and largely ignored by the press and the people, including those loudly condemning sleaze, many honest, hardworking and longsuffering women and men in government struggle alone and unaided.

Take Bess. Year after year, the director has consistently topped ratings among midlevel executives in her agency, and often gets tough assignments requiring topnotch expertise. Yet she is repeatedly passed over for promotion to assistant secretary.

Reason: her uncompromising stance against corruption, including pork barrel graft. Bess is also often removed as chairperson of public bidding committees she is initially assigned to head.

The biggest tragedy, however, is that few outside her office know of her integrity, competence, and sacrifice. No screaming news headlines or fawning “whistleblower” treatment. No secret Palace meetings or televised Senate hearings. Just the daily frustration of doing what’s right and suffering for it.

Ignoring good incites evil
There are countless Besses among the 1.3 million public servants in the bureaucracy and the uniformed services. Unsung but unbowed patriots serving a citizenry knowing nil about their integrity, industry, courage and sacrifice. And often snickering at their idealistic self-sacrifice.

While Filipinos know Janet Lim Napoles and her alleged scams, hardly anyone can name even one of the dozens of Dangal ng Bayan, Ten Outstanding Police and Soldiers, and other awardees in public service honored every year. Even government websites pay little attention and adulation to these Lingkod Bayani, as the Civil Service Commission calls them.

This skewed sense for good governance—obsessed with venality, yet unmindful of virtue—has spawned a national mindset that corruption is pervasive, unavoidable and even normal. Grafters are seen as merely going along with the system, while the principled battling the tide are often derided as troublesome wackos.

This wrongheaded perspective on governance is helping spread sleaze by making it seem ordinary and unstoppable. It also denies honest civil servants the material and moral support they need to keep up the fight and stay on the straight and narrow way.

Rally around upright public servants
Plainly, to beat corruption, society and leading institutions must give ample attention, assistance and armor to the good in government. Not only will this encourage and safeguard the upright; it would also shame the corrupt and stop their schemes by buttressing honest civil servants who resist them.

For starters, government agencies, starting with the Civil Service Commission, should regularly recognize and reward exemplars of loyal service in major events, public statements, websites, and most of all, promotions and pay hikes. All schools, colleges and universities should also told to devote study time, publications, and honors for public sector do-gooders.

Media, religious congregations and civil society should constantly highlight these model civil servants, including weekly or daily front-page and prime-time reports, special mention at masses, and Jaycees, Rotary and Couples for Christ events.

Decades of the CSC Honor Awards Program, Metrobank’s top educators, law enforcers, and soldiers, and other annual recognition programs should provide a starter list of exceptional servants to highlight, along with those yet unrecognized like Bess.

But recognition isn’t enough. The principled also need material and moral support and protection. Business and civic groups opposed to sleaze should put their money where their mouth is, and offer financial aid, discounts and other privileges to exemplary public servants, starting with CSC, Metrobank and Medal of Valor awardees. State and private schools should offer scholarships. And the CSC should also build up its 2008-founded assistance fund for families of civil servants killed in the line of duty.

Most of all, the upright need the safety and support of massive numbers nationwide. We need to establish and propagate a national movement with international support not only to extol exemplary public servants, but to expose and oppose those who persecute and pressure them.

Call it Kilusang Lingkod Bayani. To ensure that KLB will not be exploited for partisan gains, it should be spearheaded and led by three entities: the CSC and its HAP awardees, religious groups including the Catholic Church, and bonafide NGOs like Gawad Kalinga.

Then the Nenes and Besses in government will no longer stand alone against the dirty politicians, cronies and bureaucrats conspiring daily to destroy our democracy.

The first part was published last Friday; the last part will run on Wednesday. If your group is interested in supporting upright civil servants, email censeimd@gmail.com.

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