The following come from a 1988 article published in the New York Times. Through the words of then Commissioner of Immigration, Miriam Defensor Santiago, we are given some eye-opening insight in the corruption during the time of Cory Aquino. And the uphill battle Mrs Santiago was facing then. And sadly, along with the rest of the nation, is still facing to this very day.
One day, a neighbor told Miriam Defensor Santiago, the Commissioner of Immigration, that there was a burglar in her house.
”What did I do?” Mrs. Santiago said. ”I just ran in and opened all the doors. I wanted to find this burglar and intimidate him with the sheer moral force of my personality. I wanted to confront him and see which one of us is going to survive, because we can’t both live in the same space.”
This is the way Mrs. Santiago took on the Immigration Commission last January, one of the most graft-ridden agencies in the Philippines.
From virtually her first day, she said, she realized she was doing battle with Philippine society, with what she calls a ”culture of corruption” with its own set of rules that defies the nation’s laws and Constitution.
A Head-On Assault
In more than five months, Mrs. Santiago has made a head-on assault on immigration payoffs, foreign-run vice and crime syndicates, gun running, drug smuggling, illegal aliens and the counterfeiting of documents.
Her campaign is the leading edge of what appears to be a new effort by President Corazon C. Aquino to attack corruption at rampant points, like the Immigration Department, the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue.
Mrs. Santiago is making enemies everywhere, and her experience demonstrates the difficulties of bringing about the kinds of basic changes that have been the hope of the Aquino Administration.
Mrs. Aquino has brought a new standard of morality to a nation where corruption was a way of life even before Ferdinand E. Marcos took it to new heights when he was President.
Integrity on the Line
But there is little sign that Mrs. Aquino’s personal integrity has had much effect on one of the country’s most deep-rooted ailments.
Indeed, Mrs. Santiago suggested, corruption may now be worse than ever because of weaker central Government control under Mrs. Aquino.
”The crook may be making more money now because all of it goes to him and not to the President,” Mrs. Santiago said.
”We make high-sounding statements about the rule of laws and not of men, but our theories have no relation to reality,” she said. ”When I try to implement them, I find I invoke homicidal instincts in the Filipino.”
Death Threats at 3 a Day
Even before she assumed her post at the start of the year, she said, the attacks on her began. Powerful protectors of criminal syndicates denounced her in the press and on the floor of Congress, and death threats began, at an average of three a day.
Now, she said, there are groups of her employees who meet regularly and pool their funds in an attempt to force her from office.
”There is simply too much corruption, too much money available for the taking,” she said. ”If I succeed in what I am trying to do here, I will be depriving my people of virtual fortunes in illicit money.”
Many of the officials with whom she is doing battle may not feel they are doing anything so very wrong.
”This is an Asian culture of personalism where family and friends come first,” Mrs. Santiago said. ”We are not a united nation with a definite set of goals but a collection of tribes who push and shove at each other.” ‘An Authentic Philippine Value’
She spoke of the Filipino value of pakikisama, ”the art and skill of getting along with others,” that puts a premium on compromise and avoidance of confrontation.
”This is an authentic Philippine value in some areas,” she said. ”But its mischief and nuisance value is so high that it simply cannot be accommodated in the legal structure we have copied from the West.”
A result, Mrs. Santiago said, is that the Philippines is a center for international crime syndicates and, among other things, ”the fake passport capital of the world.”
”The most attractive feature of Manila in this respect is its culture of anarchy because of pakikisama,” she said. ”There is always the clear impression to the alien criminal that he can bribe, negotiate or compromise his way to get whatever he wants.”
One of the ‘Genteel Poor’
This attitude itself, she conceded, contributes to her difficulties: Mrs. Santiago does not practice it.
A 42-year-old former judge and law professor who was educated at the University of Michigan, Mrs. Santiago describes herself as one of the ”genteel poor” whose family was accepted by the elite but had to struggle to make ends meet.
Unlike Mrs. Aquino, a member of a wealthy landowning family who was bred to compromise and conciliation, Mrs. Santiago said, ”My style is confrontational: when I see evil, I want to remove it right away.”
Unlike the President, who has been criticized for a slow pace and lack of forcefulness, Mrs. Santiago has aroused controversy with her aggressiveness.
Dossiers on Her Employees
On her first day on the job, Mrs. Santiago announced to her employees that she had dossiers on all of them and that their bribe-taking must stop immediately.
When nothing changed, she said, she shouted at them, tore her hair, ripped a telephone from the wall ”and at one point I think I threatened them all with extinction.”
At one point, with her own hands, she padlocked the visa extension office and suspended its 20 employees. She reopened the office with a new staff but – a natural law reasserting itself – the old practices resumed.
Mrs. Santiago said her battle is already taking its toll on her. She has begun to suffer bouts of depression and unexplained shooting pains in her legs. Her sister, a doctor, has offered medication for her nerves.
She still has not hung her awards and diplomas in her office because she realizes that at any moment the political costs of her crusade could become too high and that she might be removed.
”If that happens, I will comply quietly,” Mrs. Santiago said. ”But it means my professional future will be absolutely zilch.”
She thought about this for a moment. ”Sisyphus, you know,” she said, ”had an easy life.”
By SETH MYDANS, Special to the New York Times
Originally Published: May 26, 1988