Do we expect moral values from our leaders?

Do we expect moral values from our leaders? (July 19, 2005)

Ben Teehankee

Managing For Society column, The Manila Times

The Garcillano tapes and the events they have triggered including the congressional hearings, cabinet resignations, rallies and Church statements have brought issues of moral values into the national discussion scene once again. I think that enough has been said about what the President should or should not do, especially in light of her televised apology. I’m more interested in how this political crisis has revealed the way Filipinos think about matters of morality in governance.

I have come to the sobering conclusion that the moral stature of the President, especially her integrity and trustworthiness, is irrelevant for many people.

I first got a hint of this shortly after President Arro­yo’s Rizal Day announcement that she was not going to run for reelection. I remember being struck by the level of statesmanship the President displayed that day. I felt that it was the kind of selfless gesture the country needed to galvanize around the collective purpose of nation-building. I must admit—I was inspired.

In the following months, in many meetings I attended where the President’s statement was talked about, I noticed a strange and disturbing trend. The majority of the people I interacted with did not think the President meant what she said. This was particularly surprising because participants in these meetings came from various educational institutions, companies and even government agencies. Most of them thought that the statement was calculated and politically motivated.

I often defended the President during those meetings. “Of course she meant what she said! Politician or not, some things should still be sacred, especially to those who take oaths of office.” I remember sadly thinking to myself how cynical everyone had become.

As the campaign period approached, I was proven wrong. The President reneged on her commitment and the jokes went around—as they always do— that women, after all, are allowed to change their minds. In meetings I would attend subsequently, people would chide me for even thinking for a moment that the President was serious about not running again. I was indignant. “Well, I’m a bit old-fashioned. If a President says something over national television on Rizal Day, I expect her to mean it and so I believe her.”

The expression in people’s faces spoke volumes. “What a naïve and pathetic thought! That there exists a sacred covenant of trust between governors and the governed that not even propaganda and vested interest can intrude into. Wake up, Ben.” As a management educator who always extolled the virtues of democracy when lecturing to students, my belief system was certainly shaken.

When the President appeared on national television on June 27 to address the nation weeks after the circulation of the now infamous “Garci tapes,” I listened intently as she said: “making any such call was a lapse in judgment. I’m sorry.“ As I searched into her eyes, I asked myself whether there was anything sacred to this woman.

Being Christian, I found it easy to forgive her. Apologizing on national television is no mean feat. I was most interested in what she said right after her apology: “I take full responsibility for my actions. And to you and to all those good citizens who may have had their faith shaken by these events, I want to assure you that I have redoubled my efforts to serve the nation and earn your trust.”

This was déjà vu. She was asking for a covenant of trust. Questions flashed through my mind. What is the President prepared to do to earn my trust? What is she prepared to do to regain my trust in the institutions she swore to uphold and protect, such as the Constitutional independence of Come­lec and the accountability of public officers? Most importantly, what is she prepared to do so that integrity and trustworthiness will become rele­vant again when we speak of our country’s leaders?

I am a believer in man’s infinite capacity for reform and so I will wait with bated breath for her do as she now has promised. I seriously doubt, though, whether fulfilling this promise will make a difference to many people. Many of those who have classified her as calculating and not to be trusted as early as her Rizal Day statement seem perfectly happy to have her continue in office. The list of arguments include the classic “It’s the economy, stupid!,” “she is the lesser evil among the alternatives,” “no wrongdoing has been proven,” and the stunner of all arguments, “her only fault was that she was caught!”

The French writer and diplomat Josephe de Maistre wrote in 1811 that “Every country has the government it deserves.” If de Maistre was right, we have a long way to go. I certainly think that a country which has produced some of the greatest nationalists from Rizal to Diokno deserves, and should demand, more trustworthiness and integrity in its leaders. Will you earn my trust, Madame President?