Last week’s expose by Lt. Col. George Rabusa ripped open a Pandora’s box of corruption that implicated three former military chiefs-of-staff. He is expected to reveal more including implicating former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
The reason Rabuza can expose it is because he was part of it. Many more people allowed this corruption to happen in plain sight and continue to help spread it by staying quiet. By choosing to expose this endemic corruption, Rabuza performed a redemptive act, but how can he have been part of this system for so long? How can good people turn evil?
I attempt some answers. On Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011, multinational company MSD asked me to keynote their national conference – a group of about 500 people, 400 of them in sales. They asked me to address ongoing corruption between medical representatives and doctors – as insidious a problem as corruption in media. The fact that MSD made it a principle to fight it and are telling their med reps to veer away from it was something I wanted to be part of. This was the speech I gave.
The Courage to Do What’s Right
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you tonight. When Marco called me, I was with my family – my parents from Florida, my sister from LA, another sister who moved to Manila from NY. We were just getting off a plane – the first real break we’d had together in six years. Because of the timing of the request, I would’ve said no to anything else but it’s very hard to say no to this topic – how to be successful AND be true to your values and ethics. Thank you to each of you – and to the management of MSD – for caring about it … and for asking me to put my thoughts together for you tonight.
I KNOW you can do both, but it’s not easy to be both successful and ethical in our country today. Corruption is endemic. It infiltrates so many aspects of our lives. Influence-peddling is the name of the game. Conflicts of interest are all over the place. I found many Filipino organizations have a difficult time even defining what conflict of interest means. It’s too easy to rationalize particularly when it means more money or influence.
Sometimes doing the wrong thing seems to be the only way to get ahead. I’ve heard so many Filipinos say that – particularly the street-savvy operators who are trying to get you to do the wrong thing!
You have to find the courage to say no. You have to do what’s right – not just for your company, but for yourself. You have to find and set this line – a line you promise yourself you will never cross – because crossing that line means you’re turning from good to evil. It’s that simple. And you must make it that simple.
Why? This insight came from a dinner I had Tuesday night with an accomplished, incredible group of five women, fellow awardees for the TOWNS – Ten Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service. All 5 are doctors – two medical doctors, three PhDs. Everyone at the table was a teacher, and everyone had chosen to leave a western nation – from the US, London, Australia – in order to come back – to come home to the Philippines.
This group tries to get together at least once a year to support each other in our work, and to give each other feedback from our different fields. Our topic Tuesday was corruption and how we choose to fight it in our society. One woman said she was tired and needed to pull back. Another talked about how people who try to do the right thing seem to have to work so hard and get paid so little. Still a third said she was surprised at how good people can turn so evil – how people she knew from college are now so corrupt, and yet they don’t seem to understand nor feel that they are doing anything wrong!
That was the insight: corrupt people don’t think they’re corrupt. Just like evil people don’t think they’re evil. Because getting there starts with one small step across a line.
Once you take that first step and cross over, the succeeding steps become easier, and before you know it, you’re not just corrupt but are now corrupting others. This, for me, is like a reverse tipping point. You know the book by Malcolm Gladwell? The subtitle to the Tipping Point is How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The idea is that it’s the little steps that begin the change that simmers beneath the surface until the system hits critical mass, the boiling point.
When did we become endemically corrupt as a nation? The point when enough people took enough small steps to make it that way.
We have to change it. How do we do that? By understanding how we got there. It starts with each person making a choice. Draw the line in the sand. Do not cross it.
The most dangerous decision is that first one – when you move from being perfectly clean and idealistic … to being tempted … to wanting it… and then accepting it. Don’t do it. Once you do, it’s a slippery slope. Define that line and DO NOT CROSS it. If you’ve already done it, pay special attention to the four step program at the end, ok?
