Did I become greedy?

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on February 9, 2011

With one autocratic Middle East government after another melting down to an uncertain future, will the world soon be filled with more Afghanistan-like anarchic failed states, Iran-like radical Muslim theocracies, or Yugoslavia-like discombobulated nations? History sadly shows that reformist People Power revolutions are almost always followed by prolonged political upheaval, incompetent governance, and corruption on an even grander scale.

And unfortunately, one only has to look to the Philippines as an example. A quarter century ago Filipinos fed up with a corrupt autocracy poured onto Edsa to demand change, much as Tunisians and Egyptians have in recent days. A stunned global audience watched in 1986, fearing the worst as citizens stood their ground while police and the military converged. Yet in a matter of days, that fear evolved into a puzzled amazement that a diverse people could peacefully band together to bring down a tyrant.

In the euphoria that followed the assumption of the presidency by Corazon C. Aquino, the world and certainly most Filipinos expected a dramatic shift in the way the Philippines was governed. Her assassinated husband—Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr.—had once warned that turning the country around would be a massively difficult task for whoever succeeded the dictatorial former president, Ferdinand Marcos. When that prophecy quickly became reality, it was with a sense of disbelief.

For Mrs. Aquino, the euphoria was tragically short lived. It was brutally quashed by a series of six attempts to overthrow the government in 1986 and 1987—most involving the Reform the Armed Forces Movement whose members, ironically, provided security for Mrs. Aquino during the Edsa Revolution. The violence shattered business confidence, and investors bolted for more politically stable environs.

The most serious coup took place two years later, some say just as the business community began to recover its sense of optimism. Led by RAM’s Gregorio B. Honasan II—who bizarrely is a sitting Senator in the 15th Congress—the action left at least 99 people dead and almost 600 wounded. Weakened by the attempts to overthrow her government, Mrs. Aquino’s administration stumbled through her term wracked by allegations of cronyism, corruption, and incompetence.

Mrs. Aquino’s anointed successor, Fidel V. Ramos, provided a respite from military adventurism and showed signs that the stranglehold of resurgent oligarchs on the economy could come to an end in an era of liberalization. Investment rose, and the economy grew. Even the lights stayed on, as the president quickly and effectively addressed a chronic energy shortage that reminded Filipinos daily that things certainly had changed in the Philippines, but not necessarily for the better.

The economic momentum came to an end when Mr. Ramos turned his attention to extending his term rather than leaving a legacy. Efforts to transform the bicameral republic into a parliamentary democracy were met with withering critiques of Mr. Ramos’ agenda, and his popularity plummeted. The memories of an over-staying authoritarian leader were still vivid, and horrified Filipinos anxiously traded economic momentum for democratic certainty. Or so they thought.

Unlike his predecessor’s, Mr. Ramos’ anointed successor suffered a humiliating loss in national elections in 1998 to then vice president Joseph “Erap” Estrada. Mr. Estrada—popular with the average—i.e., dreadfully poor—Filipino was viewed with undisguised disdain by the middle and upper classes. Although ridiculed as a bungling caricature, Mr. Estrada’s respected economic managers kept the economy growing. That didn’t help Mr. Estrada.

Armed with allegations of corruption, Mr. Estrada’s critics persuaded the nation this time to trade apparently not-so-cherished economic development for a better smelling rose, the country’s vice president, former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. In a People Power episode most Filipinos prefer to forget, Mr. Estrada exited and Mrs. Arroyo ascended to the presidency. Mrs. Arroyo remained in office for close to a decade, during which the Philippines’ reputation for corruption soared.

Two things have taken place recently that could suggest that the cycle of hope turning to dismay turning to hope could be ending. The first was testimony before the Senate by former military budget official Lt. Col. George Rabusa describing the highly institutionalized corruption that has debilitated the armed forces. So institutionalized that former defense secretary Angelo Reyes asked him, “Did I become greedy?” For Mr. Reyes, moderated corruption is apparently an attribute, not a character flaw.

The second was the announcement that the Philippine economy grew faster in 2010 than it has since 1976, when Mr. Marcos was in power. For 25 years the Philippines has watched the promise of economic development be repeatedly traded for political expediency and greed.

Will this time be different?

ADDENDUM

Mr. Reyes died five days after this column first appeared in the Manila Bulletin and more than 10 days after he and Mr. Rabusa testified before the Senate. His death is believed to be a suicide, and the last word he spoke was, “Sorry,” according to a witness that tried to aid the former Philippine government official.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2011 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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