Lifestyle Check, Pinoy Style

If you google “lifestyle check” now your search will yield mostly news items about corruption in the Philippines. The items not from the Philippines are lifestyle check lists connected to health and wellness. This got me thinking. Does it mean lifestyle checking related to corruption is essentially a Philippine phenomenon?

I googled “most corrupt countries” and then searched for “lifestyle check (insert name of most corrupt country of choice)” to test my theory. It showed articles on “lifestyle under threat” because most corrupt countries are also areas of violent conflict or pieces about “lifestyle of luxury” because sometimes corrupt countries are also attractive travel destinations. So based on my google search, it appears that, yes, it’s only in the Philippines!

What exactly is a lifestyle check, anyway? The Office of the Ombudsman of the Philippines defines lifestyle check as “an investigation strategy developed by anti-corruption agencies in the Philippines to determine the existence of ill-gotten and unexplained wealth of officials and employees of the government.”  Ah, so it is, indeed, a strategy developed in the Philippines based on this definition, at least.

“Public officials shall lead modest lives.” That is a principle stated in Article XI, Section 1 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Therefore, public officials who do not lead modest lives are violating the constitution and should be impeached or dismissed. I am not naive; I am being sarcastic.

But what about those public officials who are already rich and ostentatious even before they became public officials? Well, they will probably be more difficult to catch and cases of ill-gotten wealth may be harder to prove, but they are still not exempt from living “modest lives” or, as Fr. Joaquin Bernas explains, “not to flaunt (their wealth) in conspicuous display.” In fact, high ranking public officials are asked to divest their business interests and property holdings once they are elected or appointed into office (so they put them under names of relatives and friends).

With the current Salary Standardization Law, the President of the Philippines gets a salary equivalent to Salary Grade 33, the salary grade assigned to the highest position in the Philippine government. Right now, that salary is 120,000 pesos a month. But that is still subject to mandatory deductions such as withholding tax, PhilHealth, Pag-IBIG, and GSIS.  Since the President gets the highest salary grade, it is safe to assume that members of Congress and local elected officials get less than that. Yes, even the chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP) gets less than that. In paper, that is.

In reality, we know they get more than that. One is through the pork barrel system where the President gets 1.3 trillion pesos a year; Senators get 200 million pesos a year; and Members of the House of Representatives get 70 million pesos a year. These are public funds they have control over how they are spent or not spent. With leadership like that, do we still wonder why other government officials and employees also feel that they are entitled to the same, albeit lesser, privileges? After all, they would rationalize, they do most of the hard work anyway.

With this kind of organizational culture — where people in government feel entitled to misuse public funds because “our leaders are doing it, anyway” and “everybody is doing it, anyway” — it is kind of ironic to have lifestyle checks. Because corruption IS the lifestyle. Being ostentatious, not modest, is the lifestyle. So, of course, when that is the dominant lifestyle, almost everybody checks!

I am not saying everyone in government is corrupt. I am saying the dominant lifestyle in government is corrupt. Because the current system is vulnerable to abuse. It is so easy for the top ranking boss down to the lowly casual worker to steal and abuse public funds.

It is also easy to trade access to government services or offer protection/escape from government regulation in exchange for cash or real property. Even the government employee guarding the entrance of a government office can charge “entrance fees,” a concept similar to how government “commissioners” in high office can charge for “facilitating” approval of a government project.

And when you try to speak out against corruption, you are marginalized, discredited, or killed. Or all of the above, when you are really serious in your anti-corruption advocacy. That is how the lifestyle is enforced and perpetuated. By bullying those who dare to change it.

With this kind of lifestyle — wherein the higher your position, the greater your access to bigger (ill-gotten) wealth is — do we still wonder why we only attract the lazy, the incompetent, the ignorant, and the mediocre, who have desires to be rich and powerful, in government? Because the best and the brightest and the hardest working with the same desires go to the private sector where a top-ranking executive gets paid something like 1.3 million pesos a month, excluding allowances.

It used to be that only the noblest human beings with burning desire to serve the people, the so-called “do-gooders” who want to change the world, are the ones drawn to government service.  Now it seems that those who make ideal recruits for organized crime are the same human resource pool that get into our government bureaucracy.

Perhaps, we need to conduct more than lifestyle checks of individuals in government. We need to have a deeper examination of the lifestyle we are promoting as a society. What sort of lifestyle are we glorifying in mainstream media? The lifestyle of the rich and famous; of luxury and class. That is what we tell everyone to aspire for. And those of us who cannot afford that lifestyle, we just beg, steal, borrow, or “fake it until we make it” (thank you, Divisoria and Greenhills).

Where are the lifestyle pages and TV shows that praise simple living and feature people who lead modest lives as role models? Where are the magazines that devote covers and advertising pages to recycled bags, sustainable clothing, indigenous fabrics, locally-made shoes and accessories, healthy food that you can grow yourself, and public transportation?

When we read or hear about them, they get treated like a rarity, something extraordinary and almost an impossibility like Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.” Because that is not THE lifestyle, but the alternative. And alternative is subversive and relegated to the fringes of society. It does not support the status quo.

If we want the “modest life” or “living within one’s means” as the lifestyle standard in the Philippines every Filipino must strive for, then we must all work to close the gap between the rich and the poor. When everyone has the means to live (not just to survive) a life of dignity and an equal chance at happiness, stealing, cheating, and coveting will go out of style.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, October 9, 2014