As a journalist, media corruption is a fact of life. Politicians, company officers and government officials have said they’re flabbergasted by the number of journalists on their payrolls. I ask, “why don’t you stop paying and expose them?” They say they can’t because they’re afraid if they don’t pay, they would be attacked. It’s so prevalent the radio guys coined a term for it – “AC-DC” – Attack-Collect-Defend-Collect.
Of course, paying also works in favor of the newsmakers: if they pay, they control what’s written or said about them. They know when it will come out, and what type of exposure and PR they can get. That certainty, for them, is worth paying journalists. So the cycle feeds itself.
Young journalists say no because they’re idealistic, but after a while, they start to see the way things really work. They begin to get disillusioned. The lines begin to blur together, particularly since so many of their elders are doing it.
Then the real test comes – the offer that’s hard to refuse. Everyone gets that. If you pass that test, chances are you’ll stay clean your whole professional career. It’s a tipping point in a positive way. You’ve already said no to the hardest offer to decline – the one you wanted the most – so everything is easy. But the tipping point works the other way if you accept.
It starts with envelopes of money in press conferences. When I was with Probe, I thought, let’s make it easier for the newsmakers and publicly state our position against what we called envelopmental journalism. So we did.
Strangely, other journalists – our colleagues – were critical of us for raining on their parade. During that time, it seemed to me that the clean journalists were the ones who were ostracized and cowed into silence. They didn’t trumpet their beliefs because they were afraid others would say they’re “nagmamalinis” – even if that really was what we should be doing. Our cultural values somehow doesn’t extend to making others ashamed to be corrupt. A friend explained it to me this way: “I have no right to take that money away from his kids.”
There are some simple truths. The more you say no, the easier it becomes. The more you do the right thing, the harder it is to do the wrong thing. It’s a tipping point approach to building your identity.
My line in the sand was defined long ago. The tipping point happened in the mid-90’s – when the fiancée of one of my closest friends offered me $150,000 to do a story for CNN. It wouldn’t be traceable, he told me, and it would be deposited directly into my bank account. He gave the offer over lunch, and although I wanted to say no immediately, he held my hand and said, please take at least a night to sleep on it and think about it. I did.
I was shocked. I didn’t even tell my friend. That night, I thought about it. But then reality stepped in. My sense of self is tied to being a professional journalist, and I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if I accepted the bribe.
I had drawn the line clearly, and I knew that accepting that money would make me a fundamentally different person. On this side of the line, I’m good. On the other side, I’m evil. It’s that simple.
How do I define evil? I like the definition from a book I’d encourage everyone to read: THE LUCIFER EFFECT: HOW GOOD PEOPLE TURN EVIL by Philip Zimbardo. He did the famous Stanford Prison Experiment – when he took a group of ordinary students and put them in a mock prison, randomly assigning some as guards, others as prisoners. In less than a week, he had to stop the study when the ‘guards’ became increasingly sadistic and the ‘prisoners’ pathological. He analyzes these findings in the context of what American soldiers did in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons.
It shows how situations – culture if you will – can make good people do bad things because they conform, comply, obey or are seduced by the circumstances. They join the group. They justify. They rationalize.
These findings helped explain many things about Philippine society to me – endemic corruption and election violence, particularly heinous crimes like the Maguindanao massacre.
Zimbardo gives evil a psychologically based definition: “Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others – or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.”
The second part is as important as the first part because it means that you can’t turn away and pretend you don’t see evil done when you have the ability to stop it. It’s a culture we need to create.
How do you do that? Let me jump a little here because it reminds me of the Princeton Honor Code, which each Princetonian writes on every single term paper, every single exam: one single sentence that says you have not cheated and – this is important – you promise to turn in anyone who does.
Teachers leave the students alone in a room, hand out test papers, and put them on their honor. It’s brilliant in part because it uses peer pressure. Even if you tried to cheat, can you be sure everyone in the room will cheat with you by not turning you in? Even worse, are you willing to compromise not just your honor but everyone else’s? You’re part of a tradition that dates back hundreds of years, and you can’t let the institution, your friends, and your family down. It was always with a sense of pride and great honor that I signed that pledge.
