Conflicting Philippine Identities and the Fight Against Corruption

In his book, From Third to First World, Lee Kuan Yew remarked that the Philippines has two societies, and that the “elite mestizos had the same detached attitude to the native peasants as the mestizos in their haciendas in Latin America had toward their peons.” While this analogy may be extreme, there’s hardly any denying that reforms and economic progress have done little to alleviate the socio-economic disparities entrenched in Philippine society. Even today, Philippine identity looks vastly different for the rich than it does for the poor—in terms of heritage, cultural attitudes, daily experiences, and values. In short, the class divisions that Singapore’s great leader alluded to still exist today, and contribute to a sense of alienation among the two so-called “societies” within Philippine culture.

How does this division play out when it comes to governance, and, for our purposes, anticorruption efforts? Alienation on both sides of the economic divide, and the inability of Filipinos of different classes to relate to one another, have had deleterious effects on progress in this field, and it is important that Philippine policymakers take into account the limits imposed by socioeconomic disparities when considering possible strategies to tackle corruption.

In an earlier post, Matthew alluded to one way in which alienation from the perspective of lower classes can hinder anticorruption efforts: If principles or norms are imposed by the elites, lower-class Filipinos may reject anticorruption as “an upper-class value invoked to criticize the poor and the candidates they support.” Indeed, this sentiment became an issue in the aftermath of the 2001 revolution that removed President Joseph Estrada from power. Estrada, a former film star, was extremely popular among lower-income Filipinos, but was forced to step down after allegations of plunder and graft led to a non-violent popular protest. Unlike the widely celebrated People Power Movement of 1986, the movement that unseated Estrada lacked support from the poorer citizens, who viewed his removal as a conspiracy by the elite and by church officials. More recently, Vice President Jejomar Binay, who has built his career on an image as a champion of the poor, has largely maintained support among the lower classes despite numerous accusations of graft coming from the political and economic elite. In both instances, the poor rejected the stamp of corruption placed on politicians who seemed to relate to their own struggles.

From the perspective of the upper classes, on the other hand, because they are largely detached from the every day struggles of the poor, anticorruption efforts only appear necessary in limited circumstances, namely, when the effects of corruption become directly harmful to the elite. The harm may be economic–in those cases, the amount at issue is generally derived from large-scale corruption. Thus, whereas rampant local corruption is rarely reported, a great deal of attention has been paid to instances like the recent pork barrel scandal, which involved over $224 million. But the harm may also be to their particular value system. While corruption is rampant throughout Philippine politics, the elite sometimes seem to protest loudest against the transgressions of characters such as Estrada and Binay, who lack the “traditional” qualifications such as vast personal wealth, a prominent family name, and, in the case of Estrada, an elite education.

Whatever the harm, the concern about corruption is rarely framed as a poverty problem, and is instead viewed as an issue of integrity—as elites define that term. The result is that anticorruption efforts tend to focus more upon symbolically significant large-scale corruption, rather than local or petty corruption that may have a more significant impact on the daily lives of the lower classes. Because of alienation, elites are able to separate themselves from such problems, writing them off as problems of the poor.

Alienation caused by socio-economic disparities cuts both ways, and inspires different goals that may pit one class against the other. As a result, efforts by one class to eradicate certain forms of corruption might be resisted by another, while the forms of corruption most prevalent in the lives of some classes will go unaddressed by those running the show.

Moving forward, Philippine anticorruption strategies must take into account the two conflicting “identities” created by the socioeconomic divide. Here are some suggestions for how advocates can rethink their approach:

  • Recognize the underlying poverty issues. This may be a question of rhetorical framing, but anticorruption campaigns should highlight the significance of corruption as a poverty issue, rather than simply a problem of integrity. The allocation of resources should take into account how corruption affects the day-to-day experience of the country’s poorest citizens, rather than addressing only symbolically important instances of corruption. Reframing could allow elites to adopt a better sense of the effects of corruption on lower-income classes, and, in turn, could lessen the poor’s feelings of isolation.
  • Pinpoint interests that are aligned. While the interests of these two different societies are sometimes at odds, there are many ways in which they overlap. For example, the low-income class’s interest in dealing with poverty is related to the upper class’s concern with improving the economy to spur foreign investment.
  • Highlight nationalism in campaigns. Anticorruption efforts must find some dialogue that bridges the divide between the socioeconomic classes. Nationalistic interests may serve as a way to bring those interests together, and rally popular support around a common goal. Advocates should consider nationalistic rhetoric as a tool in anticorruption strategies.

The socioeconomic disparities in the Philippines can negatively impact anticorruption strategies in subtle ways. It is important for activists and policymakers to consider strategies that address the concerns of both sides, to rally further support behind the fight against corruption.