Leading without a compass

In a futile attempt to explain the latest increase in the price of oil products, the government has said that the rise in oil prices is worldwide and that the Philippines has kept its prices lower than those for the US and much of Asia.  This, I am sure, will not comfort those of us who feel strongly that the government has sold out to the oil companies.  It is stupid to say that Americans pay more for their oil than we do.  They also earn far more than we do.

The questions that must be answered rather are, first, whether the government has done its job to ensure that the oil companies do not rake in excessive profits at the expense of the public, and second, whether it is doing enough to cushion the effects of these sudden swings in oil prices.  I am afraid that on both questions, the national leadership will have problems answering “yes”.

President Estrada has more than once threatened to review the tax payments of these companies in order to get them to lower their prices.  He should not be making any threats; he should just be doing it.   And let us hope the results of such inquiry are published, so that we may also know how much revenue the government has been raking in from taxing oil products.

The effects of every round of increase in oil prices have always been instantaneously passed on to the transportation and food sectors.  I think it is unjust to recognize the right of the oil companies to recover their investments, while expecting the jeepney, bus, and taxi drivers, and indeed the farmers and workers, to passively absorb the burden of these increases.  The truth is that nothing has been done to distribute the pain of high prices across classes.  The government has shown an incapacity to draw upon sentiments of shared citizenship so that the nation may weather its crises.

This is what happens when a national leadership loses its moral compass.  It is unable to direct the nation’s course.  When it speaks, the public hears not the collective wisdom of elders but only the personal agenda of politicians.  To its exhortations of patience and sacrifice in difficult times, the public only responds with cynicism and derisive jokes.  Citizens suffer their leaders; they don’t believe them. This is no way for a nation to live.

Yet it is a fate we bring upon ourselves each time we allow those in power to mess up with our institutions.  The stock market fiasco brought about by the BW scandal is a clear case in point.  If our procedures and safeguards had been in place, and if we really valued our institutions, the investigation would have been quick and decisive. Any improper attempt by a public official to influence the course of the investigation would have been immediately repulsed.  Yasay would have given Erap a lesson in responsible leadership from the moment he made that very first telephone call.  He would have reminded him that a stock market hangs on nothing else but the thin thread of public confidence, and that he was endangering this confidence.

The same applies to our system of justice.  When decisions as crucial as pardons and paroles can be shaped by the arbitrary intervention of a mere clerk in Malacanang, as in the Manero case, you lose what remaining faith you have in justice.  You begin to wonder how many other grave matters of state are decided in this manner.

The disturbing impression that decisions of this government are not guided by transparent policy or by any clear vision is reinforced by the excessively personalistic style of the president.  He cannot seem to stand long deliberative meetings.  He seems to have no patience for formality and procedure, which in itself could be an endearing trait in our culture.

But, when you are president of an entire country and most of the decisions you have to make are complex in the sense that they have implications for many departments, you cannot afford not to go through the process of careful study and consultation.  That is why it is unthinkable for a modern president, unless he is intentionally undermining the authority of his officials, to make public pronouncements on weighty issues even before he has told his own Cabinet.  But Erap has done so many times, to the dismay of his people.

The problem, I think, goes beyond the suspected presence of a parallel “midnight Cabinet” of presidential drinking buddies who like to weave public policy out of the raw material of their respective private interests.   More basic than this, I suspect, is the erosion of highmindedness in our political life.  It is almost as if we have now all accepted as a premise of politics that the principal function of government is to enrich the victors of the last elections, rather than to promote the growth of a nation.

I refuse to think that this is all we have to show after a hundred years of experimentation with nationhood.  No doubt our institutions have remained fragile, and our elections have failed to draw the best from every generation.  Still, I believe it is a continuing source of hope for our country that we have not been lacking in “whistle-blowers” who, at crucial moments in our nation’s life, bravely risk their honor and personal safety to stop those who would abuse power.

That is why it is important to recognize what Atty. Ruben Almadro and the entire staff of the Philippine Stock Exchange’s Compliance and Surveillance Group have done when they resigned to protest the PSE board’s decision to clear some favored stock brokers of any culpability in the BW scandal.

Though some may question the purity of their motives, it is certainly the cumulative power of their example and those of many others before them that makes democracy viable.


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