Corruption and the young

The View From Taft

Benito L. Teehankee

February 12, 2014

A COUPLE of days ago, I gave a talk to high school students about corruption, its effects, and what they could do about it. I welcomed the chance to encourage civic-mindedness among the young.The median age of Filipinos is only 23 years old and clearly, the only way to make a long-term dent on the corruption problem is to engage the young in the effort. They will pretty soon make up the core of the country’s citizens.

I only had an hour and the talk was after lunch, so I had to keep things as basic and as lively as possible.I started with a counting game. I told the students that they were supposed to be citizens of a counting society and were subject to laws. I asked them to stand and count aloud one by one following the first law -- a person who hits a number that is a multiple of seven should clap and not say the number in any way. The law must not be bypassed, and violators would be "detained" by being asked to sit down. Law abiders at the end of the game would get prizes. Several students missed their claps and had to sit the game out. As the game progressed, I imposed more complicated counting laws on when to clap. A mere handful remained still standing to earn their candy prizes at the end of the game.

I asked the students how they felt during the game. One mentioned the pressure he felt at having to remember and follow the laws. It was more convenient to continue counting and ignore the laws. Another found it annoying to have to deal with so many laws. I made the point that the inconvenience and annoyance caused by laws may tempt citizens to take short-cuts by evading their enforcement through bribery.

I told students that the first duty of a citizen is to follow laws. I reminded them that observing laws need not be an undue inconvenience because citizens have the right to be served well by public servants. I flashed Republic Act No. 6713 on the screen. I made them read aloud key sections of the law, otherwise known as the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees, beginning with the state policy: "It is the policy of the State to promote a high standard of ethics in public service. Public officials and employees shall at all times be accountable to the people and shall discharge their duties with utmost responsibility, integrity, competence, and loyalty, act with patriotism and justice, lead modest lives, and uphold public interest over personal interest." They were impressed by this, particularly by the mandate for public servants to maintain integrity and to uphold the public interest.

They then read out relevant ethical obligations of public servants: "Act promptly on letters and requests; process documents and papers expeditiously; act immediately on the public’s personal transactions." I encouraged the students to always be prepared to respectfully assert their right to be served well. I related my wife’s experience, many years back, in dealing with a particular government office. My wife had gone there to process a form for a regulatory requirement, but a staff member told her that processing speed couldn’t be predicted. She was shown forms submitted earlier with P500 and P1,000 bills visibly inserted among them. Though stunned by the implication, my wife left quietly and returned, with me in tow, days later. Suffice it to say that our form was released only after I had requested the head, ever so politely, to help move things along. Citizens need to know and assert their rights to expeditious service. Bribes should never be necessary.

What harm does corruption do really? I displayed a map of the Philippines showing the distribution of poverty. Some regions in Luzon with the lowest levels were in green while the rest of the country which was worse off was in shades of red. The high poverty rates in many regions -- 48% in Eastern Visayas and 61% in ARMM, for example -- shocked the students. I explained that corruption was taking money away from important services to the people -- education, health, roads, and markets -- that could help them out of poverty. I challenged the students to remember the map and never rest until the whole country’s map could be turned green for their children.

What does a one-hour talk on corruption to young people accomplish? Some good, I hope.