POSTSCRIPT / April 24, 2005 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Officials, not the people, must take 'bitter pill' first

THE BITTER PILL: Our leaders are misleading us with their exhortation that the Value-Added Tax bill is the answer to the country’s financial woes, implying that our problems will be solved once the VAT bill is passed.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, for one, said the other day, “It is a time of reckoning not only for our congressional leaders but also for all our people — whether we are prepared to swallow the bitter pill now to stop our fiscal malaise or postpone the treatment for later and aggravate the pain in the long run.”

Bunye seems to imply that VAT is “the bitter pill” that President Arroyo has prescribed for this ailing nation for it to recover from its “fiscal malaise.”

But VAT is not that bitter pill. It is just one of the many ingredients of that pill. In fact, we can put together a different pill, not necessarily very bitter, for fiscal recovery without raising the VAT rate from the present 10 to 12 percent.

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OFFICIALS FIRST: Instead of our officials forcing a bitter pill down our throats sagak-style, somebody should pin them down instead and force them to take their own bitter pills.

(President Arroyo should be that “somebody,” but sad to say she seems to lack enough credibility to admonish fellow officials in matters pertaining to corruption and leading by example.)

Why are the masses — half of them wallowing in poverty — always the ones asked to make sacrifices for the country while our fat officials live it up in undeserved, often criminal, luxury?

OFFICIALS MUST TAKE THEIR OWN BITTER PILL by curbing their appetite for pork barrel, scrapping intelligence funds except for the military and the police, installing a truly transparent bidding system, refraining from influence peddling, rejecting commissions and gifts for official transactions, and telling their families and friends that the government does not owe them a life of luxury.

While we are at it, it would help if the spouses or families of officials are forced to disband or at least deactivate their so-called “foundations” (ha, ha, ha!) — that everybody knows are usually conduits for dirty money.

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MODEST LIVES: Problems weighing us down could be reduced to manageable levels if our officials obeyed the Constitution admonishing them to “lead modest lives.”

If officials and their families would just simplify their needs, there would be less need for more taxes to support their extravagant lifestyles.

It is high time officialdom paused and tried recapturing the “simple living” spirit of the 1962-1965 administration of President Arroyo’s late father, President Diosdado Macapagal, during whose term the Philippine economy was so robust it was second only to that of Japan.

As we grope for solutions to our gargantuan problems, it would help if officials reread, internalized and lived the opening Section of Article XI on “Accountability of Public Officers” which says:

“Section 1. Public office is a public trust. Public officers and employees must, at all times, be accountable to the people, serve them with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty, and efficiency; act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives .”

Officials have no moral right to make us take the first step along the path that they are not willing to take themselves. Before they prescribe the bitter pill, they should first take it themselves.

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PIE-IN-THE-SKY: President Arroyo keeps mesmerizing the population with the P80-billion pie in the sky that she said would drop on our lap if we passed the version of the VAT bill raising value-added tax by two percentage points to 12 percent.

Such a simplistic answer to revenue shortfalls will not work.

Assuming we can arm the government with a VAT law to collect, on paper, an astounding 70 percent of a P80-billion target, how much of that would be actually collected and made available for priority expenses after we subtract the cost of inefficiency, corruption and the usual bureaucratic leakages?

What is the administration doing in departments other than collection? There is not much talk and action on generating hope and enthusiasm, boosting efficiency as well as curbing corruption. Passing a revenue bill, by itself, is not the solution.

Let us not misrepresent the VAT as the bitter pill that would banish the fiscal malaise sapping our vitality.

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WHY THE RUSH?: There is no question that we need a kind of national ID (identification) system — in the same way that there are a lot of other things, many of them more important than an ID card, that we need urgently.

And the earlier we are able to have a national ID, the better. We should do it before there is a further proliferation of IDs aside from those from the GSIS, SSS, PhilHealth, Comelec, the post office, LTO, the local governments and barangays, and various other entities.

But before we rush into a national ID system, it might be best for the Arroyo administration to address many pertinent questions raised. For instance:

  1. Why is the administration in such a hurry? Who is rushing the project?
  2. Who are the lucky contractors waiting to corner the business of preparing the IDs and maintaining the system?
  3. How will the ID cards, by themselves, be useful without the necessary collateral hardware, technicians and systems needed to make the overall network function as envisioned?

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PERSONAL INFO: The administration said these data will be cryptographically printed in the ID: name; home address; sex; picture; signature; date of birth; place of birth; marital status; names of parents; height, weight; marks of two index fingers and two thumbs; any prominent distinguishing features such as moles; TIN (tax identification number); ID number issued by the concerned agency; and a reference number unique to the holder.

Some of these data can be omitted for being irrelevant, variable or too private, such as marital status, names of parents, height and weight, but as some would say, okay lang.

What is the guarantee that aside from the data on the face of the card, there is no other background data inputted in some central server where information, some of it bordering on infringement of one’s privacy, is available to those with access?

In this country, there is no such thing as confidential information in government files. Once personal data are kept in a government file, they are as good as having been published in the media.

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HIDDEN COSTS: At the generally assumed cost of P100 per ID card, the overall expense — just for the cards — is P8 billion for our population. No wonder somebody is rushing it….

There are other things that are not yet being mentioned, such as a national computer center to store, secure and backup the huge volume of information and make it readily available to those needing it. There is also the national computer network that must be laid out first.

The ID cards by themselves are useless unless they can be read electronically. We will need a dizzying array of gadgets to read the cards in airports and seaports, police cars, government offices and other places where the cards will have to be swiped to read them.

The hardware will be useless, and will deteriorate fast in time, if there are no trained technicians to use and maintain it. Where are these people and how much more do we need to recruit, train and employ them?

In short, this is not a simple project of setting aside P8 billion (while more pressing problems require more billions), or less than that amount if, as they said, we start the ID system with government personnel first.

* * *

SECURITY TOOL?: It was a good thing the government stopped repeating its hollow justification that the ID system was crucial to the US-led anti-terrorism campaign.

That rationale does not hold. In this country, criminal elements can secure or counterfeit any card that the government designs. People can assume multiple identifies and can secure multiple cards.

Since this is a poor country, not all points in our archipelago of more than 7,000 islands can be equipped with electronic card-readers. So the system will be porous in many places. As such, it is useless as a security check.

While we need a national ID system, instead of the existing plurality of IDs, we may not be able to afford such an ambitious project at this point. We cannot even pay decent living wages, pursue vital infrastructure, provide enough classrooms and books, safeguard public health, maintain the luxurious styles of our officials, et cetera.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 24, 2005)

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