A time for change | Inquirer Opinion
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A time for change

A lot has been written about the change of leadership at the Bureau of Customs in the past week, much of it speculative. Well, I know Bert Lina well and have worked with Sunny Sevilla during his term, so let me give a (perhaps) more informed analysis.

First, Sunny. And I can do little better than quote Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima:

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“I thank Commissioner Sunny Sevilla for his dedicated service and relentless pursuit of good governance in the Bureau of Customs. The numbers do not lie: As head of the Customs Reform Team, he has helped grow the bureau’s collections by 21 percent year on year in 2014 versus 5 percent in the prereform period, transformed Customs to be one of the most radically open and transparent agencies in government, made government regulation more efficient for doing business in the country, and taken great strides to thwart graft and technical and outright smuggling by filing cases, and alert orders and seizures against erring importers, brokers and officials. The Bureau of Customs is the most improved national government agency in terms of revenue collection last year, thanks in no small part to the person who led it.”

Inquirer columnist Ramon Farolan made the same point. Given this glowing, and deserved, commendation, one has to wonder why the President so readily agreed to let him go.

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I like Sunny because he tells it like it is (my lifetime theme); he’s unquestionably honest and a decent man. He has made some impressive change in a bureau that most thought could never be done.

But if he’s to go, Bert is an excellent choice to replace him. Yes, Bert has been heavily involved with Customs over the past 36 years, having six companies that deal with the bureau daily. That’s what makes him a good choice: He knows the workings, including the dirty workings, of the personnel there. Plus he can build up morale and trust among officials and employees of the bureau given his well-grounded, constructive and hands-on management style that comes from experience in building and running successful business organizations.

There is, of course, the risk of conflict of interest. There’s the suspicion that even if Bert divests himself of the six companies that deal with Customs, as he has promised, they’ll still get special treatment. And why would he divest for such a short time? Well, on the latter he can readily afford to give them up; he’s been very successfully running 18 companies in everything from courier services to providing solar systems.

Anyway, he keeps the 12 that aren’t directly involved with Customs. He comes into the bureau rich enough not to need to steal, and with the desire to leave a legacy of achievement in government service. Sounds trite, I know, but it’s true. His earlier attempt was thwarted by the scandal of the Arroyo administration’s apparent manipulation of the 2004 elections—“Hello Garci,” remember. He was one of the “Hyatt 10,” resigning after a few five months of heading Customs because, like the other nine, he couldn’t work for a leader that had acted in such a questionable manner. This allows him to finish what he started.

As to special treatment for his divested companies, he’d be pretty foolish to do so considering that everyone will be watching closely.

He came into the bureau when Purisima was finance secretary before, at a time when Customs was besieged by the challenges of below-target collections and delays in clearing shipments. So he can work well with Purisima. And it is almost certainly a reason he was chosen: Purisima trusts him.

I asked Bert and he confirmed that he’ll continue the programs of Sunny Sevilla, particularly the strengthening of the “Customs ng Bayan” website, a portal that regularly releases trade activities in each of the 17 main collection districts of Customs, including the value and volume of goods imported and customs duties collected per port; tightening of the accreditation procedures for importers and brokers; codification of all products that require import permits; implementation of the Balikbayan Box Tracker, an online system that allows package senders to monitor the status of their items; and the filing of more administrative cases against erring Customs personnel.

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After just a week in office, Bert has charged two traders and two customs brokers for the illegal importation of steel products worth P3.98 million. They were charged under the bureau’s RATS (Run After The Smugglers) program that Bert launched in 2005.

There’s a humanitarian side to Bert, too. His Customs Clearance Facility at the Tacloban airport was converted into a storage and distribution facility and its personnel as packagers of relief goods. He even organized donations from the Lina Group employees for the victims of not only “Yolanda” but other calamities as well, and provided portable toilets—something that too often seem to be overlooked.

Another good choice of the President is the new chair of the Commission on Elections. He’s another man I know well and greatly respect—Andy Bautista, of unquestionable honesty and decency and, ever so important, with no political alliances or obligations. Like Bert, Andy was a businessman: He was CEO of Kuok Group Philippines. The investments of the Kuok Group in the country include all the Shangri-La hotels and resorts here.

As chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government since 2010, he has increased remittances to the national treasury by almost 500 percent, from P268 million in 2011 to P1.57 billion in 2014.

It gives one hope that the President will make equally wise choices for the Philippine National Police and the Department of Energy (where I hope he’ll choose an electrical engineer).

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TAGS: Bert Lina, Bureau of Customs, Sunny Sevilla
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