Uncovering the history of corruption

The Philippine state was corrupt from inception. Yet we forget how deeply ingrained systems of patronage are in this country, as nationalist history has made us glorify politicos like Quezon and Osmeña, making us believe that today’s problems are new and can be solved by a return to the good old days. 

Last week I had the pleasure of leafing through the papers of David Prescott Barrows in the university archives of UC Berkeley. Barrows was a former colonial official in the Philippine Islands, serving as Chief of the Bureau for Non-Christian tribes and then the colony’s superintendent for education in the first decade of the 20th century. During World War I, he returned to the Philippines as an intelligence officer. After the war, he served as president of the University of California system from 1919 to 1923. Throughout his career, Barrows maintained an interest in the Philippines, writing multiple books and articles about the country, most notably the 1905 History of the Philippines (reissued ad nauseam) and the 1914 A Decade of American Colonial Government in the Philippines

Barrows was an imperialist and a racist; he took to heart the white man’s burden and considered it his duty to “civilize” the natives. Unlike advocates of Filipinization (the greater inclusion of Filipinos into the colonial bureaucracy) such as Governor General Francis Burton Harrison, Barrows mistrusted Filipino politicos. He was a great admirer of Governor General Leonard Wood, Manuel Quezon’s arch-nemesis, who sought to prevent Quezon’s royal ascendance by delaying Philippine independence.  

Such characters as Barrows are easily demonized and dismissed. The nationalist historian Reynaldo Ileto, for instance, calls Barrows and those who cite his work “orientalists” – scholars who deny the legitimacy of local, Filipino voices. While one should, indeed, treat colonial archives with caution, we ignore these sources at a cost. For good information can come from “bad guys,” and being an imperialist does not necessarily make one a liar. If we want to uncover the history of corruption in the Philippines, the papers of American colonial officials are great places to start. 

As expected, Barrows despised local politicos, from the regional principalia to the ascendant national elite represented by Quezon. He detected corruption almost everywhere, which explains his wariness to surrender the colony’s administration to local elites.

We can believe some of the claims made by Barrows and his colleagues because they resonate with our experiences as contemporary citizens of the Philippines, governed by the same oligarchic families that American colonial officials worked with in the 1900s. 

Let’s begin with Muslim Mindanao. Anybody who has read about the Ampatuans and Gloria Arroyo knows that the Moro Province is a cash cow for Manila caciques and their warlord allies. The phenomenon is an old one. On December 27, 1918, a Davao administrator named Orville Wood complained to Barrows about politicos pocketing money meant for the development of the municipality. In his letter (found in Box 34 of the Barrows papers), Wood explains: 

"There is big talk being made in the Filipino papers about the large amount of money being spent in the Department of Mindanao and Sulu over its income for the uplift of the Moros, all of which is a farce as it is not being spent for Moros but for the salaries of relatives of the influential men of the northern provinces who have been sent here…”  

Sound familiar? These days, we suspect corruption whenever the government sends money to Mindanao for ostensibly developmental purposes. There is a perverse comfort in knowing that imperialist colonial administrators shared our cynicism. Why do many Moros hate the Philippine government? Maybe because the government has cheated them since the early 1900s. In a 1926 letter (found in Box 4), Barrows wrote then secretary of commerce Herbert Hoover, telling him that the Moros do “not respect” and are “prepared to defy” Philippine politicians and Philippine governors. Indeed, why would you respect crooks? 

Another issue we are eminently familiar with is corruption in basic education, in particular the textbook industry. Textbooks are big money, which is why a corrupt DepEd is vulnerable to syndicates that monopolize book production. American officials were, of course, part of the corruption in the colony and a letter to Caspar Hodgson (Barrows’s close friend and publisher) written in April 1925 (from Box 3) proves that Barrows was not above criticizing his kind. Barrows writes:

“I had a long talk the other day with Ben E. Wright about conditions in the Philippines. He is auditor of the Islands and the one man there who has authority towards stopping graft and demoralization. I talked to him about Bowley [Luther Bowley, director of education]. He told me that he believed that there had been graft in the awarding of the book contracts and that the director had received improper advantage from the business to the extent of seventy or eighty thousand pesos.” 

We do not know if the same deals continued after the Filipinization of the bureau of education. But we know how recurrent the problem is. Brother Armin Luistro should take comfort in the fact that he is not the first official to try to combat corruption in textbook production. 

The two examples I’ve discussed are just the tip of the iceberg, based on a merely two days of archival research. But they are enough to make us realize how long this country has been mismanaged.

Manuel Quezon once self-servingly said that he would “rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than a country run like heaven by the Americans.” Well, we have been run like hell for too long. It’s about time to raise our standards. - Rappler.com 

Dr. Lisandro E. Claudio is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto Universty and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University. He is also editor of The Manila Review