The farce at Customs
CANBERRA—In his fourth State of the Nation Address, President Aquino claimed that his administration “uprooted the culture of corruption that seemed firmly entrenched in our public institutions” in a record time of three years, and touted it as one of his achievements in the economic, political and moral transformation of Philippine society.
But he also lamented that “even today, there are still those in government who seemingly refuse to change. It is disheartening to discover the depth and breadth to which they have branched out in the bureaucracy; the moment we looked away, someone is sure to be taken advantage of or victimized.”
In plain language, his claim of uprooting corruption is delusionary and has no basis in fact—and he is telling us what he likes to believe in his artificial construct of empirical reality called the Sona. After a close scrutiny of independent data and official claims on results, it is hard for skeptical journalists to ignore the wide gap between the two.
Perhaps realizing that his claim has no leg to stand on, the President declared: “The time has come to name names.” He singled out three of the supposed worst offenders of his code of probity in the public service—the Bureau of Immigration, National Irrigation Administration (NIA), and Bureau of Customs, which share top spots in the “daang matuwid” regime’s pantheon of infamy. Charging with hammer and tongs, the President skewered Immigration for its failure to stop the flight from Palawan of the brothers Joel and Mario Reyes, the principal suspects in the slaying of Gerry Ortega.
“How could the escape of Korean Park Sungjun—as blatantly seen in CCTV footage—have taken place?” Mr. Aquino added. “He is wanted in [South Korea], and their government asked our assistance in securing his arrest. How can we face them now, when our own government employees are the ones who enabled his escape?” These incidents happened after the President had repeatedly admonished Immigration to improve its watch of the country’s ports and airports.
Castigating the so-called “make-do” culture at the NIA, which has tested his patience, the President said the agency officials were “merely content with the continued rehabilitation of existing irrigation systems” instead of laying out plans for new ones.
During the recent NIA anniversary, the President asked why only 60 percent of the agency’s target was accomplished in 2012 although 80 percent was reached in 2011. He told NIA officials that for 23 years, the agency had been receiving a full budget but was accomplishing only 60 percent of the work. In a talk with NIA chief Antonio Nangel at another occasion, the President asked him: Why is this so? Nangel’s explanation: 40 percent of the target areas were located in Mindanao and were devastated by Typhoon “Pablo.” That broke the camel’s back. On July 2, three weeks before the Sona, the President sacked Nangel.
The President reserved his most biting scorn for Customs: “And here we have the Bureau of Customs, whose personnel are trying to outdo each other in incompetence. Instead of collecting the proper taxes and preventing contraband from entering the country, they are heedlessly permitting the smuggling of goods, and even drugs, arms, and others of similar nature into our territory. The Department of Finance estimates that more than P200 billion in revenue slips through our borders without going into public coffers. Where do these people get the gall? One can almost hear these public officials say, ‘I don’t care if the weapons go to criminal elements; I don’t care how many lives are ruined by drugs; I don’t care if our fields are ruined forever. What matters is that I am rich.’ It’s every man for himself.
“Such practices have no place in government. If you cannot do your job, you do not deserve to remain in office.”
The harsh words shamed Commissioner Rozzano Rufino Biazon into submitting a quick offer of resignation, via a text message. Equally promptly, the President told the commissioner, also via text message, that he was not accepting the resignation. Biazon took this as a reaffirmation of the President’s confidence.
We don’t know exactly what the two said to each other, but we know that all those nasty things the President said about Customs took place under the watch of Biazon since he took office in 2011. We also know that Biazon is a member of the Liberal Party. The revenue collection shortfalls under Biazon have been criticized, fueling charges of incompetence.
The retention of Biazon has raised a number of issues, creating doubts on whether the administration is determined to carry out a top-to-bottom cleanup at Customs or is staging a farce to fool the public into thinking that reforms are taking place. These issues include:
• Is the President shielding the Liberal Party?
• Is Biazon the right person to undertake reforms?
• Is cronyism in the LP a roadblock to reforms?
After the President chastised Customs in his Sona, two deputy commissioners handed in their irrevocable resignations, unlike Biazon who took back his offer after talking with Mr. Aquino. The two were Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence Danny Lim and Deputy Commissioner for Administration Juan Lorenzo Tañada.
Following his retention, Biazon ordered all 17 Customs collectors in the Philippines’ ports of entry to vacate their posts to clear the way for a revamp. “Providing new leaders in the collection districts will at least give a fresh start on how to institute reforms down the line,” Biazon said.
With Biazon on top of the bottleneck, forget the dream of soaring revenues.
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