‘Lest We Forget

Former COMELEC commissioner Benjamin Abalos is escorted by security forces during the height of the NBN-ZTE scandal back in 2008.
Photo taken from Al-Jazeera News.

The title comes from Rudyard Kipling’s poem entitled, “Recessional”. The author was driven by England’s apparently declining moral standards to write this piece, which is a prayer, asking God to spare the Old Blighty from completely ruining itself. Kipling points out that the English have forgotten the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, to be the reason for the rise in profanity and immorality in their society. The acclaimed writer then makes a plea: ‘lest we forget’ which is translated to mean ‘in case we forget’.

Rudyard Kipling points out the dangers of forgetting a learning experience from the past. Jesus’ death and resurrection is among the many moral anecdotes society should never forget, yet there are more modern examples we should always look back today. As the historian George Santayana succinctly puts it: “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it”.

Take the example of Adolf Hitler invading Siberia during the Great War, the brutal cold resulted in the deaths of most of his men due to hypothermia while frostbite incapacitated a lot more. You would have hoped he learnt from the same mistake that Napoleon made a couple of centuries beforehand, when his Army became feeble to fight the Red Army of Russia in the freezing Siberian conditions.

In contemporary times, we can draw several examples that would be a testament to this hypothesis. Take the case of the Philippines for example, has it occurred to you that most of the problems the country is experiencing now is simply a rerun of past events?

The most glaring example is the case of the pork barrel scam: the allegations that a private entity, Janet Napoles, connived with lawmakers who have access to taxpayer-funded development funds to create dummy or substandard projects to siphon off majority of the funds released for the intended project. This is not new. The problem of abuse and misuse in the pork barrel system has been a talk for many years.

Just last month, former Representative of Marikina district Romeo Candazo died of a heart attack at age 61. He is known as the first whistleblower of the pork barrel system, when in 1996 he disclosed to the Philippine Daily Inquirer how lawmakers are able to pocket public funds by getting kickbacks from government projects they funded. Candazo illustrated on a paper napkin he gave to the PDI editors how the pork would be separated, and that a kickback fee to the politicians as well as to the contractor was indeed an SOP.

To many, Mr. Candazo’s name is unknown and sure enough, the pork barrel revelations of 1996 are unfamiliar to them as well. How do I know this? Well, seven years later in 2003 Senator Panfilo Lacson had to bring up the issue again in his privilege speech. The same exposes were made, that huge portions of the sums end up in the pockets of the lawmakers, contractor and to the middle man except this time, Lacson shed light on the extent of the kickbacks that also includes local government officials including mayors, barangay chairmen and SK chairmen. He even went on to say that the billboards and tarpaulins used to advertise the projects are also overpriced.

It was a jaw-dropping exposition indeed, yet surprisingly that moment never registered in the minds of Filipinos. Today, the entire country is outraged once again by the pork barrel system after discovering that a private corporation ran by a Janet Napoles, makes a living entirely out of funneling politicians’ development fund away from government projects and into their own pockets. As expected, an enraged public took to social media to protest the allegations, because social media is apparently the most effective tool to persecute corrupt officials. They followed this up with a mass rally in Luneta Park they dubbed, “Million People March” which was attended by a tens of thousands.

Former president Gloria Arroyo being brought to trial on a wheelchair.
Former president Gloria Arroyo being brought to trial on a wheelchair.

It’s hard to tell what is more amusing: the fact that these people reacted as if this was the first case of an abuse of pork barrel funds or the fact that some of them did not even know about the pork barrel system in the first place. Even the name Janet Napoles should not sound new, she was one of the figures at the centre of the Fertilizer Fund Scam in 2008.

It is amazing how passionate and dedicated Filipinos can be in the face of injustice or wrongdoings by the government, while that is obviously a good thing they should also recognize that these incidents happen partly because of them as well. Edmund Burke the philosopher once said, ‘the only reason for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’. One cannot agree with him more, for if we analyze the trend which these scams and controversies exist it is because of our inaction that the guilty go scot-free.

When Senator Lacson boldly exposed his comrades in the Senate in 2003, was there a ‘Million People March’ that occurred? Nope. We did not have time to, for a few months later Lieutenant Antonio Trillanes and his band of young officers in the Armed Forces of the Philippines barricaded themselves inside the Oakwood Hotel. Trillanes of course would become a senator himself four years later. And so the pork barrel would be left untouched for another decade before the public bemoans its’ stench once more.

Are we going to see this happen again? Is this present edition of the ‘pork barrel scam’ saga just going to fade slowly and be reopened only when another incident arises? I sure hope not. With the size of the national budget being allotted for it, a whooping Php25B or almost US$580M, we need to be extra careful before disbursing such funds. That sum is the same cost for the LRT extension in the metropolis which would alleviate the traffic problems and it is five times the size of the armed forces’ annual modernization budget.

