Strengthening institutions

People lose faith in their institutions first, when those in charge of them exploit them for their personal benefit, and second, when they do not produce definite and useful results.

Institutions are the established means by which a society conducts and regulates its collective affairs.  When they fail to do their work, people feel justified to resort to other means to secure the things they value – justice, personal liberty, security, livelihood, etc.

All around us we see symptoms of a breakdown in the structures of our collective life.  On two occasions in the last 15 years, we needed to take to the streets to oust corrupt and abusive leaders. Entire families, constituting about half of our population, try to survive without stable jobs or homes.  In our major cities, children and the elderly roam the streets in quest of alms. People routinely take the law into their own hands to settle personal disputes.  Homeowners put up iron gates and hire private security guards to protect their communities, and so on.  These are not signs of a nation confident about its institutions.

Much is demanded of those who occupy the most visible positions in our public life.  We are fortunate to have a credible Chief Justice at a time like this.  The public trust he enjoys is a boon to the entire Supreme Court.  The decisiveness that the Court displayed in the period following the political upheaval of January 2001 did much to strengthen our constitutional order.  Today we look impatiently to the Ombudsman and the Sandiganbayan justices for similar assurances that our justice system works.

We look to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for affirmation that it was correct for the nation to allow her to succeed to the presidency without benefit of an election.  The plans she laid out at her first State of the Nation Address showed that she knew what the public pulse was.  Now everyone is waiting to see if she can deliver on those plans.

We look to the leadership of both chambers of Congress to craft relevant legislation in these uncertain times.  Congress is the most important national forum for discussing the problems of our society. We expect legislators to study these problems carefully, hold hearings when necessary, and not waste their time building waiting sheds or identifying road projects.  They must leave executive decisions to administrators, just as they must not usurp the investigative and judicial prerogatives of the police and the courts. An exception is made for the committee on public accountability which is explicitly charged with the task of conducting hearings in aid of prosecution.

Our people have seen enough of the failure of our public institutions to make them skeptical about government as a whole.  Public officials must contend with this persistent distrust.  They have a duty to conduct themselves in a manner that puts them always above suspicion.  Accepting gifts from businessmen the way in which Senator Panfilo Lacson accepted cell phones from Kim Wong, who also paid his monthly phone bills, only aggravates this distrust.  Both Senator Lacson and Kim Wong are now accused of involvement in drug trading.

In focus for the past two weeks is the Senate as an institution. Damaging information on the alleged criminal activities of a newly elected senator has reached the media.  The principal source of the information is no less than the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (ISAFP).  When the Senate took cognizance of the matter, its first concern however was to ask why the ISAFP was gathering information like this, who authorized the investigation, and why the information was leaked to the media.  The senators appeared more concerned with protecting one of their own than with determining what the information was and what it meant for the country.

This attitude elicited vigorous reaction from a public that has not forgotten how members of the same senate blocked the presentation of crucial evidence about the criminal activities of the former president.  But even more dismaying was the arrogant behavior of some senators who earned enormous public esteem during the impeachment trial but now seem to have lost all high-mindedness. It may take time before the injuries the senate has inflicted upon itself will fully heal.  In the meantime, the senators must do something to appease the chronic doubts of a cynical citizenry.

To terminate the senate hearings at this point would not only be unfair to the parties concerned, it would also be dangerous.  Senator Lacson denies maintaining accounts in any foreign bank, and has offered to waive his right to the confidentiality of these accounts if they exist.  That is a good start.  The senate must now act to perfect that waiver so that the banks in which the accounts are supposedly kept would accept it.

If the banks named by the ISAFP deny that Senator Lacson or his wife ever maintained accounts with them, then the public should ask ISAFP Chief Col. Victor Corpus to public apologize to Lacson and the nation, retire from the armed forces, and face the consequences of his recklessness. I am certain the Filipino people would then be prepared to believe that Senator Lacson has been unjustly maligned and persecuted, and is therefore likely to be innocent also of all the other charges raised against him.  But if the banks confirm the existence of any of these accounts, then clearly the senators have a duty to protect the senate by throwing out Senator Lacson.

A definite closure like this would go a long way toward strengthening our institutions.


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