16 Sep 2016
Topics ASEAN

The rule of law, at its most basic, means that the law applies to everyone equally. It means that no one is above the law. It is also popularly understood as “a government of law, not of men.” And, while the law may be harsh, it is the law. Dura lex, sed lex.

One of the countries with a strong rule of law is Singapore. The Singaporeans follow the law, not because Singaporeans are good, according to Dean Kishore Mahbubani of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), but because the laws are implemented. There are consequences if you break the law. “We don’t jump the queue. We fall in line.” – was how another professor at the LKYSPP illustrated equality before the law in Singapore. They have no padrinos and there is no palakasan. Everyone stands an equal chance of getting hired or promoted or meted out a just sentence, among other things. And because the laws are strictly enforced in Singapore, anyone can walk alone in any part of the country at anytime of the day or night without getting mugged, raped or killed. Businesses, both local and foreign, thrive. The Singapore government ranks Top 6 in the world for least corruption in the economy and as the most transparent country in the world. It ranks second to Switzerland in the World Competitiveness Ranking. It is rated as the No. 1 most business friendly place in the world. It also ranks for best quality of life, according to data of the Singapore Economic Development Board. The point is, if you have a strong rule of law, you’ll have a booming economy and a safe country where the quality of life is high. The rule of law results in meritocracy, safety and progress, or, to quote the founding father of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, “from Third World to First.”

Admittedly, the rule of law in the Philippines is weak. Kung makakalusot, lulusot. And why not? If the law is not applied equally to all, why should Juan or Juana dela Cruz follow it? “Catch me if you can” seems to be the attitude of many Filipinos who are wont to disobey a simple traffic rule, the payment of correct taxes and a host of other laws. But does this mean that Filipinos do not want the rule of law? If the historic win of now President Rodrigo Roa Duterte is any indication, Filipinos are sick and tired of the laws not being followed. They want change. And they want the laws observed. That is why 16 million Filipinos catapulted DU30 to the presidency in a historic and phenomenal win. Three months into the presidency, it is still too early to say whether the Philippines now has a strong rule of law that will transform it from “Third World to First.” Majority of Filipinos are optimistic though. Ninety-one percent of Filipinos trust that the President will indeed bring the Philippines to a better place.

There’s one wrinkle, however. The fight against illegal drugs, which is the centerpiece of the Duterte administration, shows two opposing faces: one face shows strict adherence to the law against drugs, regardless of the person’s stature – general, congressman, mayor, judge or an ordinary citizen; the other face shows disregard of the due process of law where drug suspects are killed without giving them their day in court. Our policemen and other law enforcers enjoy the presumption of regularity in the performance of their official functions and the President, who enjoys immunity from suit, has made himself clear that it is only in extreme situations where the life of the arresting officer is jeopardized, or put in peril, that he/she should shoot back at the suspect. The President has also put to task our law enforcers and ordered the dismissal of erring and abusive policemen. Hence, it will not be correct to attribute the extrajudicial killings of drug suspects to the police authorities and to the President without giving them any opportunity to explain their side. They, too, are entitled to the due process of law.

The police have presented data in the Senate investigation on extrajudicial killings that out of the more than 3,000 deaths (still rising), only about half of them were committed by police authorities where the suspects opened fire at them. They attribute the big part of the killings to drug cartels. This looks logical after the relentless fight of the administration against drugs that will result, if it has not resulted yet, in the loss of billions of dollars to these drug cartels. That is a big loss. An assassin or a mercenary is always readily available to kill for as low as P5,000.00 to P10,000.00. Do the math. In the meantime, lives are lost.

The rule of law will be here to stay in the Philippines if both the suspect and the accuser are given their day in court before they are judged “by the lawful judgment of [their]peers” or according to “the law of the land,” as enshrined in Article 39 of the Magna Carta and in Section 1, Article III of the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which states: “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor shall any person be denied the equal protection of the law.” Until then, a strong rule of law remains an ideal that all Filipinos should strive for.


Rowena Nieves A. Tan is an alumna of Harvard Kennedy School of Government and is the Presiding Judge of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 118 of Pasay City (Metro Manila).

This article first appeared on The Manila Times on 15 September 2016.

Topics ASEAN