Delicadeza is one word which has not changed its meaning in the Philippines for centuries. The concept has the same meaning whether one is from Luzon, Visayas or Mindanao. Because nearly everyone knows what it means, no one has bothered to come out with a standard definition, or translate it into law. Nonetheless, the concept of delicadeza can be discerned in laws, rules and regulations concerning behavior of public officials.
Delicadeza refers to behavior anchored on generally accepted moral standards. Thus, it is often said that what is considered legal may not necessarily be moral.
To be branded “without delicadeza” is probably the strongest insult that one can hurl at a public official. This is because the word is associated with honor. In many cultures, people die to protect their honor.
During the past few years however, the concept of delicadeza has been changing. Its meaning has been changed by people in authority. Suddenly, many don’t know what the word means! A concept which is so clear that it is taken for granted is now murky and obtuse.
The rowdy battle over the presidential selections for national artists touches on the concept of delicadeza. When one is the head of the office in charge of shepherding the process of selection and is chosen as an awardee, is delicadeza involved?
Yes! answer the clamorous protesters. In the words of the Office for Initiatives in Culture and the Arts of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, “There was a demonstration of significant indiscretion, or even egregious imprudence on the part of the officials who administered the awards. It was totally amiss—unethical, dishonest, morally bereft and abusive—that those who oversaw the process ended up being honored and reaping the gains of their own auspice.”
Yes, say earlier recipients of the award. Delicadeza is at stake because there is a clear case of conflict of interest. One cannot be head of an office implementing a program and also be a beneficiary. Lawyers say that the issue also raises legal questions. The law creating the NCCA specifically states that its officers are prohibited from participating in the awards program.
No, answer the recipients of the awards, there is no delicadeza involved. The two most controversial awardees insist that they deserve the honor and claim that they are national artists. The NCCA director says that she did not nominate herself and did not participate in the process. Her name was added by the president, along with three other nominees. Therefore, it is not a matter of delicadeza. It is a matter of executive privilege, she says.
If this is so, then all that a government official needs to do in order to win an award administered by her own office is to ask the president to interfere! However, this stratagem merely “legitimizes” the award, it does not change the fact that the problem of delicadeza remains. It does not change the fact that she should not benefit from an award she is forbidden from appropriating for herself, because she happens to head the office.
Redefining delicadeza. The hue and cry over the national artist awards is only one of the daily controversies in government involving delicadeza. How about political dynasties where spouses, children, in-laws, and grandchildren take turns occupying public positions? How about private firms and foundations run by spouses entering into multimillion contracts with government offices and officials. And how about wives, husbands, children and nannies tagging along on official trips?
Everyone knows about officials in high places who hire their wives and husbands as their chiefs of staffs and secretaries to facilitate dealing with clients, suppliers and contractors.
Many officials now take it for granted that what belongs to the public also belongs to them and their families, be it the official car, the official residence, office facilities and properties, and the office budget.
Perhaps one reason why graft and corruption proliferate openly and shamelessly in the country is because the meaning of delicadeza has profoundly changed. High officials have made their own definitions and claim that their actuations do not involve delicadeza.
Perhaps it is time to redefine delicadeza in terms of practices in present day governance. I have asked my students in one of my public administration classes to reflect seriously on what delicadeza means during these times of economic crisis, political instability, and potential social upheavals.
Has its centuries old meaning changed? Under what circumstances can specific actions be described as involving delicadeza? What can be considered as right and wrong actions, apart from legal indicators? Do we still need delicadeza for effective governance?