It Isn’t Easy When Culture Supports Corruption


Source: News Junkie Post

I need to be careful in this blog. The last thing I want to do is be an arrogant outsider who claims loudly “ya’all get a life, your whole culture is corrupt!”

Indeed, American culture is going rapidly downhill given that political debates are rich with deceits and intent to injure. The well-being of the nation is placed behind self-interest. That’s corruption. So I have no pulpit of righteousness from which to preach.

I do want to define corruption in its broadest sense and explain why I think it will be exceedingly difficult to rid the Philippines of the tendency many Filipinos display that it is perfectly okay to grab what can be grabbed.

I was led to this broad definition of corruption this morning on the way home from dropping my son off at school. The way home passes through a singularly hairy intersection where two main streets collide. Often literally, if we consider the streets at one with the vehicles traveling on them. Even the traffic police stand aside to whistle randomly from the safety of the street corner because to station oneself in the middle of that intersection would be life-threatening, and I don’t think the traffic guys get paid combat pay.

As I entered the intersection this morning, sliding through the streams of metal, one motorcycle coming the opposite direction cut in front of me to turn left, flying at considerable speed through the cross-traffic, causing me and others to brake, and carving out his place in the stream of vehicles with considerable aggression and a clear “me first” attitude.

Well, the rules of the road in the Philippines are that aggression is important to the proper flow of vehicles, and concession is important, too, at the right time to the right vehicle. Tricycles bow to motorbikes which bow to cars which bow to trucks and buses. Politeness seems rare to the outsider, but it exists. And the safe flow of traffic requires that everyone be on the same aggressive wavelength. I no longer have a problem with it, but it took about three years for me to figure out that my interpretation was wrong. The drivers here are not rude. They are expedient and skilled and, yes, courteous, at driving in a rat’s nest of different types of vehicles on very congested streets.

The driving is very much non-personal, however. That is, people look at other vehicles as things, not as things with real people in them or on them. It is the quality of non-personal interaction that leads to road rage in the United States. If a vehicle cuts you off, the driver is not someone’s father or mother or son or daughter, a perfectly human and kind individual. It is a villain, a bad guy, an idiot, an asshole . . . depersonalized and objectified and a proper subject for violence, in language or car-upon-car or fisticuffs on the freeway shoulder.

Well, that non-personalization is the first step to many inhumane acts, is it not? Murder, gassing of Syrian civilians, dropping A-bombs on Hiroshima . . . and climbing out of the car to pummel some poor guy for cutting us off at the freeway on-ramp.

In the Philippines, much is non-personal. Not just driving. Life is that way.

Do you think Ms. Napoles, in skimming pork, thinks about the poor people who are robbed of food or medicine as someone’s son or daughter? Does she have compassion for the people who worked honestly and earnestly and paid their taxes honorably?

Cardinal Tagle does, and bless him for that.

Do you think the rub-out artists think of the kids they are leaving fatherless?corruption02

Do you think the envy ridden neighbor who creates as much trouble as possible for others considers WHO those others really are?

The Philippines, far and wide, OUTSIDE THE FAMILY or clan or other tight community, is largely a non-personal place. The officious government agents or rude store clerks do not concern themselves with sensitivities of the citizens and customers they deal with. Nor do people at the ATM care about the health of the old women or pregnant ladies in line in the sun behind them.  This thread of non-personalization of others is very pronounced in the Philippines, and it is the interweaving of these threads that forms the bed for corruption.

Corruption is an attitude and money is often its currency. But money need not be present for corruption to occur.

Furthermore, we can scale the intensity of corruption. Those who steal millions, like (alledgedly) President Arroyo and Janet Napoles, are at the top of the scale. Score them at 10.

The guy cutting through the intersection on his motorbike is perhaps a 2. He certainly took something from me and other drivers, our security for an instant. The officious government clerk is perhaps a three, caring little for our peace of mind. The officious government clerk who angles for a P 100 “tip” is perhaps a 4. A Customs official who routinely assesses and pockets fees of several hundred pesos is a 6. A Mayor who extracts P20,000 from a local contract is a 7. A judge who squeezes contestants for cash is an 8 or higher, given both the money involved and the absolute inside-out exercise of “justice”.