In my six years as head of news, I tried to bring that culture in – to use peer pressure to redefine up rather than down – to live according to our ideals. So we wrote a Standards & Ethics Manual.
We took a zero tolerance approach to corruption. No matter who you are, if you accept a bribe, you will lose your job. Instead of accepting offers, our people started reporting them. We proved peer pressure can also work in a good way!
I discovered a lot more than I bargained for. One employee reported an offer for about P12 million for a series of stories on one issue. It uncovered a systematic attempt to influence policy through news reports. Once you become aware, you can pick these stories in our major papers.
Elections were another matter. In Nov 2009 – months before the May 2010 elections, several people at our desk reported political candidates who offered sizeable monthly atm deposits in exchange for stories. We met with the candidates who made those offers and told them that if they didn’t stop, we would do stories about their bribery attempts. We would start a series called corruption watch. I told them they didn’t need to pay for stories.
Several of the candidates candidly said you know if we didn’t do this, other journalists would be upset and write against us. “We’re only protecting ourselves,” they said. One talked about having to run a covert media campaign and asked for help finding someone who could run black ops. We gave them a grace period to stop and said we would run stories exposing these practices.
So let’s go back to Zimbardo’s definition of evil. He summarized all of this in one sentence: he said evil is “knowing better but doing worse.”
Knowing better but doing worse.
What does that mean for you? I’m told most of you are med reps – what MSD calls Professional Healthcare Representatives. Two questions for you to think about. What is your relationship to the doctors you deal with? What role do you play in giving quality healthcare to Filipinos?
At dinner Tuesday, the two TOWNS doctors were very vocal about this controversial relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the medical profession. They talked about how doctors accept free trips, junkets, expensive gifts and favors.
They said doctors rationalize: “Everyone is doing it.” “I’d be stupid if I didn’t take it.” “The budget is there anyway.” I like this one -“I don’t have to do what they want anyway.” I’ve heard the same excuses from journalists who accept bribes – and encourage others to do the same. It’s like a virus that spreads.
Corruption cuts across our industries. This is a challenge for all of us. You know your reality better than I do. You have your business targets. So the question only you can answer is – what are you willing to do to get what you want? Where do you draw the line you will never cross? Where on this side you’re good, on the other, you’re evil?
How do you define your own individual battle for integrity?
The tipping point starts with each of us as people. Then it goes to your company. Merck’s values include these statements: “We are committed to the highest standards of ethics and integrity. We are responsible to our customers, to Merck employees and their families, to the environments we inhabit, and to the societies we serve worldwide. In discharging our responsibilities, we do not take professional or ethical shortcuts. Our interactions with all segments of society must be transparent and reflect the high standards we profess.”
Fantastic. A question for all of you: does MSD live up to its stated values? If you do, how do you fight against those who take shortcuts, who are unethical, who do evil?
Let me end with four ideas that have helped me find the courage to do what’s right:
1. Be excellent at what you do. Work hard. Everything begins there.
2. Be self-aware. Ask yourself the tough questions and give honest answers. Be aware of how your actions affect others.
3. Take responsibility for what you say and what you do. Will you act this way if everyone can see what you’re doing? Statements like “only following orders” or “everyone else was doing it” abdicates responsibility. Remember, how you behave is completely under your control.
4. Find your allies. Once you find the courage to say no and take responsibility for your actions, you reverse the tipping point for evil and begin to tilt the balance the other way. Fight the group that will drag you down. Find the group that will raise you up. You’ll need help.
I wish you stamina and much courage for the battles ahead. If each of you decides to draw the line, you make a choice for good. It will make a difference for you, your family and your company. But it goes further – and gets much bigger – than that. When you put all our efforts together, we can push the tipping point for our nation.