The 1988 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service
CITATION for Miriam Defensor Santiago
Ramon Magsaysay Award Presentation Ceremonies
31 August 1988, Manila, Philippines
Moral authority is the bedrock of democracy. Where corruption undermines public trust, even a popularly elected government can lose its legitimacy. All public servants are therefore called upon to keep the faith and discharge their duties honestly.
The Philippines today struggles against a debilitating legacy. Continuing scarcity for the majority, combined with years of uninhibited greed in high places, has corroded public morality. To some in government, selective application of the rules has become a lucrative way of life. Despite the call for a new national moral order after February 1986, the culture of corruption went on unabated.
Few agencies were so notoriously corrupt as the Commission on Immigration and Deportation. Here, bribe-taking officials enriched themselves on the anxieties of overstaying foreigners and on rackets in fake documents and marriages. So-called fixers prowled the immigration building. At the airport, "hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing" inspectors ushered paperless arrivees into the country for a fee. All this until January 1988 when MIRIAM DEFENSOR SANTIAGO took charge as commissioner.
Forty-three-year-old DEFENSOR SANTIAGO had won laurels as a student and excelled as a legal scholar. In 1983 she had become the youngest presiding judge in the Regional Trial Court of Quezon City. Known as the "Fighting Judge," she handled a record fifty cases a month by refusing to tolerate delays and postponements. Resisting pressure from high officials and the military, she gained a reputation for strict impartiality in applying the law. Setting the example personally, she insisted that the employees be efficient, competent, and honest. "No bribes or extortion" was the first rule of her courtroom.
As commissioner of Immigration and Deportation, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO set out to show that a "traditionally corrupt government agency can be reformed."
With breathtaking decisiveness, she threw out the fixers, transferred suspected bribe-takers from sensitive positions, and filed administrative charges against corrupt employees. She swept away corruption-breeding disorder and red tape. She declared war on crime syndicates and exposed drug pushers, pedophiles, gunrunners, and passport forgers.
At the same time, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO inaugurated streamlined, "user-friendly" immigration procedures to eliminate the need for fee-charging intermediaries. She set up an Express Lane Service, the surcharge for which now provides bonuses and overtime pay for her staff. And she lobbied for higher employee salaries.
Confronting the staggering consequences of her country's graft-driven "open-door" immigration system, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO sought simple yet effective solutions: self-deportation with amnesty for certain illegal aliens, and, for close to 500,000 other overstaying foreigners, an opportunity to legalize their Philippine residency. The hefty fee the latter pay goes to the state, not to bribe-takers.
With her sweeping, confident actions and outspoken ways, the commissioner has not endeared herself to everyone, least of all to her targets. Her life has been threatened.
Undaunted, DEFENSOR SANTIAGO punches the clock early each morning and carries forward her crusade for an efficient, competent, and, above all, corruption-free immigration service. Deeply religious and an unapologetic moralist, she is not too sophisticated to say simply: "Honesty is the best policy."
In electing MIRIAM DEFENSOR SANTIAGO to receive the 1988 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes her bold and moral leadership in cleaning up a graft-ridden government agency.
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