When we declare someone in a blog post an “idiot”, we are corrupt on the scale of 1 for denying the legitimacy of that person’s being, and depersonalizing a regular person.

Corruption is not simply stealing money.

It is an attitude that we are deserving of something, and to get what we want, we are allowed to take something away from someone else. Maybe it is money. Maybe it is security. Maybe it is honor.

I’ve written before that the Philippines does not really subscribe to the Golden Rule, but the Me First Rule.

Well, this is patently unfair because there are a lot of kind and generous people in the Philippines. Good people.


But there is a distinct tenor of Me First, with its associated depersonalization of others, that is the bed in which corruption thrives.

If you would like to read a comprehensive, hard-hitting article about corruption in the Philippines, try this one on for size: “The True State of the Philippines: Crime in a Culture of Corruption“, written by Ruel F. Pepa. Mr. Pepa ends his article asking the following question: “Who holds the key to the most sensible answer [to ending corruption]?”

Perhaps JoeAm does.

Corruption in the Philippines will end:

  • When each of us stops depersonalizing others. Or, expressed positively, when we take on respect for the well-being of others as our first moral rule.
32 Responses to “It Isn’t Easy When Culture Supports Corruption”
  1. andrew lim says:

    J left the latest comment on my previous essay on “Does Catholicism Make Us More Tolerant of Corruption”, and I said to him to read this piece. Depending on one’s persuasions, it is either complementary to it, or an alternative.

    I submit that religion is a huge determinant of culture.

    When I was writing that essay, I considered anecdotes which I wish was prevalent in the Phils:

    1. When the actress Reese Witherspoon was pulled over for DUI, she went berserk and bullied the state trooper with “Do you know my name? Do you know who I am?” It was captured on video by a cam in the trooper’s car, now in Youtube. The trooper’s response? ” No need to know that for now, Mam. ” Can you imagine a traffic enforcer doing that here?

    2. Bernie Madoff. Within a short two years, he was arrested, convicted, sentenced to long sentences, and his assets seized, sold at auction and given to the victims. Not enough, but that’s some justice. Can you imagine that happening to a Filipino billionaire?

    Maybe because that trooper makes a decent living, and need not be intimidated by a wealthy actress. Maybe because the prosecutors and jailers of Madoff are also secure in their jobs, and need not fear a wealthy man. Maybe because like Singapore, public service in the US still attracts some of the best and the brightest. I used to think if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Perhaps that’s the situation here.

    So despite all of America’s troubles, the poisonous party politics, I still look up to what I believe is a higher level of decency among its public servants and the ordinary folk.

    • Joe America says:

      Very enlightening examples, Andrew. The policeman’s response to Witherspoon was classic.

      What I fear about the poisonous politics in the U.S. is that it is beginning to thrive in mainstream attitudes and behavior, and there is LESS tolerance for others in some respects.

      One of the failings of the Catholic Church in the Philippines seems to me to be an inability to cut through the “depersonalization syndrome”. Your essay explains why. Too much forgiveness of unkind behavior. To me, Jesus was an extraordinarily compassionate figure, but the Catholic Church fails to get that message across.

  2. The Mouse says:

    Driving in the Philippines is “diskarte” than “me first”. Drivers and pedestrian do have an “unwritten rule” and it takes time for someone who did not grow up in the Philippines to figure it out. I find both drivers and pedestrian here in the US more “me, me, me”. A lot of times, if you try to insert yourself in traffic, they are likely to let you in. That is a rare feat in the US, especially if they know it is their right of way.

    • Joe America says:

      I agree on both parts, Philippines and U.S. I was trying to explain to my wife what it is like entering a freeway in Los Angeles, where you have to get up to speed on the on-ramp and then merge into four lanes of metal blasting by at about 80 mph. Fortunately, the general ethic for those on the freeways is to yield to a car entering with speed, so getting on is harrowing but safe. That would be the exception to your rule that people take the right-of-way if they own it. Generally, other drivers let you in.

