Moral renewal as doublespeak

From out of the blue, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has issued Administrative Order No. 255, “directing the heads of the executive department to lead moral renewal in their agencies.” Dated January 30, 2009 but released only on Feb. 15, A.O. 255 reminds heads of agencies of the moral obligations of public office, and commands them to formulate and submit action plans for moral renewal to the Office of the President within 90 days after the publication of the order.

To many Filipinos, this presidential order has about the same meaning as putting Lintang Bedol or Virgilio Garcillano in charge of a program for electoral reform.  It is a sick joke.  Or, just another desperate attempt to portray Ms Arroyo as a committed advocate of societal reform.

Note that the Philippines under GMA has consistently missed most of the Millennium Development Goals it has set for itself, one of these being the pursuit of a sustained campaign to curb government corruption.  This failure has made the country ineligible for the funds administered by the Millennium Development Corporation.  It cannot be mere coincidence that the administrative order comes in the wake of the damning World Bank report about the dishonest involvement of high public officials and their relatives in WB-funded projects in the Philippines.

But, let us, for a moment, assume that the government is serious about combating corruption.  Is moral decay the cause of corruption? Can a call for “moral renewal” – whatever it might mean – be more than lip service in the kind of political system we have?

The administrative order defines moral renewal as “values formation and ethical behavior for government officers and employees, as well as the strengthening of people’s values to achieve zero tolerance for corruption.”  It enumerates the key values that must be promoted: “Maka-Diyos, makatao, makabayan, maka-kalikasan.”  “Maka-Diyos” is translated as “faith in the Almighty.”  “Makatao” is understood as belief in “truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace.” “Makabayan” is “respect for the law, for the government of the Republic of the Philippines, patriotism, the promotion of the common good, and a just and humane society.” And “maka-kalikasan” is “conservation and development of our patrimony.”

A.O. 255 reminds one of George Orwell’s parody of the way politicians use language.  It talks of an “Integrity Development Action Plan” and a “National Anti-Corruption Framework” that offices are expected to adopt and implement.  It orders heads of offices to formulate Codes of Ethics appropriate to their agencies.  It urges them to strengthen the “integrity committees” in every office.  Finally, it tells the secretaries of every department to lead by moral example. One almost expects these instructions to emanate from a “Ministry of Values.”

Anyone who knows the most basic thing about corruption in Philippine society will at once recognize the motherhood tone that pervades this new administrative order.  For, the problem of our society has never been the absence of moral values.  The problem has always been that these values and ethical codes have little or no chance of being asserted, or, least of all, of prevailing in a political environment that is systematically built on corruption.

The ethical codes specific to government service are rules appropriate to a modern state.  Our institutions may be modern in form, but the political culture within which they operate is pre-modern. What we call corrupt practices are built-in functional components of our existing political system.  To get rid of corruption therefore requires no less than the overhaul of our entire political system.

To win an election in our country, the typical Filipino politician has to spend far more than he can possibly hope to earn by honest means in the course of his term.  One of the main reasons for this is that Filipino voters equate good performance in office with acts of patronage – the provision of short-term material needs – jobs, money for food, medicines, hospitalization, burial assistance, education, etc.

These are real needs that are deeply rooted in the fundamental inequalities and lack of opportunity in our society.

It does not take long for the Filipino politician to learn that political survival depends heavily on his being able to make voters personally indebted to him.  Maintaining an elective position in such a culture is a very expensive proposition.  No sooner than he realizes this, however, the Filipino politician finds himself being supplied by the system with the resources he needs to be able to play the role of patron.  Not all of these resources come directly from corrupt sources.  There are various shades in the spectrum of corrupt practices.  But like colors in the rainbow, they spill into one another. One little favor is reciprocated and leads to another – until, unnoticed, the moral line gets blurred.  This culture creates no moral burdens that electoral successes cannot ease.

In the context of our obsolete political system, the call for moral renewal by government only elicits more cynicism.  The public hears it as nothing more than doublespeak.


Comments to <>