Do not be mistaken in thinking that pork barrel scams are the only anomalies that evade public attention and require our continuous scrutiny. Over the past decade, there have been several more controversies and anomalies that remain unresolved and barely anyone got a conviction.

You see during the same ‘Million People March’ against the pork barrel, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Reynato Corona made an appearance for which he was heckled with contempt by the angry protesters. Those who were not heckling him however found it strange, they did not know who he was or what reason did the others have for ridiculing him that way.That is appalling. Very shocking since only two years ago Reynato Corona was given the same amount of spotlight and airtime as Janet Napoles and the pork barrel scam.

Corona is the first supreme court chief justice to be impeached, the reason being for his failure to disclose several expensive assets in the United States in his SALN. There was a lot of controversy during this time, particularly because Corona was tagged as a key Gloria Arroyo supporter and a huge hindrance for anyone wanting to file a case against her. He was the Janet Napoles of that year.

Which is why it is rather surprising that the same Filipinos who surely would have condemned him during his trial have now forgotten who he was. This brings us back to the main point, we forget far too easily the controversies and scams that rock our nation. We fail to press on them and to follow them and demand a conviction of those guilty.

It is difficult to know who gets the bigger blame, the public with a short attention span or the speed of justice in the country which is extremely sluggish that may make it excusable to forget high-profile cases. Regardless, we should try our best to stick to the story and be vigilant on the developments of the case. Perhaps if households became even half as passionate on these cases as they are with their primetime soap operas or foreign sports competitions, we may have seen a few more heads rolling that we do now.

Yet forget the pork and Corona and I can still name you a dozen or more cases which were once the talk of the country but have sadly been put behind the Miami Heat’s NBA championship win and Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance. Remember the fertilizer fund scam? When the Department of Agriculture bought Php728M worth of fertilizers and equipments for farmers but was grossly overpriced and the goods delivered were substandard. Some bottles of fertilizer were only half full and some were even filled with pure water!

Janet Napoles were among the prominent names involved, but then Agriculture Secretary Cito Lorenzo and undersecretary Jocelyn Bolante were the people on the center stage. Gloria Arroyo was also among the culprits as the funds were allegedly funneled into her campaign funds for the 2004 election as well as supporting her senators in the 2007 Senate elections.

The scam happened in 2004 but broke out in 2008. And just a few months beforehand the nation was in a commotion with the National Broadband Network controversy, a government project that aimed to improve communication capabilities but was also overpriced and with several government officials brokering for a personal commission from the deal. The issue brought forth a mass rally, which some even called ‘People Power III’ at that time yet only six years later no one even remembers the issue.

There are a lot more that can be named: the PhilHealth member card controversy where the membership cards of the government’s social security program bore the image of President Arroyo just a few months before the national elections. There was also the Rice Fund Scam, where imports of rice were allegedly overpriced. The Swine Scam, the Macapagal Boulevard Scam, the Perez Power Plant Bribe, the Jose Pidal-Juentengate Scandal, the Euro generals, the overpriced Northrail project, the C-5 road project controversy, the GSIS-Meralco bribery case, the Venable Contract lobby controversy, the Marine Stand-off, the Sandra Cam Controversy, the Police Helicopter Scam and many more.

Do the names Marlene Esperat, Jocjoc Bolante, Sandra Cam, Jun Lozada or Benjamin Abalos even ring a bell to us anymore? How about the surnames of Garcia, Ligot and Palparan, are they still familiar to us? How many of the scams listed above can you remember?

If your answer is one which you would want to keep to yourself, chances are you are guilty of a short term memory in regards to issues that matter to our country. This proves exactly the premise of the article and is evidence that we Filipinos are far too lenient and laid back and inattentive with the important matters. We are like children whose focus only lasts until the next shiny new toy arrives. This is a behavior we need to get rid of. This is precisely why so many government officials are not deterred by investigations or cases filed against them: they just need to be patient and wait for another big event for the minds of the people to be taken away from them.

Do you find it suspicious how the Zamboanga crisis occurred during the height of the pork barrel scam? One could say it is just a coincidence, pointing out that Misuari had long planned the attack. But we can’t help but suspect of the timing, is it possible the guilty of the pork barrel scam were keen to have the attention shifted away from them? Who knows.

May this essay be an eye-opener for all of us. Never forget the crimes committed in the past, be vigilant and always demand results. There are far too many whistleblowers in the country and not enough politicians behind bars. This needs to change.







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