  3. ella says:

    Corruption in the Philippines will end:

    When each of us stops depersonalizing others. Or, expressed positively, when we take on respect for the well-being of others as our first moral rule.

    I really hope your above recommendation will be heard and reflected by everyone. And it will be a really big step if the Catholic Church and all their institutions, most especially the catholic schools, will start hammering your recommendation to all the Catholics.

    • Joe America says:

      I wish the Catholic Church had a management hierarchy that would require the teachings of Pope Francis and Cardinal Tagle to become the preachings of the priests. I think there would be more kindness to the message, and less political attacking of good people.

      • andrew lim says:

        @ella, @Joe,

        I think there is some light on this note:

        This piece actually got me teary eyed. It’s the first time in my life I have heard them say this, and if only it had happened earlier, then maybe these things could have been significantly reduced by now.

        In the comments, I said that they should start an internal investigation of the priests involved in the Napoles scam, and issue a report on it. Silently invite authorities to do it if needed and cooperate with them. If needed, turn them over to authorities. That would give a lot of credibility to the organization.

        • Joe America says:

          Wow. Thanks for the link, Andrew, and the hope that I need no longer scorn when I type CBCP. I welcome the day when I can stop typing “political priests” and start to look on the Catholic Church as a constructive body instead of destructive. There are SO MANY good quotes in the Archbishop’s remarks. My favorite:

          “We have taught the Christian doctrines but we have failed to connect them to life.. . .”

        • Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

          Filipinos give money to the church. Filipinos cannot know how the church spent the money. There is no transparency. No accounting. No accountability. Filipinos accept it because church is supposely unequestionably honest like their God and the nearly bankrupt Vatican Bank. Filipinos bring this unquestionability to politics and all business dealings in government. Bureaucrats take advantage of this. They steal and rob and frolick in a sea taxpayers money spending it in multi-million dollar houses up and down the coast of California.

          • Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

            PDAF was audited by COA BUT … BUT … BUT … Listen to this it took a whistleblower waving an affidavit typewritten across Sto. Tomas University not COA audit that opened a can of worms.

            Foot dragging of Benigno Aquino is bewildering considering his Daan Matuwid tantrum.
            The media promoting abolition of pork barrel not promoting the freezing of assets of Napoles and her cohorts, not promoting incanceration of perpetrators. The big news now in the Philippines is ABOLISH PORK BARREL n-o-t PROSECUTE ‘EM AND HANG ‘EM HIGH.

            The media and Benigno Aquino are mind-conditioning the Filipinos to set the perpetrators free just, simply, just abolish the pork barrel because Filipinos cannot be trusted with money instead of more controls … controls … accounting … accountability. They are diverting the attention to “All Filipinos are crooks, so, ABOLISH PORK BARREL” “IF THERE WAS NO PORK BARREL THERE WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN SCANDAL” I love this logic. It is soooo true. If there is no money there is no scandal. Benigno Aquino might as well ABOLISH THE MONEY, TOO !!! If we have no money there is no scandal.

            I’m lovin’ it. Life is goot. It will always be fun in the Philippines.

          • Joe America says:

            I like that you are solutions-oriented. Yesterday it was “if there are no Filipinos, there is no problem”. Today, “if there is no money, no problem”. What’s on tap tomorrow? “If there is no sex, there is no problem?”

  4. edgar lores says:

    1. Interesting. Depersonalization can have as its object others or self.

    1.1. Depersonalization, in the psychological sense, has the self as its object. According to Wikipedia, “Depersonalization is an anomaly of self-awareness. It consists of a feeling of watching oneself act, while having no control over a situation. Subjects feel they have changed, and the world has become vague, dreamlike, less real, or lacking in significance.” It is a dissociative disorder.

    1.2. Depersonalization, in the sense used in this essay where the object is others, is not seeing others as persons, or seeing others as less than persons, as insignificant others.

    1.3. The only persons significant to Filipinos are those within his circle – those associated by blood or by affiliation. The affiliation can be spousal (husband/wife), emotional (friend, fraternity bro) or social (church, club).

