Over 30 years ago, as I was starting my national security studies at the National Defense College of the Philippines, there was a heated discussion in one of our classes about why the Philippines, with all its natural and human resources, was not progressing as it should and why there was still so much poverty. There were of course the usual reasons — lack of certain laws, inefficiencies in both the public and private sectors, lack of technology, capital, etc.  Amid the discussion, a classmate stood up and loudly said, “Corruption, corruption, that is the main problem. We are not progressing as we should because of corruption.”

Transparency International’s 2022 Corruption Perception Index, which looks at the perceived level of public sector corruption in 80 countries using a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean), gives the Philippines a score of 33.

This score, placing the country in the top one-third of the countries surveyed in terms of corruption, is not surprising. It is nothing new to all Filipinos who know what is happening in the country.

In his presidential bid last year, boxing champion and former Senator Manny Pacquiao said it clearly: “Ang pinaka problema ng bansa natin, ang pinaka dahilan ng paghihirap ng sambayanang Pilipino ay ang korapsyon (Corruption is the main problem in our country, the main reason why the Filipino people are still poor).”

It is not the intent of this column to discuss the extent of corruption in the country or how it severely adversely affects the lives of our people and the progress of our nation.  That is a given. The intent is to discuss why corruption, to my mind, instead of decreasing, has worsened through the years, and why we are unable to effectively combat it.

I believe that corruption has worsened in the Philippines simply because it is easy to commit it and the rewards are considerable.  At the same time, the probability of being caught, prosecuted, convicted, and jailed is low.

We had two real chances to stop corruption in the Philippines in the last half century — when Martial Law was imposed in 1972, and immediately after the People Power Revolution in 1986.  The leaders then had total control of the nation and everybody would have followed.  Unfortunately, it did not happen. Again, it is not the intent of this column to discuss the reasons for this. There is considerable material available on the subject.

At this point, I see two major actions that need to be taken to try to effectively fight corruption.

Firstly, the private sector must lead a massive information campaign, hopefully with the active participation of the religious, about what corruption is and how it hurts the nation and individual Filipinos. We must bring it down to the level of the individual.  We must show how it personally affects you and me.

This campaign must be followed by working to get competent and honest people elected and appointed to public office.  It is the people in government who formulate public policy and implement such and thus have the primary role in preventing corruption.

Secondly, there must be role-modeling from the top of the government and a focused, determined, and time-bound effort to have controls against corruption, and the political will to ensure that the corrupt are caught, prosecuted, convicted, and jailed.  It is not enough that the officials do good, they must punish those who steal public funds, and recover and return the money to the public treasury.

Until and unless we have a conscious and determined effort to curb the stealing, the looting, the plundering, and punish the guilty, it will be difficult to think that we can truly progress as a nation and give our people the quality of life they have a God-given right to.

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