Three things I want in a president

Everywhere I go, nowadays, I can’t resist asking people whom I encounter the one question most often in my mind: “Whom are you considering for president in 2016?”

I’ve asked this of friends over lunch, of my students while we wait to start class, and of taxi drivers while stuck in EDSA. I’m fascinated by how people look at very different things when evaluating presidential material. I’m also worried.

Because of my background in teaching social sciences and management for more than 30 years, I look at choosing presidents as part of the grand nation-building project that started with the ratification of the 1987 Constitution.

The goal of this project was defined in the Preamble: “to build a just and humane society, and establish a Government that shall embody our ideals and aspirations, promote the common good, conserve and develop our patrimony, and secure to ourselves and our posterity, the blessings of independence and democracy under the rule of law and a regime of truth, justice, freedom, love, equality, and peace...”

The project goal calls for a country that enables all Filipinos to live lives of dignity in community. Are we there yet? Not by any measure. Are we getting there? I think so, but very slowly. This is not surprising, considering where we came from. Also, building a nation takes several generations to do.

This is why choosing a president -- the project leader -- is a very big deal and why every citizen must be part of it.

While the leadership for nation-building belongs to the president and his or her chosen team, the power to lead is given by the nation’s citizens.

As the basic social contract of Filipinos with their government, the Constitution states, “The Philippines is a democratic and republican State. Sovereignty resides in the people and all government authority emanates from them.”

This principle is powerful and double-edged.

The people, acting collectively, have the sole power to install government. That’s the bright side. The sobering side is that the people, collectively, are also responsible for bad government.

This is why the French writer and diplomat Josephe de Maistre wrote in 1811 that “Every country has the government it deserves.” As a people, we have a sorry history of tolerating bad governments, dating as far back as the Spanish regime and, more recently, during Martial Law when we were characterized unflatteringly as “a nation of millions of cowards and one SOB.”

This brings me to the three things I am looking for in the next nation-building project leader.

First on my list is the commitment and the proven ability to send a consistent moral message on the importance of fighting corruption. President Benigno S. C. Aquino III has proven that a president who publicly denounces corruption and who is himself not corrupt can do wonders for the country. His anti-corruption stance has opened the doors to legal steps against highly placed officials with apparent corrupt activities. More fundamentally, it disproves the cynical belief that “Everyone in government is corrupt anyway, so why bother hoping for change?”

The president has proven, through his Daang Matuwid (straight path) mantra, that change is possible and that our government can, indeed, “embody our ideals and aspirations,” beginning at the top.

But change cannot end at the top.

The next president should ensure that every government level communicates the same message. The current administration has shown that tone at the top does not automatically flow downwards in the bureaucracy.

Next on my wish list is for a president who will ensure that all his or her chosen leaders are positively not corrupt and not perceived as corrupt.

I believe that President Aquino acted too slowly on the case of Philippine National Police Chief Alan L. M. Purisima, even after the latter had admitted to accepting substantial gifts while in office. The next president must know that his or her loyalty to his or her appointees should end where duty to the nation starts.

The blessings of a more trustworthy president have been tangible, even if this credibility hasn’t been reflected throughout the bureaucracy.

Economic growth has been fueled as business activity has accelerated, as tax collection and social services have grown, and as public development projects have begun to be implemented.

But here is where the duty of the president to “promote the common good” kicks in.

The concentration of more wealth among the already wealthy is worrying. The next president should ensure that business and political oligarchs do not corner the lion’s share of the fruits of economic growth through exploitative business practices, anti-competitive behavior, and regulatory capture. More decent jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities must be made available to more citizens all over the country.

A strong moral messenger, an ethical disciplinarian to his or her team, and a champion for growing the middle class through opportunities for all. These are on my wish list. Now to look for such a person.

Dr. Benito L. Teehankee is associate professor at De La Salle University. He is also Chairman of the CSR Committee of the Management Association of the Philippines.