    1.4. To me, depersonalization of others is a passive awareness and disregard of others.

    2. In the essay “Hierarchy of Man’s Loyalties and Ethics”, I proposed the Rule of Others as one of the Tests of Loyalty. I said, “The concern of ethics is the proper conduct of a construct in relationship to other constructs. Therefore, the mode of ‘consideration of others’ is the proper path of ethics while the alternative mode of the ‘consideration of self’ is the Law of the Jungle.”

    3. It would be simple to say that corruption would end when each one of us actively observes a “consideration of and for others” in our thoughts and actions. This is somewhat true, but I see two difficulties.

    3.1. The first difficulty is the proposition: “If one thinks of others, one would not steal.” If I were in the public service, and I thought of the consequences on others of my intention to steal, of their potential lost, then I would not steal.

    3.2. On the other hand, if I thought of the needs of my family and my own self, of our potential ease in life, I might carry out my intention. This difficulty is, of course, a misinterpretation of the proposition, but it is nevertheless real. It is a rationalization of intended and actual misbehaviour.

    3.3. The other and greater difficulty is the inculcation of the lesson that we must always have a consideration of and for others. This is the essence of the Golden Rule and it is found in all religions. The failure to integrate this lesson in each of us — not in passive awareness but in active consciousness in daily life — is ultimately a failure of religion.

    3.4. On the Golden Rule, if I may quote Wikipedia again: “Psychologically, it involves a person empathizing with others. Philosophically, it involves a person perceiving their neighbor as also an ‘I’ or ‘self’. Sociologically, this principle is applicable between individuals, between groups, and also between individuals and groups. Religion is an integral part of the history of this concept.”

    3.5. Andrew is right. Well, partially right because we live in a time of philosophical and religious pluralism. All religions must come together and produce a “Universal Declaration of Secular Ethics”. (In the essay “The Seven Commandments of Secular Ethics”, the Golden Rules is subsumed under the First Commandment: “Do no harm”.)

    • edgar lores says:

      Correction: that’s “potential loss” not “potential lost”.

    • Joe America says:

      I was thinking mainly about how we depersonalize others, rather than self.

      As for 3.1 and 3.2, yes, there could be aberrations of the message that could lead TO corruption instead of from it. But those are extremes, I think. They will exist in any thought system. As for 3.4, basically I am advocating the Golden Rule, but coming at it by laying the foundation of how easy it is NOT to follow it in the de-personalized Philippines.

      3.5. Yes, Andrew is very right, as are you 98.39% of the time.

  5. R. Hiro Vaswani says:

    Why is it that traffic on M.Manila streets is “dog eat dog/” I have a close friend who used to keep a baseball bat in his car.. .. That was his equalizer vs. insane bus drivers… He used it quite often. I have another friend who slugged a traffic aide for favoring a Benz over him in an ordinary car over a traffic situation. It is like the Wild Wild West out there… Everyone from poor to rich know that the rich and powerful are immune from rules and laws..

    However most are clueless like the unorganized mob who trooped to Luneta to complain about pork barrel…The organized political blocs are going to harvest the seeds they have planted… Severely dysfunctional economy gives rise to severely dysfunctional politics and thence culture…The mob should now call for the public hanging of Napoles…

    I am surprised why you expect a first world culture in a third world environment… The President of this Republic announced to his constituency that the State loses P200 billion annually to smuggling. That would mean that approximately P1.5 trillion worth of goods pass through Philippine boundaries without the governments knowledge in most cases. That comes to close to ten percent of the countries GDP in today’s peso value… . The state is mostly impotent…

    I say the State since the government, business and the rest make up the State…

    • Joe America says:

      Interesting perspectives. Manila is the Wild West, particularly to someone schooled in different traffic disciplines. And I have opined elsewhere that the Philippines is essentially a power-based culture. That’s why the Benz would naturally be given consideration, and why my Honda Civic is given consideration just about anywhere in Leyte or Biliran. The written laws have been replaced by cultural laws, power-based, that one either accepts and relaxes, or fights and gets apoplexy. For myself, I no longer need a bat, and I leverage the power of my nice car like a well-heeled local. If I had a siren and flashing lights, I’d really go fast.

