Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ed Panlilio and the nation

by Robby Tantingco, SunStar Pampanga

Dogs never bark at parked cars.

The only reason I can think of for all the undeserved criticisms against Among Ed is that he is moving. Kapampangans have gotten used to absentee governors that when a real working governor comes along, they get disturbed and suspicious.

In the past (I won't say how long ago because you'll know whom I am referring to, but I think you know), on the three or four separate occasions I came to visit the Capitol, the Office of the Governor was always empty, as in nothing was going on—the Governor wasn't around, his table and shelves were clean, the carpet had not been stepped on for days—while across the hall, the Offices of the Vice Governor and Board Members were swarming with people and abuzz with activity.

Today, Governor Panlilio reports for work daily and on time like a regular employee, and what's even better is that, his work ethic has inspired the others to do the same. He was right when he said, during the campaign, that the first thing he would do if he won was to lead by example. He has no family to prioritize, no vices and no extra-curricular activities, so he can devote longer hours at work.

I am saying this because I am really disturbed by the criticisms our fellow Kapampangans hurl against the Governor for what I think is an extraordinary, unprecedented, even historic act—a public official admitting he received money, admitting he may have erred in doing so, and admitting, in effect, his political naiveté.

The Governor's critics, I'm sure, are mad at him because he dared embarrass a sitting President of the Republic, and also because he broke the code of silence which protected the honor among thieves. They probably also suspect that he did this only as an afterthought, or only after a reporter had confronted him with the question.

If you were in his shoes and you attended a meeting at Malacanang, after which one of the President's men handed you a bag, would you peek at its contents before taking it and, finding cash in it, return it? The Governor, in my mind, was merely observing protocol (or at least simple courtesy) when he took the bag with him back to Pampanga, discovered its contents, and then figured out what to do with it. The discrepancy between the stature of the giver and the nature of the gift posed a dilemma to the Governor, for which he needed time for introspection. Given the implications of the situation and his inexperience in politics, why should we blame Among Gob for locking himself up in his room to pray and grapple with it for a while? What is important is, when he finally emerged from that room, he was at peace with himself and had God beside him.

Governor Panlilio's courageous move is probably the catalyst for change that this country has been waiting for. Graft and corruption in this country is already cultural, i.e., it is so ingrained in our way of life that it has become normal—we already expect to find some form of it in everything we do, by everyone and in one way or another. When we pay only P10 for the residence certificate instead of the required amount based on our income—that's graft. When we give someone P100 to fix our driver's license—that's corruption. When we look for our friend or relative in the city hall and sweetly ask him to facilitate our papers ahead of the others—that's corruption, too. These things, I'm sure, also happen in private companies, in schools, in the Church, both in high places and low, by young people and old, by the rich as well as the poor—the only difference is, the poor do it in small scale, involving only a few pesos and centavos, while the rich bribe big-time, in hundreds of millions and even billions, in dollars, not pesos.

And so while millions of poor Filipinos starve, while soldiers die in battle because the military cannot provide them decent shoes and weapons, and while our boys and girls grow up delinquent because their parents are working abroad—our government officials approve overpriced deals so that they can get fat kickbacks and still have enough left to distribute to every visitor in the Palace.

In this country, one of the reasons the rich get richer and the poor poorer is that the rich get into deals that make them richer, and then leave behind the debt for the poor to pay. Another is that the rich shamelessly underdeclare their total earnings and properties, and therefore pay taxes that are only a fraction of their total worth, while the poor work so hard for so little money, a full one-third of which automatically goes to the pocket of government through withholding tax.

If I compute all the withholding taxes I have paid this government since I started working, I can probably buy myself a house and lot with a brand-new car in the garage, and yet, what has this government given me in return for all the millions of pesos it has taken from my salary? The amount it deducts from my hospital bills is so small it's insulting. And the long process it takes to get that amount is even more insulting.

And then I hear about hundreds of billions of pesos floating around in Malacañang and given away in brown paper bags like party goodies—you tell me this government cannot afford to build classrooms and augment social security funds? You tell me this country is poor?

And this disgusting spectacle of politicians (partymates at that) pointing fingers and blowing the whistle on each other—look how greed is making our leaders self-destruct and bring the whole nation down with them, and they don't even realize it.

Just last month, a former Philippine President was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for accepting bribes and kickbacks. Did it scare us? Did it stop our public officials from giving and accepting bribes?

Last week, Governor Panlilio made the simple announcement of receiving and returning potential bribe money, and that's the one that rocked the country.

Why did the conviction of a President not send shock waves and the simple gesture from one honest man did?

It means that good example is more effective than punitive action. Punishment does not deter crime; role-modeling does. Again, Fr. Panlilio was right: he would lead by example.

Last May, when God came down from heaven to protect Fr. Ed Panlilio's votes, I thought He only had Pampanga in mind. Now I think I know: He had the entire Philippines in mind.

What could be a Divine Plan for both the province and the country is probably unfolding right before our very eyes.

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