Graft and corruption in our everyday lives

Plunder is corruption writ large, and cronyism is graft at the highest levels. Alas, these social ills are so embedded in our politics that we think of them as being one and the same monster.

But can we suspend, even for a moment, our scrutiny of our highest officials, and instead look around us? At least twice in our history we have tried to kill the beast by going after its head, but has only grown larger. Perhaps we can learn how to fight it more effectively by understanding the cells and tissues that give it life. 

Broken down to the level of our everyday lives, corruption is the misuse of shared resources for one’s personal benefit. Graft is the misuse of one’s influence for personal gain. Working with these simple definitions, I propose that we look at graft and corruption in our everyday lives as a way of understanding how they operate in our society, which in turn is key to fighting them in a more fundamental and lasting way. 

Just by looking at my own life, I can think of many examples. Once, when I was the president of my year level in high school, a shirt printer offered me a “kickback” if I were to chose them for our intramurals uniforms. I turned it down, but looking back, I can still remember the allure of the temptation: several thousand pesos was a huge sum for a 15-year old.

Moving on to medical school and later, to my medical career, I also found graft and corruption in the health care sector. Some physicians who prescribe certain drugs get rewarded by pharmaceutical companies (e.g. in the form of foreign trips) even when those drugs aren't the best or the most cost-effective ones for their patients. Some unscrupulous staff in public hospitals claim to be the relatives of desperate patients so the latter can be admitted – but they demand a price for this fake kinship.

If you think with me about this, I’m sure you can come up your own stories – not just from your professional lives, but your everyday transactions: from the speedy acquisition of licenses and permits to the malversation of office supplies and even fuel allowances (I would argue that even using the road as one’s parking space counts for corruption). While many offices in government are, to their credit, doing their best to curb corruption, it still happens – partly because it works for both parties involved. 

“This is for everyone in the office, not just for me. Let’s help each other,” the government official you’re dealing with might say, and at the personal level, the temptation is real. After all, it’s much easier – and even cheaper – to hand a P500 bill to a traffic enforcer than to lose your license and attend a half-day driving seminar. When graft and corruption are the norm, fairness is difficult because it involves sacrifice.

Role of leadership

Surely it is absurd to compare the act of a teacher getting a few thousands from a field trip to a congressman getting millions from the construction of a highway. But looking at these as belonging to one and the same spectrum raises the question of whether the immorality of the Marcoses and the Napoleses is not one of absolute sin, but one of magnitude. 

If so, then perhaps the reason we are not able to fight graft and corruption as aggressively as we should is because we do not have the collective moral authority to do so. We search for the line we should not cross, not realizing that we have actually crossed it long ago. 

Let me be clear: leadership plays a decisive, if not central, role. In one of our conversations, National Artist F. Sionil Jose recounted to me that when Ramon Magsaysay was president, corruption in many government agencies came to a halt – but it was back just a few weeks after his fateful plane crash. And so we must always demand the highest standards from our leaders.

But we can also fight the monster with our bare hands. By demanding fairness, not just from others, but from ourselves. By insisting that we fall in line even when we can go ahead. By refusing special treatment that goes against the law, no matter how much it works for our benefit.

These are the values we need to teach our children, but they will only learn if they see them in our lives. –


Gideon Lasco is a physician, medical anthropologist, and commentator on culture and current events. His essays have been published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Singapore Straits Times, Korea Herald, China Post, and the Jakarta Post.