      The unorganized mob was a picnic, I think, not a protest rally. It got its point across.

      I don’t view the Philippines as third world. The Philippines is the Philippines and there is no requirement that it be anything but what it is, a mix of good and bad like most places. Only those who have expectations beyond what it can reasonably deliver need tear their hair out.

      The State is indeed deficient in looking out for the people, and the best we can do is articulate a way forward that is better . . . and possible. Not some ideal that is simply not deliverable in short order. And then grouse because it isn’t delivered.

      Yours for a path, not an end, and solutions, not complaints . . .

      • R. Hiro Vaswani says:

        The brand third world was devised at the end of the Second World War to differentiate the former colonies from the colonizer with the communist bloc labeled the second world. At the turn of the19th century Western Europe plus England controlled almost all of Africa Latin America and Asia… The U.S.had finished its conquest and purchase of the North American continent outside Canada.

        Power relations at the level of the individual as you say will be dependent on ones personal wealth.

        I an deadly serious when I suggested that the guys who organized the picnic should go on a march and demand the hanging of Napoles…

        The middle class of your country got to where they where by direct action… The unions starting in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s did do battle with the owners of capital…The largest battle after the Civil War was between the miners and the mine owners in the Battle of Blair Mountain. By the 1930’s American auto workers were singing the communist theme song. Off course FDR acted to stem the conflict between labor and capital….

        Power relations use fear as a potent weapon… The dysfunctional state is built on the impotence of majority of its subjects… You do not have here in this country a well developed sense of citizenship.

        The country desperately needs its own Bastille Day… Why bother with Napoles who is in jail..What not start pointing to the senators and congressman who did business with her. Organize a march to their senate or congressional offices.. Make it interesting…

        • Joe America says:

          You make a strong case, with powerful arguments. I don’t disagree with the need to remake the framework, and the need to toss corrupt legislators into the Pasig so they can float off into the Bay with all the other pollutants. The question is how much tearing down can the nation stand? If we go back to the dirt, we have to pour a lot of cement and buy a lot of iron, and it will take a long time to rebuild. If we can strip out the rusty beams and keep the load-bearing structure in place, we can get to the end-point faster. So I am not for riots, I am for protests. And I think we are seeing them now. Let’s watch a while, eh? Let’s see what happens to the Napoles patron legislators.

  6. andy says:

    I once received a citation for turning left on a “no turn left” street in downtown Seattle. But over here we are given the opportunity to appear before a Magistrate Court to explain why we did not follow the rule of law and will at least get a reduced fine for showing up. Anyhow, on judgment day the judge inquired why I turned left on a no turn zone and I answered with a straight face: “Because my wife who was my front seat passenger told me to turn left your honor.” The judge smiled and nonchalantly said he would do the same thing if ordered by his wife. My traffic infraction was waived and I did not have to pay a fine on condition I would not violate traffic rules for one year. My father told me you don’t mess with a judge in the Philippines, which is my point in bringing this up in your blog.

    • Joe America says:

      Wonderful story, Andy. The truth sometimes wins out. I had a similar situation but overplayed my hand by dressing up in my best banker’s suit. The judge listened patiently to my well-spoken argument, looked around the courtroom at all the real people dressed in jeans and rags, and pronounced me “guilty”.

      Judges in the Philippines scare me, too, although I rented an apartment from one a while back and he was a perfectly upstanding gentleman. Neither rich nor overbearing. I wonder what the percentage of corrupt judges is, amongst the total population of Philippine judges. I have no idea.

  7. Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

    The geniuses at the Senate have rendered their decisions. It is not Napoles fault. It’s the government fault of handing out Pork Barrel. Abolish Pork Barrel and the government of the Republic of the Philippines will have abolish corruption.

    Might as well abolish money because money is the root of all evil I am wide-eyed why I did not think of that. Filipinos are absolutely genius, I am not.

