How not to fight corruption

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 March, 2007, 12:00am

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was in a combative mood this week, after learning that Asia's businesspeople perceived her nation as the most corrupt among 13 places ranked by Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy. Not only was old data being used, the trained economist argued, but under her rule the country's international credit ratings have improved.

Nice try, Mrs Arroyo. But this survey of almost 1,300 of the region's business leaders was not about your country's financial performance, but rather how potential investors see the nation. To put it frankly, they think it stinks: its score slipped from 7.8 out of 10 last year to 9.4 - with zero being the best possible score and 10 the worst - supplanting Indonesia at the bottom.

There are good reasons for that opinion. Although Mrs Arroyo has made tackling corruption a priority for her administration, the anti-graft commission she established in April 2001 has yet to put anyone behind bars.

This, in a country where getting off a traffic violation is as simple as slipping a bank note to the police officer who flagged you over. Or where the best way to get through government red tape is to hand some money to the person behind the counter. The government has even formalised the practice, by having different fees for getting a passport: the higher one ensures quicker delivery.

Then there is the protracted graft trial of former president Joseph Estrada, who was ousted by Mrs Arroyo. It has made little headway in the six years since the allegations were laid. Or how about the case of former agriculture undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante, arrested in the US in July for not having a visa: the opposition alleges he diverted hundreds of millions of pesos earmarked for farmers' fertiliser to Mrs Arroyo's 2004 election fund. The president, they claim, is quite content that he stay in the US rather than come home to spill the beans to investigators.

But there is an even more symbolic example, for all to see on arrival at Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Although Terminal Three was completed almost four years ago, it remains desolate and unused because of a series of scandals - corruption among them. Disembarking passengers could be getting a first impression of the Philippines as a modern nation. Instead, they go into the old building - tattered and definitely something from a best-forgotten era (in this case, that of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos) - and get the instant perception that this is a banana republic.

Such a feeling would be confirmed by the findings of organisations like the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy or the Berlin-based Transparency International - which, in its last corruption-perceptions index, ranked the Philippines equal 121st with Nepal among 160-odd nations.

Corruption cannot be measured. But for businesspeople or visitors, the Philippines is clearly not a Singapore or Hong Kong - which took the top two places in Tuesday's survey. As Manila business consultant Peter Wallace observed yesterday, there is no doubt that the country is corrupt, but whether it is more so than the next-lowest on the list - Indonesia and Thailand tied at 11 - no one really knows or cares.

Mrs Arroyo acknowledged this with her anti-corruption commission, and by signing and ratifying the UN Convention Against Corruption, which stipulates the tough actions participants must take. Japan and South Korea have not ratified the pact, contending that the means for proper implementation are not yet in place, while Mrs Arroyo believes otherwise.

Therein lies the problem with her anti-corruption efforts. She has the right rhetoric, but not the action to go with it.

A commission against corruption fails to address the fact that Filipinos are not being taught, from the grass-roots level, that corruption is wrong. Nor is the government engaging with groups in civil society that advocate change.

Most important, though, is the lack of leadership on the matter: No government can be taken seriously in its claim to be tackling corruption if it persists in acting corruptly.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor.