Duterte administration's fight against corruption: For real, or for reel?

Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 23 2021 06:53 PM

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"I assure you, this will be a clean government… Wala na ito sa script. You know, ako maka-garantiya, 101 percent it will be clean."

This impromptu line delivered by President Rodrigo Duterte on July 26, 2016, was one of the most applauded parts of his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), which ran for almost two hours.
 
His audience's resounding applause can be translated into the Filipino nation's thirst for a leader who could really, finally end corruption in the country.

Dionicio David, a 69-year-old farmer in Central Luzon, was one of those who watched Duterte's first SONA from start to finish.

He recalled the emotions that gripped him while listening to the President's promise to quash corruption, bringing him hope that finally, here is a leader who would ensure that government funds will really go straight to the people.

No hanky-panky. Just truthful service and aid to poor farmers like him, so the next generations of poor people will no longer be forced to forego schooling and grow old uneducated, he said.

Mang Dionicio started farming at age 12, choosing their plow and aging carabao over pen and paper, to help his parents in order to survive.

Mang Dionicio admitted he voted for presidential candidates who, in their campaign speeches, promised to end corruption.

"Gusto ko nga hong mag-aral. Kaya lang yung mga kapatid ko, gusto kong mag-aral kaya lang walang kasama yung magulang ko sa trabaho. Kasi noon ang pinagtatrabaho ko kalabaw eh. Palagi kang magpa-pastol ng kalabaw. Paano ka makakapag-aral," he said, turning emotional.

But Mang Dionicio's high hopes were reduced every year, hearing the next four SONAs of the President delivering his commitment to end corruption like a part of his yearly staple.

Today, his glimmer of hope has dimmed.

"Tumigil na akong umasa sa kwan. Pagka umasa ka man, kung wala namang dumarating. Kung hindi ka magta-trabaho, wala namang sosobra," he said.

Asked how much assistance he thinks is the government extending to poor farmers like him, Mang Dionicio said: "Parang barya lang."

 THE DUTERTE PRESIDENCY

The past five years of the Duterte presidency, just like previous administrations, have also been marred by allegations.

The controversies include various anomalies in the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) about supposed ghost patients, exaggerated ailments and the Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM) program designed to pay hospitals on patients' incurred expenses.

- The slipping into the country of illegal drugs through the Bureau of Customs.

- The illegal entry of foreign workers and exit of migrant Filipino workers under the so-called "Pastillas scam."

- Erring policemen reportedly involved in illegal drug raids and eventual recycling of shabu; and other corruption-related issues allegedly happening in the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO); Department of Health; Bureau of Internal Revenue and the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Amid various cases of irregularities surfacing during the Duterte administration, the President, in a speech in Jolo, Sulu on April 10, 2018, issued a stern warning against erring government workers.

"Huwag na huwag talaga akong makarinig na corruption, [not] even a whiff or whisper. I will fire you or place you somewhere. Mamili kayo: ComVal [Compostela Valley) o Jolo," he said.

What followed were Duterte's series of announcements of government personnel that he has fired.

In November 2020, the President announced his axing of around 800 government personnel, state officials included, due to alleged corrupt practices.

He also formed a "Mega Task Force" against corruption and tapped Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra as its head.

The task force's job was to investigate agencies with reported corruption and charge those proven to be part of the irregularities.

Guevarra meantime prioritized the PhilHealth, BOC, BIR, Land Registration Authority and the Department of Public Works and Highways, in the investigation. 

Despite all these, investors' confidence still appeared to be shaky as far as the Philippines' business climate is concerned.

In the 2020 "Corruption Perception Index" report released by Transparency International, the Philippines received a measly grade of 34 over 100.

In the said report, the Philippines placed 115th out of the 180 surveyed countries, which were graded by investors.

Former Finance Undersecretary Milwida Guevara, now President and Chief Executive Officer of Synergeia Foundation - a Coalition of organizations promoting quality education -- said, TI's Corruption Perception Index report represents various investors' concerns.

"Dapat tingnan mo rin yung ibang measure ng international organizations. Sa rule of law bumagsak tayo, sa competitiveness bagsak tayo lahat di ba? So, kasi siyempre yung corruption apektado yan sa rule of law eh. kung hindi mo talaga pinapairal yung batas at napakalaki ng discretion ng mga otoridad, ng personality. So yung person na yun ang magde-decide, hindi yung polisiya," Guevara explained.

Guevara served under the Ramos administration, or during the time when the Philippines was dubbed by the world as the "Rising Tiger in East Asia."

