Rodrigo Duterte

Can tough-on-crime Rodrigo Duterte begin to root out endemic corruption in the Philippines?

Tony Kwok hopes the new down-to-earth Philippine president, who’s known for his iron-fist approach to law enforcement, can succeed where his predecessors have failed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 May, 2016, 12:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 May, 2016, 11:47am

When I visited Davao in 2005, in my capacity as an anti-corruption consultant for the Philippines’ Ombudsman Office, I was very impressed with the clean and tidy environment. I was told it was the nation’s safest city, and that mayor Rodrigo Duterte was held in high regard by its citizens for maintaining law and order.

Now he has been elected the next president, many people believe he brings hope of a real chance of combating corruption.

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Corruption is the root of all problems in the Philippines. Since Ferdinand Marcos, five presidents have been elected and, although each pledged to fight corruption, none succeeded. Indeed, two of the five were prosecuted for corruption offences. The main reason for the failure is the lack of political will at the top. This translates into a lack of support for its anti-corruption agency, the Office of the Ombudsman.

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The agency is responsible for both combating corruption and undertaking the conventional ombudsman’s role of looking into administrative complaints against government officials. Yet to carry out both roles, it has a staff of only about 1,000. When compared with the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption’s 1,300 employees, it is clearly very inadequate, particularly considerating that the Philippine population is 102 million, 14 times that of Hong Kong.

Furthermore, unlike the ICAC, which enjoys full investigative and police power, the Office of the Ombudsman has very limited power. It cannot even check suspects’ bank accounts. Officials have no power of arrest and detention, and cannot use proactive investigation methods like entrapment, surveillance, undercover work and so on. The excuse for not providing them with legal power is to avoid any abuse of human rights.

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The other main hurdle is that the judiciary is notoriously viewed as inefficient and probably corrupt. Many of the corruption cases brought before the court take over 10 years to conclude, and the conviction rate is low. For too long, the Philippines has been ruled by a political elite known for their “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” culture. Though outgoing president Benigno Aquino was seen as relatively clean, it is hard to name any top officials prosecuted for corruption during his tenure.

A key problem in combating corruption in the Philippines is the lack of effective law enforcement; there are hardly any deterrent effects on the corrupt. Duterte has a proven record of iron-fisted law enforcement, and does not belong to the political elite class; hence, he has a free hand to take anti-corruption into a new era.

The Philippines case is often cited to show that democracy is not a solution to combating corruption. Maybe this time it will work.

Tony Kwok is a former deputy commissioner of the ICAC and currently an honorary fellow and adjunct professor of HKU SPACE, and an international anti-corruption consultant