A second chance to serve | Inquirer Opinion
At Large

A second chance to serve

“Why deny me this opportunity to serve my country?” asks Customs Commissioner Bert Lina, around whom has swirled a cloud of controversy over many cases faced by him and/or his many companies, and supposed conflict-of-interest clashes between the agency he now heads and his personal business interests.

But, guesting at yesterday’s Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel, Lina is quite clear that he is putting the whole conflict-of-interest business behind him. He has divested his interests in many companies, especially the brokerage and insurance firms that deal directly with the Bureau of Customs, he says. “It’s time to put closure [to the issue],” he declares.

Today, he works 12-14 hours a day, paying visits to the BOC offices as often as he can, and pleading with the public to “help me to get rid of corruption in the Bureau of Customs,” which has earned a rather unsavory reputation for the under-the-table (and even blatant) deals done on and off Customs premises.

But even this reputation may soon be undeserved, he declares, as computerization has made the so-called “facilitation fees” no longer necessary. From a slew of signatures needed on export and import papers, Lina says, in time the number of necessary signatures may soon fall to as few as “two or three.” And if successful, he says, the anticorruption drive at Customs can possibly net the national government “from P1 to P2 billion a year in savings.”

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That’s certainly a major accomplishment for a man who says the BOC is “close to my heart” because he’s been dealing with it since the 1960s.

And he has no need to enrich himself in office since he has already made his pile. “I will serve you and the country,” he promises, pointing out that his monthly salary of around P60,000 at the BOC is currently equivalent to “one hour of my expenses.”

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Just to illustrate that he is capable of walking away from Customs and all its alleged perks and privileges, Lina is not new to leaving the post. He was part of the “Hyatt 10,” the group of government officials who resigned from the Arroyo Cabinet in the wake of the “Hello Garci” scandal. “I walked away together with my boss,” he says of then and current Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima.

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So when he says he is back, to a chorus of accusations and brickbats thrown his way, because “I love Customs,” it is easy to believe him.

This, even if for all intents and purposes he has just under a year left to serve, given that things are gearing up for next year’s elections. But Lina is hopeful it’s still not too late for reforms. He is looking forward to the passage of the CMTA (or Customs Modernization and Tariff Act), which would address the long-term needs of Customs personnel and operations.

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Perhaps he sees his stint as a chance to finish the work he set out to do during his first term before it was unceremoniously cut short. For Bert Lina, there is such a thing as a second chance.

* * *

Bumitaw … bumitaw,” sang Idina Menzel, and at first Pinoys in the audience at her solo concert Sunday evening had a hard time understanding what she was saying.

Turns out she was singing her hit song “Let It Go” in Tagalog, even if her broad New York accent made it difficult to comprehend. Also, when she asked the local audience to sing the native version with her and practically no one knew the words, she exclaimed: “Oh, you know it better in English!”

All the while, the crowd was going wild, especially when a barefoot Menzel ran down the stage and picked up a little fan who was dressed as Queen Elsa from the movie “Frozen,” where “Let It Go” first became a worldwide hit.

Afterwards, Menzel, who had earlier complained about pulling a leg muscle, rued to her band members that “I can’t believe I picked up that little girl… Now my back is killing me!”

That was just one of many endearing moments in Menzel’s one-night-only concert at the SM MOA Arena.

Another memorable moment was when, while singing “No Day Like Today” from the musical “Rent,” where she originated the role of Maureen Johnson, the darkened theater lit up with the glow of hundreds of cell phones, proof of the continuing hold on the heart of Filipino fans of this breakthrough musical.

Indeed, early on, Menzel acknowledged that she had long been wanting to visit the Philippines because Filipinos were among her most devoted fans, “gathering before the stage door of my musicals even when I was just starting out.”

* * *

I emailed my daughter in New York about watching Menzel’s concert mainly to make her turn green with envy, but she replied that it was all right because “I saw Idina live on Broadway in her musical ‘If/Then’ and greeted her afterwards at the stage door.”

Okay, I’m upstaged, but I must admit that I thought of my daughter throughout the two-hour show, for it was she who kept mentioning Menzel years ago, long before “Frozen” or even before Menzel’s guest appearance on “Glee” as Rachel’s mother.

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I have my friend Sandra Puno and her daughter Steph to thank for taking me along to watch Idina Menzel, as well as the hubby for doing chauffeur duties that night. But I have the universe to be grateful to for this opportunity to cement my daughter’s and my joint fandom at the foot of the wonderful Idina Menzel.

TAGS: “Frozen”, Bert Lina, Bureau of Customs

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