  8. Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

    Oh, the picture of presidential security guard above looks goofy funny. I wonder who trained them to hold a gun with one hand? Of course the PMAyers !!!

    • Joe America says:

      It is goofy funny, eh? The guns must be 3mm. I also wonder about the wisdom of being in a tight bunch where they make one easy target. I couldn’t really get a connection between the photo and corruption or even culture. But it does attract the eye, and that is what we are interested in. Circulation. Not sense.

      • Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

        They are in a tight bunch as body armor to stop bullets flying for Benigno Aquino. They look more like bullies at karaoke joint.

  9. Mariano Renato Pacifico says:

    (Philippine) Culture Supports Corruption – JoeAm
    It is not true. Filipinos are not corrupt by nature. Filipinos are absolutely totally undeniably honest. Here is proof. Why are immigrant Filipinos abroad honest? Why do they stop at a STOP sign. They stand before Yellow Lines. They address cops “Officer, what is the problem?” when they are pulled over. They do not have this alzheimer attitude “Do you know who I am?” “Do you know who my parents are?” Nothing like that. Even Napoles is meek as a kitten in California including her children.

    Then, why is it that when Filipinos come back here they have alzheimer? They cannot seem to understand what STOP sign stands for. I see hot shots breeze thru immigration check in NAIA pick-up their balikbayan boxes past customs inspection unmolested. Why? Could it be because of polluted air of the Philippines that make them do this? Or, probably, the MWC water that they drink.

    I just do not know. It is hard to put my finger on it but when I do go back to the Philippines I fold and slip $40.00 in my American passport. Get a cheery toothy smile from immigration clerk. Get a cursory slash on my balikbayan to indicate it’s been inspected into the the hot humid dank air of Manila into the arms of my family into a rented environmentally-controlled Toyota Hi-Ace with wang-wang and flashing headlights.

    No matter how I want to stay American whenevber I am in the Philippines the Filipino in me kicks into gear.

  10. “But there is a distinct tenor of Me First, with its associated depersonalization of others, that is the bed in which corruption thrives.”

    i have to disagree with this; Filipinos can be very emphatic and emotional, however; I think this trait is abused by the few wrongdoers. We are expected to be sympathetic to family, friends and associates even if they are on the wrong side of the law. We are expected to observe utang na loob/reciprocity even outside the boundaries of legality; The personal prevails too much over the professional, and I think that perpetuates impunity and corruption not a Me-First attitude. oh yeah add the clannish and regional mentality, and there’s the crap we have now.

    On the other hand, I think the pinoys you meet are very different from the pinoys I meet; therefore, we have varying perspectives. Anyway, me-first people can be found all over the world.

    • Joe America says:

      Interesting cut at it. That makes sense, respecting the individual, even if he does wrong. That’s why so many crooks are in Congress, I suppose. I agree “me-first” is everywhere, but I still say there is a pronounced thread of disinterest in others, or de-personalization, that is a part of the fabric of Philippine culture. Within the family or clan, the respect you cite does indeed exist. And a powerful or popular person is able to inject himself into that bubble. But there is a reason political battles go easily to murder.

      • correction=empathic

        “But there is a reason political battles go easily to murder.” I see those murderous politicos as a different, defective breed. we have this saying : “crooks are mad at fellow crooks.”

        on your pronounced thread of disinterest in others, i’m starting to get where you come from. office workers who shamelessly skip their jobs and depend on co-workers; Filipino time and the associated disrespect of one’s time. i’m hoping that the next generations will have a genuine sense of national identity, which is similar to that of the Japanese and S.Koreans, to counter-balance clannish tendencies.

        • Joe America says:

          Bingo. That is it exactly, the time example. As for national identity, I’ve recently hung my thinking on the idea that the national identity will take a step toward strength when people broadly are proud of the diversity that exists within the Philippines, rather than use it as a basis for claiming “my group” is better, whether that group be a clan or religion or island or tribe or language or economic strata. So I may get repetitive in hammering that point in future articles. Also, I think economic success will help generate confidence and happiness and less insecurity about the state of the Filipino homeland.

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