Everybody’s business

“Keep your business out of politics” is a piece of hush-hush advice that is, more often than not, given to many fledgling entrepreneurs. Corruption issues, a poor judicial system, and red tape constantly hound the private sector; appeasing unscrupulous officials, or even colluding with them, is seen as an easier way of “doing business”. The end result is an atmosphere that discourages middling industrialists from getting in the way of those in power.

Yet lately, the Makati Business Club (MBC), perhaps ranking among the best known business associations in the country, has engaged in a rare streak of criticism against government actions.  Founded toward the end of the Marcos regime, MBC aims to promote “the role of the business sector in national development efforts”, including economic and social issues.

In the past month, the club and its allied associations have joined civil and progressive groups in voicing dissent against the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, calling for a veto of the then-unsigned bill. MBC itself declared its vehement opposition to the enactment of the bill, owing to “clear and present danger” posed to human rights enshrined in the Constitution.

The handing of the guilty verdict to Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa over charges of cyber libel was also castigated by the MBC, citing its “chilling effect on journalism at a time we need it most”. The forced closure of ABS-CBN was also opposed by the group, calling for the renewal of the media giant’s franchise.

MBC’s vocal antagonism for the shutdown was not without backlash. In a recent piece, The Manila Times columnist Rigoberto Tiglao described MBC’s declarations as “sickening” and “irresponsible”, accusing its senior officers, particularly the group’s Chairperson Edgar Chua and Vice Chairperson Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, of playing expert. Tiglao chided, “Commenting on political issues is not MBC’s business.”

One can speculate that the group is being vindictive in light of recent antagonism from President Rodrigo Duterte against utility companies Maynilad and Ayala-owned Manila Water, and ABS-CBN, the largest television network in the country. The economic stagnation stemming from pitiful government response to the COVID-19 crisis may have opened the opportunity for dissent, especially with Duterte’s open apology to Ayala and fellow magnate Manny Pangilinan for “hurting words”. But even as politics spills blatantly into affecting business operations, engaging in sociopolitical issues remains tricky for the corporate sector.

Business executives actively supporting stances on social issues is certainly not new, especially in more capitalist economies. Among business figures, one of the best known, and perhaps the most scorned, for philanthropy is Hungarian-born investment baron George Soros, who has actively funded liberal and progressive organizations supporting human rights, drug policy reform, and women’s rights worldwide. This also made Soros a target of usually antisemitic conspiracy theories, owing to Soros’ Jewish heritage. Many other billionaires also engage in philanthropic endeavors of some sort, sometimes to support more conservative outlooks.

Philanthropy, however, is not universally welcomed. From an ideological viewpoint, conglomerates and their activities are either highly lauded or immensely detested.

From one perspective, the mere existence of big business, and to an extent the affluent class, is seen as a systematic failure, where lopsided capital accumulation has been allowed to continue uninterrupted. On the other hand, the emergence of conglomerates and enterprises can also be viewed as only corollary to the prosperity brought about by the market system. The debates on this topic, delving much into political, social, and economic systems, are incredibly extensive, to say the least.

But this dispute over ideology is not detached from reality. Peering into the pages of Philippine history, business and politics have, in fact, intersected in ugly ways numerous times. One can certainly remember the circle of cronies groomed by former President Ferdinand Marcos, the Jueteng controversy that cost Joseph Estrada his presidency, or the NBN-ZTE corruption scandal under former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, not to mention the equally shifty deals that regularly happen at the local government level.

Crossing from politics into business, or from business into politics, does not seem to be an ideal way to engage in national issues—in fact, it may have more to do with furthering self-interest rather than a genuine intent for public service.

With those issues in mind, the reality now is that Filipino business groups again, in a rare instance, have voiced disagreement with government policies outside of pure economic or business matters.

Should executives be more outspoken in favor of civil liberties? Absolutely, at an unprecedented pace. The times increasingly behoove business leaders to play an intensified and active role to steer society toward structural reform and public officials toward effective policymaking that benefits ordinary citizens. The precedent has already been set and momentum has to be sustained.

And inevitably, companies will also have to tackle injustices that still occur among their ranks. Labor rights, inequality, and environmental justice will make a reckoning, sooner or later—even the embattled ABS-CBN was not spared from being the focus of allegations of unfair labor practices.

With the influence that the private sector continues to hold, it must continue to make a stand on longstanding issues and make a greater commitment to improve the public good. After all, it is everybody’s business.

Gershon De La Cruz

By Gershon De La Cruz

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