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10:00 PM July 28th, 2013

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July 28th, 2013 10:00 PM

The harsh words were President Benigno Aquino III’s. “It’s like the Bureau of Customs is competing to be incompetent,” he said in his fourth State of the Nation Address. “Instead of collecting the right taxes and stopping contraband, it seems they [Customs personnel] are ceaselessly letting trade slip through, as well as illegal drugs, arms and other such into our territory.” The question is: Is the President now open to the trial balloon Customs Commissioner Rozzano Rufino Biazon floated last April, that of abolishing the bureau in its entirety?

Upon hearing the President’s harsh language against corruption and incompetence in the Bureau of Immigration, the National Irrigation Administration and Customs, Biazon immediately offered to resign—in a decidedly post 20th-century way, by sending President Aquino a text message. Aquino reaffirmed his confidence in Biazon, also via SMS.

Emboldened by the President’s new expression of support, Biazon late last week ordered all 17 Customs collectors to vacate their posts, to prepare the way for a revamp. “It’s logical that we start with the district collectors. Providing new leaders in the collection districts will at least give a fresh start on how to institute reforms down the line. We will focus next on the examiners, assistants as well as other personnel in the bureau,” Biazon said.

This is a major initiative; the Customs collectors represent the country’s 17 major ports of entry (among them, the Port of Manila, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and the Manila International Container Terminal) and as such (together with the 37 subport collectors) may be the most important officials in the Bureau of Customs.

Biazon acknowledged the popular perception: “There are 17 collection districts, 17 kings and subkings.” But he said he did not subscribe to that view: “I don’t acknowledge or recognize kings, they’re collectors under the authority of the commissioner.”

We will find out soon enough whether these are mere brave words, or whether Biazon has sufficient political will to remove underperforming or corrupt collectors. Under the law, his appointments are subject to the approval of the finance secretary, but in reality, the choice of which collectors are removed or retained is Biazon’s.

If all or most of the 17 are merely reassigned to other collection districts, then we can expect nothing much from this so-called revamp; it will be merely cosmetic.

“A good performance record is definitely a plus factor,” Biazon said, identifying the criteria he will use to choose the new collectors. “We’ll also check if they are [the] subject of complaints, their level of notoriety, among other things.”

Perhaps he should also check with the President. When Mr. Aquino assailed those officials in Customs for whom the only thing that matters is getting rich, surely he must have had some persons specifically in mind?

But even assuming that every single corrupt or incompetent official in the bureau has been identified and replaced, there is no guarantee that the agency will work as designed—because it remains subject to the very “powerful forces” that retired general Danilo Lim referenced when he tendered his resignation as a deputy Customs commissioner.

These forces, Lim said, prevent genuine reforms from taking root in the agency. But the former coup plotter and elite soldier stopped short of naming names.

Any consumer of the news can make a guess: Could these powerful forces consist of the President’s own Liberal Party perhaps, or Vice President Jejomar Binay’s busy United Nationalist Alliance, or ex-Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s unrivalled political network, or the politically influential Iglesia ni Cristo, or powerful businessmen, or indeed all of the above? The ordinary citizen is reduced to guesswork, because no one, not even Lim, would say.

That’s a shame. Lim can render real service to the country by talking straight and telling us exactly what he knows. Information about who pulls the strings in Customs is by itself a necessary reform.

Necessary, but insufficient. Judging from President Aquino’s own scathing remarks, the culture of the Customs agency is rotten to the core. A revamp or two, no matter how high up, will not be enough. It’s time to reconsider the idea of abolition.

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