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Sisyphus’ Lament

Lesson from Sevilla’s resignation: OFWs stay away

I HAVE never met John Philip “Sunny” Sevilla, but I hope to buy him a drink after his high-profile resignation as head of the Bureau of Customs stole last Friday’s headlines.

I have interacted with Sevilla only once. A good friend left his overseas management consulting job to join the Department of Finance and, late one night, I indulged myself in a rant against Customs on his Facebook wall. I posted the crystal-clear 2011 order from Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima ordering that books imported in small quantities for personal use be exempt from customs duties, in line with the Philippines’ treaty obligations. I angrily described, however, how I have paid duties on books despite the clear regulation.

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Duties on books shipped via courier are automatically paid by the courier and one has no chance to contest the clearly invalid duties. I previously pointed this out on Twitter, tagging Purisima and Sevilla’s predecessor. I did receive an immediate response from Customs, but I was asked to go through their refund procedure which would involve paying a P500 administrative fee and referring back to the Customs unit involved in the former Clark Air Base. I gave up in sheer frustration, a sentiment I unfairly vented on my friend that night.

After several minutes, Sevilla himself intervened in our debate, posted the link to the online copy of the order he gave in 2014 specifically reiterating the exemption for books, and told me to show it to any Customs unit or courier who said otherwise. This did not address the inane refund process, but how many heads of bureaus personally answer queries from irate citizens in the middle of the night? There is clearly a reason why the saddest, most defeated reactions to his resignation I have seen are from friends in government.

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Sevilla was an exemplar of brilliance and perseverance, based on personal accounts and news articles. This was a bureau head who worked weekends and spent Christmas Day at airports, visiting Customs personnel working on the holiday. Reporters clearly do not understand the context of his credentials, and do not appreciate what it means to have been an executive director in the elite global investment bank Goldman Sachs. Charles Ellis’ 2009 book “The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs” highlights the number of Goldman alumni tapped to become US Treasury secretary and other senior government leaders, and the Philippines was lucky to get one.

Beyond abstract moralizing, Sevilla carefully studied bureaucratic process in minute detail and championed practical solutions such as using technology to minimize human intervention and therefore opportunity for corruption, making procedures and information transparent, and reviewing requirements to eliminate needless signatures and redundant steps, shortening turnaround times. And beyond technocracy, he exhibited old-fashioned leadership by example, and he was still describing the great personal risk honest Customs staffers expose themselves to when interviewed after his resignation.

The question we should all be asking is: Is the Philippines now so prosperous that it has the luxury of unceremoniously discarding a public servant like Sevilla? Are our government ranks already swelling with Ivy League graduates and alumni of the elite international investment banks, private equity funds, management consultancies, and law firms? Obviously not.

Why, then, do we continually lament indecisive leadership in our government and bewail how our country has yet to produce a visionary statesman like Lee Kuan Yew, yet we fail to express our disgust over how someone like Sevilla can quit government in frustration? It is nothing short of collective insanity that we would publicly mourn the elimination of anyone with a hint of Filipino ancestry from “American Idol” or “The Voice,” but be far less emphatic over Sevilla. Why do we in the abstract beg young overseas Filipino workers to come home but so readily belittle their hard-won knowledge, spit on their credentials, and bully them into relearning the so-called Filipino way of doing things, which can be a simple excuse for bad habits or laziness to improve the status quo?

Do we truly yearn to improve our government and are we willing to match the personal sacrifices made by the likes of Sevilla to pursue a simple vision of no-nonsense meritocracy? And where was the media attention on Sevilla’s initiatives when he was in the trenches, considering the attention now focused on him now that he has resigned? Is this not like how we realized how grateful we were to have a Jesse Robredo only after his tragic passing, a little too late?

Our country may not realize the full cost of letting someone like Sevilla resign. This is not a matter of losing just one talented and incorruptible public servant. Thousands of idealistic young Filipinos read last week’s headlines, including many who are proving their mettle in international arenas. They must be telling themselves that one had better think twice before coming home, and think a thousand times before being crazy enough to consider serving in government given what happened to someone of Sevilla’s caliber.

Lee famously said that there is nothing like “a good dose of incompetent government” to jolt people into reflecting over good government, and this was a head of state who actively, consciously, sought out the best and brightest of his people for government service. We seem to be a country that makes it impossible for our best and brightest to serve, and one can only wonder how long we have been overdosing on Lee’s prescribed medicine without result.

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React on Twitter (@oscarfbtan) and facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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TAGS: Bureau of Customs, John Philip Sevilla, news, political pressure
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