Columns Life Politics Tsinoy Beats and Bytes

History repeats itself; corruption reaches new highs

The COVID-19 scare seems to be dying down. We pray that the virus is on its way to permanent hibernation, and South Korea will overcome the contagion spread by church people.
Taal Volcano has quieted down. Evacuees have returned home, except for those who live on Volcano Island. The question now is whether the government will strictly ban people from the permanent danger zone and give them alternative places to live and earn their livelihood.
In Metro Manila, residents have to prepare for the looming water crisis. I wish our fire department will constantly warn people about fire hazards, not only during Fire Prevention Month in March. With low water pressure, fires are one more calamity we don’t need.
Forgotten people power?
I write this on Feb. 25 with a heavy heart, especially after watching the 2019 documentary, “The Kingmaker,” by filmmaker Lauren Greenfield. It features the political career of Imelda Marcos, focusing on the family’s efforts to return to power, including helping son Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos become president some day.
It was fitting that the film was shown at the University of the Philippines Diliman campus on Feb. 25. It coincided with the 34th anniversary of the bloodless People Power Revolution that deposed the dictatorial and oppressive regime of Imelda’s husband, Ferdinand Marcos.
Looking at recent events, however, it seems we Filipinos have forgotten that we have the power to bring change, influence policymakers, and sway the tide of public opinion. There were victims in Marcos’ time, just as there are today of the same method of extrajudicial killings, but in even more brutal ways.
Every day, we seem to be fighting battles that echo what we already fought before.
In the past, we have encountered the “red-tagging” of government critics, filing of sedition charges against select opposition figures, using the long arm of the law to stifle dissent, using government positions to harass and intimidate.
Today, they seem to have become the norm. Sadly, people just accept them as all in the day’s business.
What will be the tipping point that will lead people to push back and fight against a recurrence of a martial law-like autocratic rule with its accompanying widespread corruption and militarism in government?
Floyd G. Buenavente, digital marketing consultant, captures our aspirations in an opinion column in Rappler on Feb. 24: “Countrymen, never, ever say that EDSA People Power was a disastrous failure. We as a nation are still continuing the struggle to stand up for democracy, human rights, and freedom. As long as there are Filipinos who are willing to utter and fully mean the words ‘never again, never forget,’ we can rest assured that People Power will always remain a warning and a threat to any promising dictator.”
Amen to that. May we not forget and may we never again allow a Marcos regime rehash.
Pogo benefits at what cost?
President Duterte was the guest of honor at the 22nd-anniversary celebration of the Chinese Filipino Business Club at the Manila Hotel on Feb. 10. The audience expected him to talk about the challenges posed by COVID-19. Instead, he ad-libbed and focused on one of his pet themes: fighting and resisting corruption.
Indeed, corruption is one of those things our country is known for. And if an international rating agency is to be believed, there’s more of it today than there used to be. We fell 14 spots in the 2019 global corruption perception index compiled by Transparency International. We placed 113 out of 180 countries and territories and are tied with El Salvador, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Eswatini and Zambia. The same index showed the Philippines scored 34 out of 100 for perceived levels of public sector corruption. A score of zero means highly corrupt, while 100 is very clean.
How low can we go?
No wonder corruption in government continues to hog the headlines: the Bureau of Customs and the drugs shipments that got away; the Bureau of Corrections and Department of Justice in relation to the processing of Good Conduct Time Allowance; the Department of Health, Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. and Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office in relation to the PhilHealth scam, payments of false claims and other anomalies.
The latest scandals are linked to Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos), and the Bureau of Immigration (BI).
Sen. Risa Hontiveros presented on Jan. 27 in a Senate probe the findings of her investigation on the rescues of sex trafficking victims in Metro Manila.
Hontiveros, who chairs the committee on women, children, family relations and gender equality, showed social media posts detailing a menu of sexual services offered by brokers for women “entertainers.” The “menu” displayed photos of trafficked Chinese women and was passed around through online messaging apps Telegram and Chinese-owned WeChat.
One victim, alias Carinas, said in an affidavit she and other women in the den were told that they would be working in a “massage with extra service” business, but she was later kept by a Chinese national in a house in Makati.
She said the women in the house primarily serviced Chinese clients and were paid at least P6,000 per job, an amount that they halved with their Chinese handler. The fee was raised if they spent the night or performed extra services.
At a press conference on Feb. 11, Hontiveros presented a Taiwanese human trafficking victim who, like many other overseas Chinese workers, was promised high salaries in nonexistent jobs and forced to work in illegal Pogo operations.
“Pogo benefits at what cost?” Hontiveros asked, lamenting that Pogos give rise to prostitution, kidnapping, human trafficking, drugs and money laundering and other crimes.
At another Senate hearing on Feb. 17, Hontiveros showed how the BI and its officers capitalize on the need for more Chinese workers in Pogos to enrich themselves. She showed a video and screenshots of Viber groups of BI employees facilitating the entry of Chinese persons. The screenshots contained names, flight details and photos of the arriving Chinese.
Chinese Pogo employees allegedly seamlessly enter the country, each paying a P10,000 fee. The scam was called pastillas because payouts are rolled in bond paper. Billions have already been paid out.
Confronted by Hontiveros, Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente and his officials answered it was the first time they heard of the systematic practice.
The senator shot back: “Either you are complicit or you are negligent. And I don’t know which is worse.”
Magkano at hanggang kanino (How much goes to whom and how high up does it go)?” she asked, calling the bribery “traydor sa bayan (traitor to the country).”
The bribery scheme, often brokered by Chinese travel agencies, is an open secret in the local Chinese community. Like the menu of services for prostitutes, there is also a menu of services for false documents, including Philippine passports with genuine supporting papers like genuine birth certificates.
The Chinese circle calls the services bao guan (保關) or guaranteed entry.
There is a price for lifting hold departure orders, a price for being removed from a blacklist, a price if a case for deportation is already filed, a price if deportation proceedings have not commenced, and so forth.
This is how Chinese fugitives were able to enter our country. Of the 423 international criminals apprehended in local ports, 324 were Chinese nationals.
Allyson Chiong of the BI told the Senate committee hearing that prices range from P50,000 to P200,000 for passage, and could reach millions for high-profile or high-value fugitives.
On July 27 last year, the BI prohibited its personnel at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport from “loafing, facilitating and escorting” arriving and departing passengers.
The prohibition was announced a year before that, but social media posts of Chinese made fun of the announcement, knowing the move would cause bao guan to spike but there was nothing else to worry about.
Our culture of corruption has fallen to new lows. We have not hit bottom, but it looks like we are heading that way.