IT was nice while it lasted.
The sudden departure of John Sevilla from the Bureau of Customs (BOC) back in April under a cloud of rumors that he was being pressured to maintain ‘business as usual’ – i.e., to turn a blind eye to rampant theft and extortion, because that would compromise the BOC’s role as a backdoor funding stream for the current regime’s electoral machine – was a huge disappointment. Sevilla was genuinely liked by most businesspeople in the shipping and import/export sectors, and while he understandably faced a mountain of skepticism from the media and the public – the reputation of the BOC is such that the skepticism is inevitable – he seemed to be making progress.
With the appointment of businessman Alberto “Bert” Lina to replace Sevilla, it seems sleaze has returned to the BOC. Lina, who had a brief and unremarkable stint as Customs Commissioner under former President Arroyo, has done little to assuage fears that irregularity will once again be SOP. In fact, Lina apparently decided that shocking everyone by borrowing a page from his President’s Handbook of Stupid Decisions was the best way to find a direction in which to lead the BOC. As a consequence, he may have severely handicapped the Philippines’ ability to compete effectively once the Asean Economic Community (AEC) is launched later this year.
One of Lina’s first moves after returning to the BOC was to cancel a P650-million IT project for the Bureau, a system that would have greatly streamlined customs processing, made it more secure and less vulnerable to cheating, and created an electronic “single window” where all the regulatory and permit-issuing agencies would be available to import/export locators and brokers.
This was not really news until earlier this week, when Atty. Harry Roque, who has made a noteworthy career of being the sand in the government’s Vaseline, publicly raised the issue again by accusing Lina of conflict of interest. Roque is representing the winning bidder for the BOC IT project, the partnership of Omniprime Marketing and Intrasoft International Inc. A subsidiary of the Lina Group of Companies, EKonek, was one of the losing bidders.
Lina’s reasoning was that, “There are existing systems that can fulfill the needs of the bureau, which are potentially at least 50 percent cheaper than this amount [P650 million],” and further added that, in order to dispel suspicions that he has a personal stake in the matter, EKonek would be prohibited from bidding on the project again.
We should take Lina at his word, because there is no actual evidence of any conflict of interest involving him or his company. Even if there were, it could not possibly make Lina’s decision to cancel the properly bid and awarded Integrated Electronic Customs Processing System (I-ECPS) Project any more stupid or less harmful.
The I-ECPS is vital, because the “single window” concept is one of the most important components of the trade regime envisioned for the AEC. According to the AEC blueprint, the Philippines should have operationalized its single window as far back as 2008; the global financial crisis and the subsequent upheaval caused by the election of Aquino in 2010 completely destroyed that timeline. I-ECPS would have gotten the Philippines back on track, or very nearly so, in time for the AEC launch this year. With its cancellation, there is now absolutely no chance the country will make the deadline. The AEC will come into force on or about November 21, meaning that Lina and the BOC have just over five months to recreate the specifications and terms of reference, conduct the bidding process, and finalize a contract for a supposedly cheaper alternative to I-ECPS.
It will not happen in time, it probably will not happen until well into the next Administration’s term, and everyone except Lina seems to realize that. Of course, given the utter stupidity of his publicly-stated reasons for canceling the contract, it is no surprise any sort of forward thinking seems to escape him. Lina should be reminded that the target date for the single window was seven years ago, and that the initiative has been discussed in detail since at least 2006; if there were actually ‘an existing system’ that could do the job, it would be doing it already. The excuse that lower costs should trump all other considerations regardless of what stage the project process is in is equally asinine. If the I-ECPS project as bid and awarded met the technical specifications, was offered, reviewed, and contracted according to proper procedures, and had a cost that represented value for the money and was affordable for the government, then there is nothing wrong with it, even if the cost for a different system might be lower.
Without a single window, the Philippines will be at a huge disadvantage; customs processing represents a considerable cost in money and time to traders, and that cost makes it worthwhile to bypass a particular market if processing and costs are easier to manage in an alternative market. The Philippines as an exporter or an import destination does not otherwise offer too much that is unique compared to its Asean peers, and will lose business to them if it continues to make doing business here more difficult. Lina, as a businessman with deep interests in trade (his promise to divest himself of possible conflicts of interest, according to knowledgeable monitors of the BOC and the Securities and Exchange Commission, has not exactly been pursued with alacrity), would be expected to know that. That he apparently does not, or has chosen to ignore it only deepens suspicions that sleaze has returned to the BOC.