Jesuits Take on Corruption

Youths clash with police in an anti-corruption protest
Filipinos clash with riot police in an Aug. 29 anti-corruption protest (Photo: Joel Nito/AFP-Getty Images).

Filipinos have certain characteristics that make them Filipinos. How do you call a Filipino abroad? You say, “Sssst” and the Filipino in the crowd responds. Filipinos, it is said, also cannot resist buying items on sale even if they don’t really need them, use outlines of feet drawn on paper for buying shoes for friends, like everything imported, and take more time having wedding pictures taken than for the wedding itself.

When the foibles of Filipinos are pointed out, Filipinos laugh at themselves and say, “Yes, that’s us. Why? Pinoy kasi (Because it’s Filipino),” observed the Rev. Albert Alejo, S.J., at a July 7 book launch held at the Ateneo de Manila University, as the audience, noting the truth in it, broke into knowing chuckles and outright laughter.

Just as easily as the giggles started, however, they quickly died down when Alejo continued, “You also know you are a Filipino if your roads are like moon holes. You know you’re a Filipino if there are more patients than beds in public hospitals, and in state-run schools, students share one old textbook. If you’re being solicited for a bribe, and you don’t relent, you’re told, ‘Para ka namang hindi Pinoy’ (It’s as if you’re not Filipino).”

In response to these common  observations, Filipinos tend to simply shrug their shoulders and say, “Pinoy kasi,” he said. Then Alejo asked the audience composed of representatives from academia, civil society, government, and business: “Is this really the best type of being human that we can be? Are you sure this is the best way of being a Filipino?”

Alejo’s opening remarks on how corruption has become a way of life for most Filipinos, and the pressing need to do something about it, kicked off the launch of a new book, Ehem! A Manual for Deepening Involvement in Combatting Corruption. The concept of  “ehem,” according to the manual, “is
a gentle but powerful hum to caution and to make one’s presence known, which brings forth some sense of embarrassment among those who will commit corruption.” According to Alejo, it is a subtle but effective signal that reminds people to be vigilant and mindful of one another’s roles and actions to counteract corruption.

The manual, published by the Philippine Province of the Society of Jesus’ Committee for the Evangelization of Culture, is a follow-up effort to the committee’s research on corruption in the country, Cross-Sectoral Study of Corruption in the Philippines, published last year.

The launch was organized by the Ateneo Center for Social Policy and Public Affairs (ACSPPA), the social research and advocacy arm of the university, the Institute on Church and Social Issues, which is the social and research advocacy arm of the Jesuits; and the Transparency Accountability Network, a group of nongovernmental organizations and academic institutions that work together for programs to combat corruption.

The Ehem! manual, says Alejo, who oversaw its production, “offers a series of exercises to make people more intensely experience, analyze, and reflect on
the gravity of corruption in Philippine society, leading to a deep commitment in combating corruption at the individual, group, and institutional levels.”

In other words, the manual is not so much about working on corruption involving government, but rather “on the other side of things—our side,” observed the Rev. José Magadia, S.J., the ACSPPA executive director.

He noted that many anti-corruption activities are concentrated on checking government and monitoring power holders, whether it means developing whistle-blowers, or conducting lifestyle checks or investigative reports.
This manual is more geared toward changing the mindsets of ordinary
people, who appear to have become tolerant, if not downright supportive,
of corruption. “It is meant to work on our side of the equation: the lower side, the community, the grass roots, the citizenry—you and me,” Magadia said.
The manual will thus be useful for civic anti-corruption initiatives in schools, government offices, parishes, religious organizations, professional associations, business chambers, social development agencies, cause-oriented and political groups, nongovernmental organizations, cooperatives, people’s organizations, and sectoral and community-based movements.

Apart from lectures and workshop modules, the manual also offers prayers and passages from the Holy Bible and the Holy Quran. It even has songs, poems, and caricatures that deal with combating corruption on a cultural level. The manual contains a comprehensive dictionary of terms and concepts of corruption, a list of anticorruption laws and polices in the country, and a directory of government offices, groups, and organizations combating corruption. It has answers to frequently asked questions and recommendations for reducing corruption, said Alejo, who is also executive director of the Mindanaoan Institute of Cultural Dialogue and the Office of Research and Publication in the Ateneo de Davao University.

Included in the kit are posters, one of which reads, “Corruption is a crime against the poor,” along with a list of recommended films and case studies. The manual follows a framework that lets participants in the workshop “feel intensely” what corruption is and how they are vulnerable to its many forms. The framework begins with experience, then deepens into analysis, leading into action, Alejo said, adding that participants “don’t just point their accusing finger at other people.”

In “experience,” the participants are led to tell stories of their own victimization and their participation in corruption. In “analysis,” they are led to examine the historical political process of corruption from the Spanish period to the American period and then the Martial Law era. In this stage, participants also learn the roles played by different people in corruption situations—who is the mastermind/instigator, who is the willing collaborator, and who are the victims.

In “action,” participants look back at these experiences and reflect on how
they interplay with their moral principles, the highest Filipino values, the laws of the land, Christian religious principles, and passages from the Holy Quran. “Participants are led to come up with possible ‘doables’: ‘I-doable,’ ‘you-doable,’ and ‘we-doable,’ ” added Alejo, who wrote Tao Po, Tuloy: Isang Landas ng Pag-unawa sa Loob ng Tao (Is Anybody Home? Come In: A Road Toward Understanding Human Behavior), winner of the National Book Award for Social Sciences from the Manila Critics Circle.

Magadia told the audience that the organizers “(brought) you here because we know that it is you who get in contact with people whom we have to begin changing, especially our young.”

The end goal is to make people realize they have to become intolerant of corruption. “We must learn to be more intolerant, because we have become more tolerant...more accepting of the way things are because they are [already] that way,” Magadia said.

It is said that Filipinos have a high threshold for pain and suffering, a high tolerance for corruption, and a short forgiving memory when it comes to history, Alejo said, adding his observation that the general response to the anti-corruption movement is cynicism: “It’s all over the place, it’s culture already, it’s second nature, we cannot do anything about it.”

But “we can do something,” said the priest as he implored the audience, “Let’s just start doing something.”