Guevara said the World Economic Review's account that the Philippines annually loses P500 billion revenue due to tax evasion, also contributes to the country's already slumped economy.

The Philippines will not have to face a yearly budget deficit if only taxes are properly collected, acquired government supplies are not overpriced and State funds are not being pocketed, she stressed.

In all these, every Filipino should be blamed, she said.

"Kasi hindi tayo kumikibo. Walang check and balance yung kongreso, yung Senado. Sila dapat yung me boses na sabihin 'mali ito, hindi tama, putulin natin'... Pangalawa yung civil society naging indifferent… Tapos yung mga tao parang okay na lang… yung problema sa atin wala tayong accountability. Dapat yung merong pagkukulang parurusahan mo," Guevara pointed out.

Commissioner Greco Belgica of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission, in a separate interview, acknowledged much has yet to be done to combat corruption in the Philippines.

Belgica said the government is not taking a pause on this fight.

"Ang corruption po sa ating gobyerno is still present. And I do not think that there will come a time that there will be no corruption in govt dahil ang korapsyon po kakambal po ng tao yan. kung saan may tao merong korapsyon dahil tao ang korap. What we can do is to put a fight and to put institutions and put good people in office to fight these corruptions," Belgica said.
 
Belgica said majority of the nearly 13,500 complains received by the PACC were already acted upon.

Bulk of them he said, are related to the Social Amelioration Program or SAP.

Belgica also lined up to ABS-CBN News the agency's strings of conducted anti-corruption operations that led to the arrest and charging of high-ranking officials from agencies that include the DPWH, BIR, BI, BOC, PhilHealth, National Electrification Administration, Food and Drug Administration and the Departments of Environment and Natural Resources and Labor and Employment.

But since the PACC is only armed with recommendatory powers, those arrested and charged were able to post bail, he said.

Belgica said the PACC has already submitted its proposed bill to Congress that will strengthen the agency's functions.

Part of their recommendations is to allow the PACC to have its very own police force that will enforce arrests and secure their witnesses, as well as power to directly suspend or fire erring government personnel, replacing the current policy that still needs the approval of the Office of the President, Belgica said.

"Napakahirap pong manghuli ng corrupt. We don't have the right laws right now to address it the way that we have to," Belgica pointed out.

The PACC has also launched its program where it encourages government heads and personnel to take their "Oath of Honesty," or a vow against corrupt practices, or be charged and embarrassed by the PACC once caught.

WHERE TO SEEK ASSISTANCE

To intensify the government's fight against corruption, the PACC has also opened its doors to those who would like to provide tips on various forms of irregularities, Belgica said.

The Civil Service Commission has also its own "Contact Center ng Bayan" and Hotline 888 for those who have encountered government irregularities or poor public service quality.

From year 2016 to 2017, the CSCS has received a total of 554-extortion related concerns.

For year 2020, the Commission has listed the Social Security System. Land Transportation Office and the BIR as the top three agencies with the most complaints.

CSC Commissioner Aileen Lizada said all concerns are immediately forwarded to agencies involved for swift action.

Lizada said corruption takes in different forms.

"Like nung nasa LTFRB (Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board) ako, we took out 60 or 67 officials nationwide. Dun ko lang ho nalaman na meron palang crying money at smiling money. Ang smiling money daw ay freely given.. from the security guard, lahat. Ano pala ang crying money, yun talaga yung pinipiga mo… So sabi ko kahit piso po' yan, kahit ano pa yang amount nyan, it's still corruption because it's a moral decay yun once matanggap mo," Lizada said.

PhilHealth meantime, which was subjected to various congressional investigations, and was included in the CSC's top 10 most complained agencies since 2012, was able to delist itself starting year 2019.

"PhilHealth does not condone any form of corruption, let alone those allegedly committed by its own ranks. To date, no evidence has been substantiated on allegations that officers and staff have pocketed PhilHealth funds - allegations that have been made in the past and persist to this day," PhilHealth's Vice President for Corporate Affairs, Dr Shirley Domingo, in a statement, said.

DUTERTE'S LAST SONA

As the President's last SONA approaches, questions on whether he can really lick corruption or not heats up, especially amid his estrange political ally, Senator Manny Pacquiao stated that the volume of corruption under the Duterte administration has tripled.

 And as election 2022 nears, the issue of corruption and how to quash it, are expected to take the center stage again, with many candidates picturing themselves as the Messiah who will end irregularities using their anti-corruption platforms that the Filipino nation have heard and anticipated for centuries.

And as all those beautiful reports and promises happen again, the likes of Mang Dionicio will have no other choice, but to continue to listen, believe and hope for its realization.