A scandal is a scandal because it offends our commonly held sensibilities of what's right, just, and fair. Just when we thought that we'd become inured to the atrocities that our so-called leaders can inflict on us, along comes something like the ZTE-NBN deal, the magnitude and brazenness of which is truly mind-boggling.
Looming large in the news these past two weeks, the ZTE-NBN transaction has been analyzed seven ways to Sunday, and with still no end in sight. There's precious little additional commentary that I can put in that hasn't already been said by someone else. What does intrigue me is the larger context of Philippine society within which it takes place.
It's been said that per capita we have the most number of lawyers in the Southeast Asian region. We certainly have one of the most robust system of laws, one which covers everything from crime to labor to graft to e-commerce to motorcycle helmets. And yet none of these poses any deterrent to the crime, even in the class of something like ZTE-NBN.
If nothing else, our system of laws only seems to encourage mischief by way of the challenge of finding loopholes to exploit. Is this typical Filipino behavior? An exemplar, perhaps, is Ferdinand Marcos Sr., of whom someone once said:
"Crony capitalism began when some of those cronies began to work out cunning schemes with him. He was seduced by the intellectual challenge of it… He really wanted to know what he could get away with. It’s a Filipino trait, this constant testing to see how far we can go. He loved all that.”
I contend that, by our nature, we Filipinos have never really felt comfortable with this complex system of laws and regulations. Inherently, we are a cheerful lot, given to pathos for our fellow man (or more to the point, "malasakit sa kapwa tao.") By this token, laws tend to be ignored or selectively applied. Therein often lies our own undoing.
More than laws, it's relationships that take primacy in our civic life. Rather than a rigid set of traditional customs, ours is one based on hierarchy, sympathy, respect, and above all, reputation. In the face of this system, even truth is fluid and pliant.
Anarchic? Yes, but so long as we all adhered to the norms of this social network, all was well. So long as this system held, we could be the most humane society in the world.
But through the years this system has been fraying at the edges. Now that corruption is threatening to reach the core, if it's not already there. From below, we are afflicted increasingly violent crimes; and from above, we are subject to increasingly sociopathic leaders who know neither decency nor shame.
This is the social dynamic at play in the ZTE-NBN deal and others of its ilk. We have in the echelons of power a cabal that has dissociated itself from the rest of the community. This cabal -- of presidents, cabinet members, senators, congressmen, governors, and yes, even of mayors -- is answerable only to itself and relies solely on political numbers as the final arbiter of right and wrong.
This is the dark side of a society that's built on relationships. What happens when a group sets itself apart and above the rest? They are no longer subject to the communal mechanics of respect and reputation. Hence, they breed the capacity for monstrous behavior. Case in point: the devious minds that have the gall to seek a $130-million kickback.
Quoting Adam Smith: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public."
What is the alternative? Can we then seek refuge in the impartiality of our laws? Sadly, no, because that system is long damaged from our extensive application of exceptions.
If anything, its our complex system of laws that provides this pititless cabal with its shield. Witness how, in the course of the Senate inquiry, there seems to be no one person or agency that can be ultimately held culpable in the ZTE-NBN fiasco. By strictly following regulations, they are able to bypass all blame completely.
Perhaps this is why it took an expose that consisted of lurid details of orgies and astronomically outrageous bribes to bring the ZTE-NBN deal to the forefront of public outrage. Neither we the public nor they the cabal could be moved by the sheer irregularity of the transaction; but we all could finally take interest when it involved sex and a mad amount of money.
ZTE-NBN is not likely to be the last of its kind. Cover as we might the loopholes that allowed it to spawn, there are still so many others. I fear that it will take a scandal of even more outrageous proportions to move us to action the next time around.