Fate could not have written it better if this was a movie script. The convergence of recent events in our society is filled with many ironies and is deeply disturbing. It invites thoughtful reflection.
At the highest level of our government, the country’s most senior senator, who has lived through some of the most critical phases of our nation’s history, has been indicted for the crime of plunder. He is accused of taking millions of pesos in kickbacks from the use of pork barrel funds allotted to him. At the University of the Philippines, a state institution originally established to produce the highest quality of Filipino civil servants, a graduate student in public administration has been exposed for passing off someone else’s work as his own in a photo contest, and collecting the prize money of $1,000 that came with the winning entry.
The 89-year-old Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who, until recently, was the Senate president, has denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer claims that any wrongful utilization of the senator’s Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) could only have been done by his former chief of staff, without the senator’s authorization.
The 22-year-old UP Masters in Public Administration student, Mark Joseph Solis, a cum laude graduate from UP, has, in contrast, admitted guilt and begs for forgiveness. He ascribes what he did to “youth, lack of experience, and the inability to see the repercussions of my actions.” Given this excuse, one must ask if he understands the basic wrongfulness of taking things belonging to others. It appears that this is not the first time that Solis has plagiarized other people’s works.
By the sheer disparity of the amounts involved, it is obvious where the bigger crime lies. As a public official, Senator Enrile, a wealthy and successful man in his own right, is a trustee of public funds. Given his age, stature and experience, people expect him to conduct himself like a statesman—wisely, selflessly, and with utmost integrity. If it should happen, his conviction, together with that of other lawmakers, would rank as the lowest point in the history of the entire Philippine Congress. It is doubtful if the political system can absorb this kind of blow without giving way to far-reaching changes in the structure of our political life.
On the other hand, some might be inclined to ignore the gravity of Mark Joseph Solis’ act in view of his youth and financial need. What he stole, after all, were not public funds meant for the poor in our society. He is not a public official, even if we dread the thought that he might become one someday.
Still, something about the context of his deed deeply bothers me. The “Calidad Humana” photo contest, in which the plagiarized image he submitted won first prize, was a project of the Embassy of Chile in Manila. It was meant to celebrate the abundance of the quality of humaneness among Filipinos in a world fixated with material prosperity. In the effusive words of Ambassador Roberto L. Mayorga, whose brainchild this project is, “(H)ere in the Philippines, most of the people give priority to ‘concern for others’ rather than material things. They have what we call: ‘Calidad Humana’: Human Compassion, Humanity, Human Tone.”
The project seeks to explain and preserve this perceived valuable asset among our people. I vividly recall the small meeting I attended a few months ago where Ambassador Mayorga expounded on the concept. Listening to him made me wonder if, as a sociologist, I had missed something so important in our culture. “The question is,” he asked, “In what way and by what motives do Filipinos have Calidad Humana, compassion, resiliency, humility, cheerfulness? An explanation of these elements is fundamental to take the appropriate action in order to cultivate, protect and preserve them.” Ominously, almost as an aside, the good ambassador also said: “Of course, there are exceptions; we are not in paradise.”
It is this background that assailed me when I heard the news of Solis’ admission of his offense after the real creator of the winning photograph, a British photographer, stepped forward to protest the theft of his image. I thought of the Chilean ambassador’s spirited homage to the Filipino, and felt overcome by disgust over the fact that this young person, Mark Joseph Solis, who now stands as the negation of everything that a foreign diplomat has found praiseworthy in our people, earned his first degree under our tutelage and continues to train with us as a future public servant.
The question that rushed to my mind was: Where do young people like Mark Joseph Solis learn their ethics? My suspicion is that they don’t. They witness the collapse of traditional morality in their elders and leaders, and soon they are led to believe that anything goes in the quest for success, power and wealth. Skeptical of the legal system, and lacking any guidance, they begin to view the world with the cold eyes of predators that must prevail at any cost.
This is clearly the opposite of the “Calidad Humana” that the Chilean ambassador generously extols in us. But, perhaps, in quite another sense, this too is an integral part of being human—to be lost in a world that has become too complex to navigate with old moral compasses. Those tools were appropriate for a time when parents had control over their children’s time, when teaching was a holistic face-to-face encounter, when public officials behaved honorably because they regarded public service as a vocation.
Today’s challenge is to find an ethical way of being human in a world that has become too fragmented to be governed by a single moral code.