by Arnold De Villa
May 16, 2012
According to Floyd Whaley, writer of “The Sydney Morning Herald (May 16, 2012)”, Chief Justice of the Philippines, Renato Corona allegedly maintains 82 U.S. dollar-denominated accounts in five different banks with a total of $US28.7 million. In a country with an average monthly income of a little less than $300.00 and with Corona’s approximate monthly income of only a $1,000.00, journalists would surely speculate on how opulence could be amassed from a general scarcity. Other reports also indicate that this Chief Justice is being charged with money laundering considering the claims that more than $US30.0 million flowed from his account in a span of four years.
The rest of the story is peppered all over cyberspace, printed media and the broadcast press. Google spanned out more than 4 million results in less than 0.16 seconds, making this article a stale turtle. Since details are everywhere and the case is on its third day, I am not reporting further on what is going on with gossip, allegations and facts.
Although it is true that millionaires are no longer the highest level of affluence (having been replaced by billionaires), it is intriguing to find out how some Filipinos do away with millions despite their scant earnings. It is also worth noting that many of them belong to the higher echelons of the government, either as public servants or as career politicians, or well-connected elites. According to the United Nations Development Program, nearly $2 billion dollars or 13% of the Philippine annual budget is lost to corruption each year. Many of the business people in that Asian corner perceive the Philippines as the most corrupt center in the region.
This makes us wonder whether Filipinos back home are still fighting for survival or thriving for existence. I can only understand the proliferation of greed through the light of an unspoken fear of poverty. No one willfully desires to be poor. As such, those in the middle will try to climb to the top, either through connections, education or bribery. Many in the middle class will tend to hug anything that can bring them closer to the millionaire’s row. The unconnected poor, on the other hand, without the same opportunities of assistance or education, will tragically remain poor. Handful rotten apples surely do not represent an entire garden. Yet an entire garden may be contaminated by the different degrees of rotten apples in the same environment. The thread of corruption buries itself in the deepest fibers of our culture; the social values and the daily interaction of regular transactions or extraordinary deals are all entwined. The depth and scale of corruption that some travelers to the Philippines perceive has grown into a systemic layer of accepted habits and social norms. It becomes a struggle for survival. And if Philippine corruption were a bacterium, it would have a semblance of MRSA, an antibiotic resistant organism that does not die easily with any medication.
How poor is poor, how rich is rich, what is enough and what is not much? Subjective questions offer subjective responses. The levels of poverty and wealth vary according to the relative assessments of wealth and poverty. Nonetheless, since the idea of having more is much more expected than having less, the tendency to possess and the ability to stay in the status quo are also desired more than anything else.
It is evil to be poor. Back in the Philippines, there seems to be an attitude that equates the poor with everything that is not good. “Mahirap lang” is a common expression that reflects the low expectations most Filipinos assume towards poverty. And the only way to avoid it is through the accumulation of wealth. Since there are those who commit financial crimes as a way of life, and because they mistakenly think of themselves as untouchables, the quantity of tainted millionaires has gradually risen. This group has grown not as an offshoot of social improvement, but as an involution against the fear of poverty. This reality provides us with the rationale of having millionaires in the land of the poor.
When such behavior exists, the Philippines will have a more difficult time to solve so many issues pertaining to justice and equality. When people like the Chief Justice behave nonchalantly towards the accumulation of unexplained financial wealth, those who desire to know would be condemned as being nosy, out of line, or simply vindictive because of envy or jealousy. “Inggit lang iyan” will be the common response against those who are proactive in knowing the truth.
In the Philippines, there seems to be no space for equal opportunities and equal improvement. A rise from rags to riches can either be attained only through extraordinary skills and talents (sports, acting or music), connections, or travel abroad. As such, many of the middle class are left with the only option to leave their families and work offshore. The ability to work in the Philippines does not provide a space solely defined by equal opportunity.
Greed, especially among those who can afford to be greedy, is treated more like an opportunity instead of an undesired trait. The thought that if others are doing the same thing, that they are getting richer and are not being caught, then everything must be okay and those small peccadilloes can then be considered. From a couple of hundreds, to thousands to millions, one shady deal after another, inappropriately accepted as an entitlement more than as a reward for good work.
Many of the millionaires among the poor in the Philippines have developed a strong tolerance against the undesirable sight of paupers and beggars. In fact, many Filipinos do so as a defense mechanism to thrive in the midst of contradictions.
Besides Chief Justice Renato Corona, there are surely others who have done the same, though perhaps kept less than he did. Maybe they were not as conspicuous as keeping so many bank accounts within Philippine shore. But above and beyond them, there are also a million poor people who will never ever think of committing such atrocities simply because they will never have the same exposure to do so. And then, there are those in the middle. Some will do well, some will leave forever, and some will give back. That is where many of us are situated. And that is how many of us would hopefully do something. Between millions and poverty, it is only the middle that can link excess with want and thereby create a wider spread of wealth.