Dutiful silence

Nothing perhaps more graphically captures the dysfunctions of government than the pathetic sight of senior police officials explaining how they failed to stop a procurement contract that was patently disadvantageous to government.  I refer to the ongoing Senate investigation on the purchase by the Philippine National Police of two second-hand helicopters that were passed off and paid for as brand new. If we can understand how such things happen, then maybe we might also begin to know how to prevent them.

It was Sen. Jinggoy Estrada who asked the members of the police inspection team that received the delivery the crucial question: Were you aware that the two choppers were not brand new? All, except one, said they thought they were brand new. None of them – except for the one who said they were second-hand – had any technical expertise on helicopters.  Their excuse is that they were misled by the seller. But, what about Supt. Claudio Gaspar Jr. who admitted knowing they were second-hand? His explanation is astonishing for its moral indifference. But it is also typical.

Gaspar, who had ferried former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her family on these very same choppers, said it was not his duty to share his knowledge of the choppers since he was not privy to the negotiations that led to their sale. He was taking refuge in the “need-to-know” restriction that is common in military and security organizations. This rule states that you don’t inquire into things that do not concern you, and you do not offer information that your official duties do not require you to give.  Given such stonewalling, an exasperated Estrada blurted out, “Did you not feel at all conscience-stricken?”  To which Gaspar might have replied, under his breath: “My conscience is irrelevant to my duties.” But he chose to keep his dutiful silence.

As a security measure, the need-to-know rule is understandable in the work of a pilot like Gaspar. The security of his passengers, particularly the VIPs, is essential information that he cannot freely share. But, the rule cannot be used to cover up illegal actions. Did Gaspar know that the PNP was paying brand new prices for second-hand helicopters? It is obvious that he knew, yet he kept his mouth shut.

The issue is not just between him and his conscience. It is also between the demands of his work and his duties as a citizen. I am certain that he knew that the transaction was illegal and injurious to the general interest of the nation, just as I cannot imagine that the rest of the police officers who played the role of fools at the Senate investigation did not know what was going on. The crucial question is: Why? Why, despite the procedures and controls in place, did they allow this transaction to proceed?

There can be any number of reasons. One, they themselves personally benefited from the transaction. Two, they were protecting their superiors, or perhaps a person more powerful than their superiors, who could make things difficult for them if they did not cooperate, or reward them if they did. Three, they simply could not see themselves “rocking the boat” or “blowing the whistle.” They might have feared the controversy it could trigger, and the bigger danger that their careers could be derailed, if they did. Of these three reasons, and there could be more, the last is probably the most widespread in the bureaucracy. But, it is also, for that reason, the one that offers the brightest hope for change.

I refuse to believe that Filipinos have lost their moral compass or have become completely cynical and indifferent.  That we are capable of outrage and of acting on our convictions has been proven time and again by the number of times we have confronted and disposed of our oppressive and corrupt rulers. Our problem is that we have been less adept at re-configuring our institutional systems so as to keep them attuned to the growing complexity of our society and the world. We have tended to face up to our crises when they are already full-blown, instead of nipping them in the bud, through small daily interventions that can be made at various levels – not just by the highest officials of the bureaucracy who make the big decisions but by the lowest personnel performing the most seemingly insignificant tasks.

It is important to begin by reaffirming our commitment to the ethics of public service. I think this is what President Aquino meant in his State of the Nation Address when he said that the fight against graft and corruption must be “personal.” Obviously he was not telling his listeners to take the law into their own hands. He was referring rather to the need to shed our indifference wherever corruption stares us in the face, to tackle it as if the injury it causes was personal.

But more than this, there is a need to make whistle-blowing easy and concealment of wrongdoing difficult. The initiative has to start from the top. Those who set and enforce the standards must not only have credibility, they must also show an unbending will to set things right. They must make themselves accessible.  They must be fearless, consistent, but also discerning enough to be able to tell the difference between worthwhile leads and disinformation.

Unlike the Arroyo administration that excelled in the evasion of accountability, P-Noy’s leadership wants to be measured by the ethics of transparency and responsibility. That is no small boast. It is what the nation needs to end the conspiracy of silence that has historically sustained corruption in public life.

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