Another role for Customs | Inquirer Opinion
At Large

Another role for Customs

/ 10:12 PM November 25, 2013

Perhaps the most precarious position in government is that of a Customs commissioner. Certainly, it is one of the most controversial.

The Bureau of Customs is often looked upon as a pretty good sinecure, since the commissioner, deputy commissioners and senior officials are “presumed” to be making a lot of money on the side. This is also the reason that, when charges start flying thick and fast about corruption in the agency—Customs being one of the most notorious or constantly under scrutiny for alleged anomalies—usually the first step taken is to fire the commissioner to appease the critics.

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But that’s not the only reason the post is seen as “precarious.” Since so many parties—importers, brokers, Customs officials and employees—stand to make a lot of money from smuggling or misdeclaring the value of shipments, a commissioner bent on reform must confront and withstand a slew of challenges—from black propaganda to “moist-eyed” contenders and rivals, to death threats.

Maybe that’s why when former congressman and defeated 2010 senatorial candidate Rufino “Ruffy” Biazon received a call from President Aquino offering him the post of Customs commissioner, Biazon was reluctant to accept the offer. He would have wanted another post—such as tourism secretary because “I love travelling,” he says. But when he asked for the “parameters” of his appointment, Biazon says the President simply said “ayusin mo lang (just fix it),” adding that the allegations of corruption in Customs had been a long-festering problem. “Just follow the law,” the President said in closing.

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These days, the “beleaguered” (a word often associated with the post) Customs chief, having served almost two years in Aduana, is convinced reform is essential in the bureau, but the “right” kind of reform.

“Don’t just change the players,” he declares, “change the game.”

Biazon is banking on the passage of the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act that aims to, one, “set international standards in customs operations, and make import transactions faster, predictable, efficient and transparent.” Second is to “promote and secure international trade, protect and enhance government revenue, prevent smuggling and other fraud against customs, and modernize customs and tariff administration.”

A third goal of the legislation is to make the Philippines compliant with the “Revised Kyoto Convention” of the World Customs Organization, to which the Philippines is a signatory.

“In most other countries,” says Biazon, “customs is no longer viewed as mainly a source of revenue. Rather, the customs bureau’s main mandate is seen as trade facilitation.” The aim, he said, is to ease the movement of goods across borders, earning governments additional revenues not necessarily just by collecting customs dues and tariffs, but more by increasing trade revenues, both from imports and exports.

Biazon’s critics cite the bureau’s “underperforming” record under his watch. But that is more because the Department of Finance, which has oversight over the bureau, has set higher and higher revenue targets through the years. For 2013, Biazon notes, the revenue target was set at P340 billion, and the Customs commissioner assures that he is confident they will be able to “reach P300 billion” by the end of the year.

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“If you track Customs’ earnings,” he says, “you will see that our earnings have been constantly rising, which is why our targets have also been set higher and higher.”

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Customs is right now in the midst of a reshuffling of personnel, even if many of the changes, confesses Biazon, were imposed on him by higher officials.

This follows the rather embarrassing mention made by the President in his last “State of the Nation Address” singling out the Bureau of Customs for alleged corruption and inefficiency. Finding himself frozen out of the invitation list during the Sona, Biazon says he was in a nearby mall when he heard the President’s declaration. Even before P-Noy left the rostrum, Biazon had already texted the President, offering his resignation. A few minutes later, Biazon received a reply, which closed with: “I have your back.”

Well, that back is feeling pretty vulnerable these days. The so-called “Three Kings” of Customs, all veteran deputy commissioners, have been suspended and shuffled off to a newly-created office that is supposed to study a reorganization plan for Customs. With Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence Danny Lim’s resignation accepted, a retired general was appointed in his place, without Biazon’s prior knowledge.

With much of the second tier of officials suspended or on “floating” status, replaced by inexperienced appointees, there has been an understandable slowdown in operations and releases. For this Biazon has also been blamed, even if he had little to do with much of the turmoil these days.

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Biazon says he had started off on a “reform agenda” that he hoped could have been implemented if he had been left alone to work with his chosen staff. The main points of this agenda?

“First is the modernization of tools and equipment (including the ongoing computerization program).” Second is the modernization of capacity and of personnel, including “the uplift of the morale and welfare of Customs personnel.” Last is the “modernization of our policies.” The entire effort, he emphasizes, hinges on the passage of the Customs modernization law.

He may be replaced anytime, by anybody, Biazon reflects. But in the end, given the chance, the changes and reform he wishes to instill in Customs should outlive his tenure. “They have to be long-lasting, institutional and irreversible,” he declares.

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