Old habits die hard

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 August, 2005, 12:00am

What's wrong with the Philippines? Embattled President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has the answer: it's the politics. According to her, a 'deteriorating political system' is 'dragging down' the country. She has a point, but it is incomplete, because it leaves out why the political system is so shabby.

Nearly every Filipino adult can tell her the answer to that. The political system is rotten because of rotten politicians ... and none are more rotten than the variety called 'trapos'. Short for 'traditional politician', a trapo embodies what's dysfunctional in politics and the civil service.

Every country in the world has its species of corrupt, cynical public servants, but trapos are a high-maintenance variety. Their care and feeding costs the country billions of pesos in graft and stolen wealth, and a justice system that has become so warped, few have faith in it.

What makes a politician traditional is adherence to values better suited to a tribe or small village. Trapos give priority to their families, cronies and political allies. Where others speak of the 'servant of the public', a trapo thinks 'the servant is the public'.

The chief of the Government Service Insurance System, appointed by Mrs Arroyo, has a huge annual salary - 5.6 million pesos ($777,500) - and is already rich in his own right. But he saw nothing wrong in borrowing from the fund he's administering to buy himself a luxury car and a condominium. Neither did he see anything disturbing in jumping the queue, fast-tracking his loan application and getting it the same day, while thousands of civil servants have to line up and then wait months for tiny loans.

One reason why trapos don't worry about the unseemliness of such things is that few senior public officials are ever brought to book for their crimes. The Marcoses and ex-president Joseph Estrada are prominent examples. Also, the judicial system is rigged in favour of trapos, to whom politics is a game of compromise and expedient deals, with a playbook that includes everything from bribery to murder.

It might seem strange to see political values more suited to the Middle Ages surviving in the 21st century, but Mrs Arroyo's own family gives a clue to how trapo-ism is passed on. After she became president, her son and brother-in-law used their relation to her to run for Congress and win handily. They and her husband now stand accused of profiting from illegal gambling. Mrs Arroyo has refused to do anything about it. One reason perhaps is that it's hard to explain how her congressman son, who in 1992 had a net worth of 50,000 pesos, last year reported a fortune amounting to 76 million pesos. Tradition can certainly be enriching.