In my previous watch as information secretary, I dealt with hundreds of foreign correspondents. Among them was an American news bureau chief in Hong Kong, who became a very close friend. He also became very close to  Run Run Shaw, the great Asian entertainment mogul. At the end of his long tour in Hong Kong, Shaw honored him with a magnificent farewell dinner. There Shaw gifted him a going-away present, which he unwrapped as soon as he got home. It turned out to be a very special gem.

It was almost midnight when the journalist saw what his friend had given him. At once he drove to Shaw’s residence to return the gift to his friend. He said he could not take it, if he was to remain true to his profession and they were to remain true friends. In the honored tradition of the news profession, he said, a newspaperman is free to consume what he can eat or drink at dinner, but anything beyond it would constitute corruption. Shaw understood his point, and he and the bureau chief decided to remain friends. 

On another occasion, an assistant of mine tried to help facilitate the hotel booking of a visiting US newsweekly correspondent. His principals got wind of it, and tried to nail him for allegedly receiving “hospitality” from a foreign government. There was no such thing, though: the correspondent had run into some trouble with his booking, and the employee happened to be around to help fix his problem. But such was the newsweekly’s zealous regard for its reputation that it did not want to give ground for any false accusations. I had to assure the newsweekly that the government did them no favors, and they owed the government nothing.

These two incidents come to mind in the face of President Rodrigo Duterte’s statement that it is all right for policemen to receive gifts from private citizens. To the credit of the Philippine National Police officials, none of them seem to agree with the President; to them it is enough that the police get a “thank you” from the public. In some countries, the police thank you for giving them the smallest opportunity to perform a service. 

I saw this first in Canada. On my first visit to Toronto, an old friend offered to drive me to Niagara Falls. But on the road our car began to emit smoke. Before we even noticed it, a Canadian police car was already escorting us to the nearest gasoline station where we could get some help. The police stayed until the problem was fixed, but before we could thank them for their kind service, they thanked us very warmly for allowing them to help. This gave me my first lasting impression of the place.

DU30’s statement on “gifts” has the opposite effect. Policemen have a serious duty to safeguard their reputation for incorruptibility in the performance of their duties. This should not be watered down or compromised, on orders of the President. Accepting gifts is clearly against the law, not just one’s code of ethics; the President should be the first one to insist upon it. It is not enough for him to say that policemen should not extort or solicit gifts; he should command them to decline all gifts except those from the closest relatives and friends, for reasons not related to the performance of their duties. 

If the President says they can accept gifts, it must be an exception to the rule and the parameters must be absolute. From whom and under what circumstances can they receive, and what is the maximum worth of what they can accept? The more important question is this — if a policeman can accept gifts from a private individual, can the President too? The members of the Cabinet? The Ombudsman? The Justices and Judges? The members of Congress? Where will “accepting” a gift end, and soliciting or extorting a bribe replace it? Is this not one hell of a slippery slope?

By what authority can the President now declare that a gross violation of a public servant’s code of ethics and the law is no longer so? Is it morally or legally binding on anybody? DU30 seems to believe he can do all this, without leave of the judiciary or Congress. In fact, he seems to believe he can abolish agencies created by law without repealing the law itself, and find officials guilty of serious crimes without due process, just by listing them in some so-called hate list.

Nearly 30 years ago, before the rise of today’s fascist leaders, the American author Yoshihiro Francis Fukuyama wrote a book titled “The end of history and the last man,” in which he argued that the spread of liberal democracy and Western market capitalism, following the end of the Cold War, could mean the final triumph of liberal democracy against all other ideologies, which had arguably long ended, according to Daniel Bell’s 1960 book, “The end of ideology.” Fukuyama’s prognosis is still waiting to be fulfilled. In the meantime, has DU30 come up with his own dogma—The End of Morality and the Rule of Law?

In our time, what is right or wrong is no longer what the law or moral orthodoxy says, but what DU30 says, in his latest turn of phrase.