Reform Performed: Aquino, Corruption, and Change in the Philippines

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Reform Performed: Aquino, Corruption, and Change in the Philippines

A Public Lecture by Mark R. Thompson

Please click here for the playlist of the video recordings of the lecture.


April 15, 2013 (Monday), 10:00 a.m.-12:00 noon

Third World Studies Center, Lower Ground Floor, Palma Hall, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City


Philippine president Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III, known as ‘PNoy’, has based his presidency on the carefully scripted promise of political reform in a country not noted for good governance. With arrest of his unpopular predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the removal from office of the Supreme Court chief justice for amassing ‘unexplained wealth’, Aquino has used the previous administration as a convenient foil for reformism, while at the same time sidelining political enemies. In terms of ‘political time’, Aquino is an ‘orthodox innovator’ who has restored the reformist narrative constructed for his ‘saintly’ mother. This discourse had been pre-empted by Joseph Estrada’s ‘populism’ (until a ‘people power putsch’ cast him out of office as a decadent and sinful politician). It was then betrayed by the ‘apostate’ Arroyo (whom critics portrayed as an electoral manipulator and a corruptress of state institutions). Although the Philippines faces grave problems of persistent poverty, economic inequality, un- and underemployment, inadequate infrastructure, environmental degradation, armed insurgency, criminal syndicates (many with links to the state) and general lawlessness, this venerable political discourse of clean politics has led foreign observers, most middle class and many poor Filipinos to conclude Aquino has been successful in the first half of his term in office. The Philippines has even ‘re-branded’ as a new Asian success story. Buoyed by sound government finances over the past two decades and the rise of new service sector industries (particularly call centres), strong economic performance makes it easier to convince domestic and international audiences that now the Philippine state is being cleaned up as well. The Aquino government’s failure to pursue a re-industrialisation strategy, mount other broad-based efforts to combat poverty and reduce inequality, or crack down on state-linked syndicates has received much less attention. In the current Philippine context, the appearance of good intentions to improve governance seems more important than actual social structural or institutional change.


Mark R. Thompson is director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC) and professor of politics at the City University of Hong Kong. His interest in the Philippines began when he was an exchange student in the MA program of the Political Science Department, University of the Philippines from 1984 to 1985. His first book, The Anti-Marcos Struggle (Yale and New Day, 1995) focused on the opposition to the Marcos dictatorship. More recently he has written about the competition between ‘reformist’ and ‘populist’ narratives in Philippine politics. He is currently co-authoring a book manuscript about the Philippine presidency.

Organized by the Office of Former UP President Dr. Francisco Nemenzo, the UP Diliman Department of Political Science, and the UP Third World Studies Center.