I HAD this idea that the military officers assigned to run the various government agencies during the martial law years all spoke in a language that literally barked orders, crisp and curt, to the point, and crafted like telexes from generals to their men in the battlefield. Until, as a young reporter newly assigned to the waterfront beat, the Bureau of Customs included, I attended a brief press briefing about a major smuggling bust.
I was in the business of stringing words into sensible paragraphs (even with my limited formal education) so I took notice of what seemed to be an outlier. The Air Force colonel cum customs commissioner who gave the briefing spoke in clear, complete, carefully constructed sentences, as if the major smuggling bust he was talking about – a crime actually – had to be explained in words that would not displease E.B. White. Col. Ramon J. Farolan, the customs commissioner, had the easy option of stating the bare facts – the language be damned – and we, the reporters, would be all right.
But no. Throughout the brief press briefing, he never wavered from his complete, grammatical, literate sentences as if throwing a warning to the reporters who looked like young men (except for July Sison of the Evening Post we were all young then) who couldn’t even spell: write decently if you cannot write well.
Literacy, the facet not at all related to clearing the mess at the customs bureau, was my first impression of the Air Force colonel cum customs commissioner. Mr. Farolan, of course, was more than that.
First the key men, then the systems.
Col. Farolan, despite his military background, was unlike the tough men like Cesar Climaco and Jose Lingad who worked to clear the stink at the customs bureau through the force of their personality. Straighten up or else. Reform or vanish.
Because he never packed a gun and because he could never summon the words to verbally threaten the crooks at the BoC, he designed the clean- up of the Augean stables the modern way – use the best men and the most effective systems. Peter Drucker/Paeng Salas come to the unwieldy ports.
His key men were young recruits from the Navy. I can remember four: Guillermo Parayno Jr., Bienvenido Alano Jr., Romeo Malig andAraw Bernabe. Alano was Annapolis-trained while the three others were, like Farolan, trained at the Philippine Military Academy.
(Of the four, two, Parayno and Alano, would later move up to more prominent government positions. Willie Parayno became BoC commissioner himself, then BIR commissioner. Alano would later head the Bureau of Immigration. Malig became the first Filipino head of the Manila office of the American President Lines. I do not know what happened to Bernabe.)
The genesis of Parayno’s reputation as a “systems man“ was at the BoC during Farolan’s time, where he led the customs intelligence and investigation unit. Parayno was the naval officer as nerd, a soft-spoken young officer with oversized spectacles. He was always clutching papers and had a ready smile for the reporters, his pleasant way of leaving them in a huff to avoid answering questions. Malig, Alano and Bernabe never smiled – and never talked to reporters. Information about crooks, about major smuggling busts, about syndicates and about collusive customs brokers were coursed through the commissioner.
The most visible partnership was the Parayno-Malig tandem because of the nature of their jobs. Parayno was intelligence and Malig was operations.
In a bureau that had cast the Farolan group as overzealous arrivistes, and where talk of corruption and hypocrisy are often vetted as true, there was no single idle talk on a corruption case that involved the Farolan group during my time as BoC beat reporter. Probably because there was none. There was a coordinated effort to find fault with that group, unearth a single blot, expose a moment of indiscretion. Even the bitterest enemies of the Farolan group, customs lifers who were marginalized by the group, failed to produce a single story of compromise and corruption.
For a young reporter aching to go into the major beats and get stories into Page One, the BOC under Farolan became a deadend, a coverage so routine that you immediately sensed what would await you there – your professional stasis. There was so much order and system in that place. And in such a setting, there would be no Page One stories.
You appreciate the efficiency and integrity. But as a reporter, you want sensational, big stories on corruption and official indiscretion. Who would want to read stories about customs collection goals of the Limay sub-port? And a BoC commissioner who was more literate and more careful with words and usage than the journalists covering him? Fortunately, a refugee ship from Vietnam, a cargo ship of Panamanian registry but manned by a Filipino captain, sought refuge at the Port of Manila. And it generated so many banner headlines that it became my ticket out of the waterfront beat.
Now, in the time of shabu, tara and a commissioner who is too outspoken for his own good – and with the BoC back to its role as a thriving haven of smugglers and customs crooks – one is forced to yearn for the quiet and efficient ways of the old days when a decent man who paid attention to the nuances of the written and spoken word and ushered in systems into a moribund, tradition-bound place, was commissioner of customs.