Saving face in the Philippine National Police

Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos calls it a “radical move,” a “bold” and “out-of-the-box” solution for “extraordinary times.” He is referring to his and Philippine National Police chief Gen. Rodolfo Azurin Jr.’s joint appeal to 953 senior police officers of the PNP to tender their courtesy resignations in order to pave the way for the quiet retirement of those who are involved in illegal drugs.

In fact, there’s nothing at all radical or bold or out of the box about this approach to the problem of police involvement in criminal activity. In the context of Asian culture, it is as traditional and conventional as one could possibly get in solving a problem of this nature. It is anchored on the idea that protecting suspected public officials from shame is as important as proving their possible guilt.

The practice typically entails a superior discreetly summoning a subordinate to a private meeting. There, the latter is confronted with evidence pointing to their possible knowledge of, or involvement in, an irregular activity that is punishable by law. The evidence may or may not be strong. The official in question is given a chance to explain their side, and/or to offer their resignation. Perhaps nothing is conclusively proven; still, a graceful exit is offered.

Perhaps what makes Abalos’ solution a little different is that it calls for a mass tendering of courtesy resignations even before any of the senior police officers have been shown the evidence against them. The assumption is that if they’re innocent, they should have nothing to fear. Their resignation will assuredly not be accepted. But if there’s a strong case against them, their exit from the service would be passed off as early retirement or retrenchment, the mere outcome of reorganization. Their honor remains intact, their name is unsullied, and they will be given all the benefits of retirement.

Abalos reports that, as of Friday, 95 percent—or 904 out of the 953 senior police officers—have submitted their courtesy resignations. The remaining 49 officers have until Jan. 31 to hand in their resignations. As no law compels them to do so, they may continue to ignore the appeal. But this would put them in the defensive position of having to explain why they are not resigning.

Is their defiance the result of a principled stand? Or is it because they suspect that the entire scheme is really a targeted purge that does not require the filing of formal charges? Whatever their reasons might be, they risk drawing more unwanted attention to themselves the longer they wait. It is what makes the call for mass resignation basically unfair.

It is reasonable to ask what it is that the call for mass resignation seeks to achieve that the usual practice of a discreet one-on-one meeting with officials suspected of wrongdoing will not accomplish. Is it to convey the impression that no one is being singled out? Is this perhaps nothing more than a public relations ploy to improve the image of a notoriously corrupt police organization? More insidiously, could this be a way of quietly letting go of controversial officers who, though they themselves may not have been deeply involved in the illegal drugs business, nonetheless performed commanding roles in the criminal mass killing of suspected drug offenders under the previous administration?

I guess we will not know the answers to any of these questions until the crucial work of the five-man committee gets underway. (It’s interesting that, apart from retired police general Benjamin Magalong, its members have not been identified.) This special body is supposed to conduct its evaluation independently of the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the PNP, but the bulk of the information on which it’s expected to base its report will be supplied by the Napolcom and the PNP. Moreover, the list of officers whose retirement the committee recommends will be subjected to a second pass by Napolcom before it is submitted to Malacañang for final action.

Given the public interest that the Abalos initiative has generated, one can imagine how difficult it would be to conceal the names of those police officers who will eventually be recommended for separation from the service. I doubt that any of them can be fully assured of protection from public shaming, especially in the light of the growing clamor for justice, accountability, and transparency by families who lost their members in the murderous rampage unleashed against drug suspects by the Duterte regime.

In cultural terms, we might say we are caught somewhere in the middle of what the anthropologist Ruth Benedict called the “guilt” and “shame” cultures, finding no firm footing in either. I dare say, at the risk of sounding essentialist, that if we were truly Asian, many of our police officers would have bowed in shame and voluntarily offered their resignation as a way of showing remorse for their participation in Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal drug war. Had they done so, it would have saved the PNP’s honor as an institution.

The Japanese are known to do so at the slightest hint of public distrust or disappointment. They instinctively take responsibility, not hesitating to sacrifice themselves, in order to protect their community and institutions from shame.

No, we have long forgotten what delicadeza means. Yet, we are nowhere near fully appreciating what it means to live under the rule of law.