As it turns out, the startling proposal was merely a trial balloon, with an unusual twist: It was the proponent himself, Customs Commissioner Rozzano Rufino Biazon, who was on trial. Abolish the Bureau of Customs and start from scratch? “We might have to do that,” Biazon told Inquirer editors and reporters some two weeks ago.

The unsubtle pushback from Malacañang was immediate. “It’s just one of many ideas being discussed to improve collections,” the strategic communications secretary, Ricky Carandang, informed the Inquirer the day the news hit the headlines. “The fact that it’s being discussed at all shows you how seriously we are taking the need to improve collections, not necessarily the idea of abolition.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that, by precisely issuing a nuanced rather than a forceful, black-or-white response, the Palace was distancing itself from Biazon. The Customs chief, an almost successful candidate of the Liberal Party for the Senate in 2010, is in some trouble, for a perceived failure to stem the tide of corruption in Customs and especially for failing to check what industry players themselves allege is rampant oil smuggling.

There is a third option: Biazon is signaling that Customs, perennially included in any list of the most corrupt institutions in government, is a hopeless case.

Let’s think about that for a moment. We do not hear Biazon saying that the bureau he runs, the second largest source of government revenue, can no longer “improve collections.” After all, improvement is relative, and may be won through forcing through greater efficiencies. But an institution can register improvements in efficiency without ridding itself completely of corruption.

When an institution’s corruption is entrenched, Biazon said, “one concept done by other countries is a complete overhaul through abolition.” In other words, collections can improve, and yet the greater problem of a thoroughly corrupt culture remains.

We are not prepared to say that, as in Sodom and Gomorrah, there are not even 10 righteous men in all of Customs. But listen to the tongue-in-cheek argument of someone like Sen. Chiz Escudero, who contests Biazon’s idea of abolition.

Escudero “said in jest that customs officials should have uniforms without pockets to discourage on-site bribery, and clear-glass-topped desks without drawers to prevent heftier enveloped payouts from changing hands in the offices,” reporter Michael Lim Ubac wrote.

“And if they will not do it,” Escudero said, “I will file a bill [placing] cameras in all government offices and make it a crime to erase the recordings of these cameras.”

Escudero may not share Biazon’s conclusion (abolish the bureau and start all over again), but he certainly seems to share the Customs commissioner’s main premise (corruption is so entrenched that “desks without drawers” and cameras trained on Customs employees themselves may be part of the solution).

Does President Aquino think the same way, too?

Perhaps he should. He spent enough time in the House of Representatives and in the Senate not to know that behind the smoke of perception is the fire of habitual corruption. What can he lose by assuming that the entire bureau needs to be completely overhauled? Only the chance to make radical, rather than merely incremental, change.

This is not to say that the rights of Customs employees should be ignored; other government institutions have been thoroughly revamped before, including the central bank, and at least one major agency, the Presidential Commission on Good Government, is preparing to shut down. As in those cases, employees who are deserving can be posted to other government offices, or rehired under the new institution, or granted the necessary separation pay and benefits. But there is nothing in the Constitution that says that the Bureau of Customs, like the poor, will always be with us.

We do not know whether abolition is in fact the right solution. That is the crux, and the President needs to determine it for himself. But Biazon’s bold proposal has the effect of forcing Mr. Aquino’s hand, perhaps right after the distraction of the midterm elections.

Biazon has effectively declared war on his own bureau. The only way he can wage it is with the President’s unwavering support. If Mr. Aquino thinks there is an outside chance that the agency can be saved in its present form, he needs to start looking for another savior.

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Tags: Bureau of Customs , Government , Rufino Biazon

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