President Benigno Aquino 3rd was piqued. In his State of the Nation Address last Monday, he revealed that corruption at the Bureau of Customs has perpetuated a culture of smuggling that has defied repeated efforts of government to weed out.
The annual loss from smuggling, lamented the President, is a staggering P200 billion. We share his disillusionment. The unrealized revenues could have funded key government projects. It could have expanded the reach of the conditional cash transfer program and helped lift hundreds of families more from poverty.
P200 billion could have gone to building more classrooms, hiring more teachers, buying more textbooks. Or it could have purchased more arms and uniforms, recruited more soldiers and policemen.
It could have backed up the P33 billion budgeted for improving more than 4,000 hospitals, rural health centers, and barangay health stations.
Those opportunities have faded now, all because Customs has failed big-time in damming the flow of contraband into the country. And the President has placed the blame squarely on the people who manage the agency.
“It seems that the Bureau of Customs is trying to break the record for ineptness,” President Aquino said. His harangue prompted ranking bureau executives to announce their resignation. Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon was the first, texting his intent to the President. His deputy for intelligence Danny Lim, said he was going to the turn in his irrevocable resignation yesterday. The BOC Deputy Customs Commissioner for Internal Administration, Juan Lorenzo Tañada, also submitted his resignation letter—but only to Commissioner Biazon.
Buoyed by the President’s rejection of his offer to quit, Biazon called a press conference to announce that a major reorganization of the bureau is in the works. He promised it will “surprise everyone as much as those statements given by President Aquino.”
This sweeping revamp will not spare anyone, the Customs chief vowed, adding: “‘Dial-a-friend’ or ‘Call-a-friend’ is not going to work this time around,” alluding to bureau officials and employees who have hung on to the positions by virtue of having patrons in high places.
Biazon revealed that his game plan is simple: “putting the right people in the right place, completing the automation system, and changing the mindset of Customs employees.” The plan looks admirable on paper, and we do not doubt the commitment of Mr. Biazon to make it work. But right now it is difficult to dispel the skepticism that looms like a dark cloud over his proposal.
Reinventing Customs appears to be an impossible mission at this stage for an agency where corruption has eaten away at the moral and ethical foundations. It is a house beyond repair. It needs to be torn down and replaced with a new structure.
There are calls to place the bureau in private hands. Its advocates believe there is redemption for Customs if a competent, experienced and upright private corporation took its helm. Privatization, they say, is the cure to the ills that have plagued the bureau for so long.
For a time the government hired the Societe Generale de Surveillance to inspect, valuate and certify to Customs goods coming into the country. The firm managed to frustrate smugglers and improve revenues. But for some reason, SGS’s contract was not extended and the contraband runners were soon back in business.
President Aquino is exasperated with Customs, and so are importers and other businessmen who have no choice but to give in to the demands of the corrupt and the inept. At this point, radical changes are worth considering. Privatizing the bureau is an option worth looking into.