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Let the Magalong buzz begin

Let the Magalong buzz begin was also published by The Manila Times on 19 July 2023.

Former police officer now Baguio City mayor Benjamin Magalong.

I saw Ping Lacson's tweet: "We may have found a probable future leader our country needs. Yet, for what he stands and fights for versus the 'new normal' in Philippine politics, will he be electable as one?"

Former Senator and Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Lacson was referring to former PNP General and now Baguio City Mayor Benjamin B. Magalong whose anti-corruption soundbites recently made the rounds in media. Corruption in government is well-known. From scholarly studies, court cases, congressional investigations, investigative and fact-finding reports, etc. that document specific cases of corruption, one can see the rot everywhere. But people have probably developed immunity from the stink—which is what Lacson may have meant when he talked about "new normal"—they no longer seemed bothered by it. Corruption in "Love the Philippines" is no longer abnormal. 

Perhaps what makes Magalong's diatribes feel like a puff of fresh air is that he is talking from personal knowledge. In a media interview, he said, among other things, that:

"I had a chance to talk to several contractors. I asked them assuming that I will take cuts from infrastructure projects, how much will it be? And they said about 10 percent to 15 percent or 20 percent to 25 percent, depending on the decision of the mayors or the lawmakers."

Since everyone wants to have a cut—he says "members of the Bids and Awards Committee receive commissions, as do other individuals involved in the decision-making for projects"—Magalong explained that “only about 45 percent to 52 percent will be left (to the actual contractor and project). In short, if the project is worth P100, they said 'Sir, we will have to settle for P42.50 to P55', including their profit so they will be forced to make substandard projects.”

One may add that public goods (such as infrastructure facilities) and services are not only substandard. They take more time than necessary to finish. A close look at the details of the annual budget of government at any level (national, provincial, city, municipal, barangay), will likely show that placeholders exist for "multi-purpose buildings"; or "multi-purpose pavements"; and other recurring expenses. Turn-key one-time budgets for those kinds of projects are just not enough for the feeding
frenzy at the crocodile farm.

Thieves collaborate not only across organizations. They work together along hierarchical lines as well. Back in the day when I worked with local government units as staff of a foreign-funded project, a municipal mayor told me that the request for release of financial assistance allocations by the budget department required grease "everybody happy" money.

Congress is poised to deliberate on the 2024 national budget worth around Php5.77 trillion. It is 9.5 percent higher than this year's budget of P5.2 trillion. Surely this again should raise the mood meter at the farm—never mind that private gain will come at a cost, as always, of public pain. Taxpayers will bear the brunt of paying for amortization and interest of public debt that will finance as much as 42 percent of next year's budget. The planned borrowing exposure is bigger by 12 percent than this year's total debt. Magalong rues that while congressional pork barrel funds have been outlawed by the Supreme Court, members of Congress continue to get away with buffet rounds of full serving.

“The way they dispose of it is institutional. Some congressmen have several projects and roads but the bidding was rigged. You can check the profile of some legislators and LGU executives – many of them are contractors and suppliers. They get a percentage and they also get the projects as contractors.”

Magalong's lament needs to be contextualized in how government allocates its resources, foregoes potential revenues, prioritizes spending, and consequently how it manages possible conflicts that may arise from competing interests. Addressing PNP personnel at Camp Crame, he said:

“We, in the uniform service, are willing to give up a small amount of our pension just to help the national government, just to address this huge deficit, just to address this big national debt. Let’s wait to see what our brave legislators have to say… Hopefully, one of them will come out in the open… It is about time that legislators should also give a big contribution to address national government issues, especially on our financial debts.”

Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno earlier raised the alarm of a "fiscal collapse" unless government is able to reverse the rate at which it provides financial support to the pension system for military and uniformed personnel (MUP). The national budget has allotted P213 billion this year and as much amount for next year. It can balloon to a trillion pesos by 2035, according to Diokno, which can eat up a sizable portion of the budget itself.

Pension systems require young people to pay so that the old ones can enjoy their retirement benefits. The MUP pension system is odd because, unlike the Government Service Insurance System and Social Security System members who must contribute to the common pension fund until age 60, MUPs are not only exempted from paying contributions at all to the pension fund, but they also retire at the age of 56. Even if MUPs in active service do pay (as government proposes in its MUP reform agenda) the enjoying old would still outnumber the paying young.

The MUPs are of course blameless if it now appears they are ripping off government. Previous administrations, especially during the martial law years of the first Marcos government, have accorded the troopers with preferential treatment over other mortals. Perhaps there was no other way to manage discontent among men in uniform. The Cory Aquino government that followed the first Marcos government tried to experiment with other options and ended up being rocked by at least 9 bloody coup attempts.

Unease among military men that percolate into confrontation with authority often arise from perceived irregularities within their ranks and the civilian government in general. The military revolt that morphed into the Filipino-trademarked People Power in 1986 was initially a revolt against corruption and favoritism. Magalong himself has served time for an alleged participation in an attempt to topple the Gloria Arroyo government in 2006. (Her government barely survived after the "Hello Garci" scandal erupted in 2005.)

Magalong has a consistent record (probably a unique one) of advancing the truth over self-interest. An investigation he led about the 2015 Mamasapano incident that claimed the lives of 67 government troopers and local rebels came out with a report that implicated his superiors, namely PNP chief Alan Purisima and President Benigno Aquino III, for misconduct. In 2019, he testified against then PNP Chief Oscar Albayalde in a Senate investigation, charging the latter for “protecting police officers involved in a drug trade.”

Magalong’s impeccable governance record as a police officer and an LGU chief executive, done with integrity, competence and courage, makes him the leader our country needs. Hopefully we can follow his example regardless of whether he submits himself to a national vote in the future or not.

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Let the Magalong buzz begin

Let the Magalong buzz begin was also published by The Manila Times on 19 July 2023. Former police officer now Baguio City mayor Benjamin Ma...

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