Remembering Ferdinand Marcos’ History of Corruption is Relevant to the Philippines’ Present Anticorruption Efforts

Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Philippines as a dictator from 1972 to 1986, is remembered for the thousands of human rights violations he committed, as well as his massive corruption. Indeed, Marcos holds the dubious title of being the most corrupt Philippine president (a title for which there is unfortunately stiff competition), and has been identified in one study as the second most corrupt government leader in the world, as measured by the value of public assets he stole. The profligacy of Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda—even at a time when the Philippines was spiraling into recession and a debt crisis—was shameless, and symbolized by Imelda’s 2,700 pairs of shoes and extravagant shopping sprees.

Given the magnitude of the corruption and abuses he perpetrated, one would think that Marcos’ place in Philippine history and in Filipinos’ collective memory is already well-settled. But alarmingly, a “revisionist” account of his presidency has recently gained, and continues to gain, wide currency. Many Filipinos are now beginning to consider the notion that Marcos may not really have been so bad—that his “sins” were merely overstated by the victors who wrote post-Marcos history. (Some of these issues are discussed here, here and here, but they are more frequently debated informally in mass and social media platforms.) These revisionist narratives spiked during the 2016 Philippine elections, when Marcos’ son, Ferdinand, Jr. (known as “Bongbong”), ran for, and almost won, the Vice Presidency. During his campaign, Bongbong denied his father’s legacy of corruption and framed his own platform as a revival of Marcos’ supposed “golden age” of peace and progress. Bongbong’s efforts to whitewash his father’s historical record to suit his electoral objectives gained traction, and has even spread to other fronts, like Wikipedia and Facebook. It did not help that President Rodrigo Duterte favorably endorsed the Martial Law declaration that paved the way for Marcos’ dictatorial rule in 1972 (calling it “very good”), and that the Supreme Court, in a recent controversial ruling, allowed the interment of Marcos’ remains in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (“Cemetery of Heroes”).

From a historical perspective, this phenomenon is disturbing in itself; but, if not arrested, this distortion of collective memory about Marcos’ history of corruption would also have dangerous implications for the Philippines’ ongoing and future anticorruption efforts.  

  • First, a “whitewashed” history of Marcos’ corruption and kleptocracy can serve as a smokescreen for his family members’ own corrupt practices. While the “Marcos” name has been sullied by the dictator’s dismal record, his family members managed to get themselves elected to various public offices on the strength of their still-sizable base of loyalists and supporters. Imelda, Marcos’ wife, is currently a member of the House of Representatives; his daughter, Imee, is the Governor of Ilocos Norte, Marcos’ home province; Bongbong was a Senator before he ran for Vice President. For better or worse, the political careers of Imelda, Imee, and Bongbong are tied to Marcos’ own reputation. If Marcos continues to be perceived as a corrupt leader, his family members will be associated to corruption too. But if Marcos’ image is sanitized through historical revisionism, his family members can use the “vindication” of the “Marcos” name to cover up their own corrupt practices. This is particularly dangerous considering the corruption accusations currently being leveled against the Marcos family members: against Imelda, for her role in setting up bogus Swiss foundations; against Bongbong, for misappropriation of “pork barrel” funds; and against Imee, for undeclared campaign contributions to President Duterte, misappropriation of funds meant for tobacco farmers, and secret bank accounts exposed in the “Panama Papers” leak.
  • Second, forgetting Marcos’ corruption undermines the still-ongoing work of the institution established to recover his ill-gotten wealth. One of the first official acts of President Corazon Aquino, Marcos’ successor, was to establish the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), and to task it with the recovery of public assets stolen by Marcos, his family, and his cronies—and to return that wealth to its rightful owners, the Filipino people. Needless to say, the historical basis of the PCGG’s existence is the fact of Marcos’ corruption; if this fact were to be expunged from the nation’s collective memory, the legitimacy of the PCGG will be severely compromised. This, in turn, will seriously undermine the ongoing efforts to recover the rest of the $10 billion worth of Marcos’ ill-gotten wealth, of which only $4 billion have so far been recovered. Now more than ever, continued public support for the PCGG’s efforts is needed. Under President Duterte, who has called Marcos “a hero to many Filipinos,” the PCGG is about to be abolished and absorbed by the Office of the Solicitor General. This move will undoubtedly dilute the PCGG’s historical and symbolic value as a tangible reminder of Marcos’ kleptocracy.
  • Third, remembering Marcos’ history of corruption is essential to fostering the environment needed for ongoing and future anticorruption efforts to succeed. If Marcos’ image is successfully sanitized by tampering with collective memory, it will send the wrong signal to public officials. It will tell them that corruption ultimately pays, because even if they are caught, they can still hope for some sort of historical vindication for their name and reputation in the future. This dangerous mindset is inimical to the success of any anticorruption effort, which depends heavily on fostering an environment of accountability and justice rather than of impunity. It is also important to continue holding up Marcos’ kleptocracy as a cautionary illustration of how the suppression of democratic values can enable large-scale plunder. When the people are armed with a truthful rendition of Marcos’ history of corruption, they are in a better position to be vigilant against similar acts. They will likewise be more inclined to guard and strengthen democratic institutions and norms, which in turn contribute to building an environment hostile to corruption.

Efforts to make the Filipino people forget Marcos’ history of corruption and abuse should be resisted. At this juncture, it should no longer be a matter of debate that Marcos was a thief. Not only is it in society’s best interest to preserve an accurate chronicle of its history, it is also an anticorruption imperative to keep the lessons of Marcos’ kleptocratic legacy salient and meaningful for succeeding generations. Charting a national course free of corruption will be even more difficult than it already is if this recent tide of pro-Marcos historical revisionism is not decisively turned.

3 thoughts on “Remembering Ferdinand Marcos’ History of Corruption is Relevant to the Philippines’ Present Anticorruption Efforts

  1. This is interesting material to read. Apart from Marcos, there should be a debate on stretching anticorruption efforts, that is, to what extent, anticorruption efforts should dig into past corruption thereby leaving little resources for investigating present or preventing future corruptions?

    • Thank you. I think you raise a very insightful point. While there is a legitimate interest in pursuing justice for past corruption, I agree that it should not be at the expense of leaving little or no resources for fighting corruption in the present. In an ideal scenario, states should not have to make a choice between these two endeavors; they are both important and should be pursued simultaneously. In reality, however, most jurisdictions’ anticorruption resources are inadequate or scarce, such that some sacrifices have to be made. I am sure the parameters for making the decision would vary from country to country and from case to case; but as for the Philippines, I think continuing to recover Marcos’ ill-gotten wealth, despite the fact that he had already been ousted from office for more than 30 years, is justified by the sheer magnitude of his corruption. I think for grand corruption of this scale, efforts should be exerted to pursue justice, even if it would arguably entail the diversion of scarce anticorruption resources and even if it would mean reaching back significantly into the past.

  2. Pingback: Remembering Ferdinand Marcos’ History of Corruption is Relevant to the Philippines’ Present Anticorruption Efforts | Matthews' Blog

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