Do things right or do the right thing?
Five Mondays ago, I began my term at the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), leaving the glass and concrete canyons of corporate Makati to return to the challenging frontiers of public service. It goes without saying that I know the position will be one of the greatest challenges of my professional career, but there comes a time in everyone’s life when you simply have to go out on a limb and do what you can to make a positive difference.
It’s time to give back, so to speak, to my country.
The mandate of the PCGG is a noble one, born out of the country’s emergence from more than two decades of dictatorship. In a sense, it is the mission of the PCGG not only to recover the patrimony that was siphoned, salted and sneaked out of the country, but more importantly, to ensure that the government – and indeed, Philippine society itself—will never again be held hostage by corruption. A very tall order indeed, whichever way you look at it.
For more than two decades now, the PCGG has been working under very difficult conditions that have served neither to daunt nor discourage its hardworking staff. For the past two years, in fact, the PCGG has been cited by the Department of Justice (DOJ) as the “Best Agency” among the 11 attached agencies and offices of the DOJ, for achieving the highest performance vis-à-vis its budget – an accomplishment that gained very little notice in the media since the PCGG works with very little fanfare and generally keeps a low profile.
The numbers, however, speak for themselves.
In 2012, with a budget of only P96 million, the PCGG remitted P567 million— in business terms, that’s an almost 600 percent “return on investment”. In 2013, the PCGG remitted P631 million, topping its target by 40 percent. Despite an almost shoestring budget—some might be surprised to discover that the PCGG hasn’t been given any capital expenditures (Capex) allocation for the past five years —the PCGG’s efforts over the past 27 years have seen it remit P166.2 Billion to the government coffers. That is definitely no small change, and is a testament to how much this small yet energetic agency has achieved in its pursuit of the ill-gotten wealth that was salted out of our shores.
And what wealth it is.
Perusing some of the PCGG’s resource materials and booklets, I was thunderstruck at the photographs of the jewels, artworks and other objects that were purchased with funds that should have remained in the National Treasury and spent to build a better life for our people. Looking at a solid silver George IV cake basket (I don’t know if I could ever imagine a chocolate mousse being served to me on such a thing! It would be beyond surreal!) valued at almost $8,000—or, approximately P355,000—I couldn’t help but think of what a difference that kind of money would have made if it were spent to stock a health center somewhere in Mindoro, Romblon or in my home province, Isabela. Or to buy books for a small elementary school in a village high in the Cordilleras. Or to obtain shoes for a Marine battalion deep in the jungles of Mindanao.
That silver cake basket, however, is a drop in the cistern— not just a bucket, but a cistern —that represents the wealth that was stolen from our people, a patrimony that could have spelled the difference in the lives of at least two or three generations of Filipinos.
When you think of what might have been, then the task of championing good governance in public service assumes a very special kind of urgency. Every day, every month, every year that passes without the recovery of that stolen wealth means that the country loses more opportunities to improve the lives of our people.
With that thought in mind, how could I not understand why PCGG Chair Andy Bautista told me that, as far as he was concerned, the greatest contribution he hoped to make at the PCGG would be to help improve the lives of our fellow Pinoys. He knows, in his heart of hearts, that good governance is truly indispensable to the future of our people, because so much is riding on every day of public service, and every peso of our national wealth. No effort must be spared, no stone unturned, to ensure that in every branch of government—and ultimately, in every level of society—good governance will rule the day.
Each day, more and more people leave the country to seek their fortune on distant shores, leaving behind loved ones and friends in an effort to seek a decent living. If we want them to remain here, if we hope to convince them to stay, if we want our society to have a future to look forward to, then we have to make certain that good governance will not be the exception, but the norm, in every public service agency and institution across the country.
I do, however, have a theory about good governance, and it is this. The best way to ensure good governance is not to think about it simply in terms of transparency, anti-graft programs, and laws enacted to prosecute corrupt public officials. Good governance, if one really thinks about it, is a matter of attitude, and how one sees one’s position in government. I think a story told to me by a good friend will help to make the idea clearer.
A good friend of mine lives near an events venue, and when there’s an affair at the place, she and her fellow residents have to cope with cars that are double-parked up and down the streets around the venue. To address the problem, the management placed “No Parking” signs along one side of my friend’s street, to discourage double parking, and assigned “marshals” to patrol the area and make sure that people parked where they were supposed to park.
It happened that during one event, someone parked next to my friend’s driveway—where, ironically, there was a “No Parking” sign—while the marshal was patrolling the other end of the street. Approaching my friend’s driveway, the marshal saw the offending driver easing into the space—true to his task, the marshal then informed the driver that he couldn’t park there because it was a “No Parking” area. Whereupon the driver haughtily informed the marshal that the street was public property and that he was from a very important government agency.
This kind of attitude, alas, is at the heart of every corruption scheme that has ever haunted any government—the misguided notion that working in a government office entitles one to privileges that “ordinary mortals” would not normally enjoy, and therefore gives one the right to ignore something as basic as a “No Parking” sign.
It is the utterly mistaken belief that one can use the power and influence of a government agency to bend, skirt, manipulate, or God forbid, break the rules altogether. It is the twisted idea that service in government is carte blanche to consider one’s self above the law, and is expressed in six simple words: “What are we in power for?”
That the PCGG will continue to do battle against corruption goes without saying. It deserves, however, all the help it can get, not only in the recovery of our lost national wealth, but more importantly, in encouraging a different—and truly selfless—perspective on what it means to be a public servant. For so long as there is a public official who looks upon his position and the agency he is employed in as a means through which he can cut corners, shirk responsibilities or get ahead of someone, the bête noire that is corruption will continue to haunt the government and our society.
At the heart of everything we do at the PCGG is the mission to encourage everyone to make this simple tenet the guiding principle of their lives: Do the right thing. I think we all know that it’s vastly different from “doing things right”—a philosophy that could be used to mask corrupt practices with ostensibly legal means: “No one has to know about the money you siphoned off if you do things right”. No, good governance isn’t a matter of doing things right—good governance is, and will always be, a matter of doing the right thing. For it is when we do the right thing that we stop to consider whether what we do is something that truly has the common good as its object; whether it will benefit us, or serve the greater good; whether it will be a guilty secret—or something that we’ll be proud of.
I know that the road ahead won’t be an easy one—but it is a road I am determined to walk with as much courage and determination I can muster. How often do we get the chance to do something that could change so many lives for the better? But then, when you think about it, every day is a chance to do something that can make a positive difference in someone’s life— by doing the right thing.
All of us are given this chance every minute of every day. Isn’t it time we took it? Isn’t it time we did something we can always be proud of? Isn’t it time we gave back to our country?
Isn’t it time we do the right thing?
(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is a Commissioner of the PCGG and a former Senior Partner of The Tax Offices of Romero, Aguilar & Associates. He is a member of the MAP National Issues Committee and the MAP Tax Committee Taxation. Feedback at <email@example.com> and <firstname.lastname@example.org>. For previous articles, please visit <map.org.ph>)