Tough talk is good, but…

By Val G. Abelgas

President Aquino appeared very tough and seemed serious when he dressed down erring and incompetent bureaucrats during his fourth State-of-the-Nation Address last week. The President, who won on a reform agenda in the 2010 presidential elections, echoed the common complaint of many Filipinos for decades: that the bureaucracy has become so corrupt and so incompetent that it seemed impossible for the country to get back on the right track.

Aquino has vowed to eradicate corruption and the “wang-wang” mentality among government employees and officials, but three years since he took over the presidency, the general feeling is that it is “business as usual” for these erring bureaucrats.

“But let us be honest: Even today, there are still those in government who seemingly refuse to change. It is disheartening to discover the depth and breadth to which they have branched out in the bureaucracy; the moment we look away, someone is sure to be taken advantage of and victimized,” Aquino said in his speech.

“And for those employees who refuse to turn their backs on the culture of wang-wang: my patience has run out. You were given three years to demonstrate your readiness to change; now, I shall pursue all of you and hold you accountable. No hard feelings,” the President continued.

If indeed Aquino is hell bent on crushing these erring public servants as he appeared to be in his speech, then there may still be hope for our country. But then, just a few hours after the much-applauded speech, Aquino seemed to send mixed signals when he rejected an offer to resign of Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon, whose agency, the graft-ridden Bureau of Customs, was one of three offices that bear the brunt of the presidential anger. Aquino basically consoled Biazon by saying he continues to trust the customs chief.

The comforting words to Biazon offered no comfort to the people who expected Aquino to bring down the ax to whomever it should fall, friend or foe alike. That Biazon failed to even make a dent on the corruption that pervades the customs bureau or improve the agency’s revenue collection efforts after several months in office should have been unassailable proof that he has failed as head of that agency, and should have, therefore, been the first to go.

Not even the claim of Deputy Director Danilo Lim, he who distinguished himself as the idealistic and rebellious military leader, that “powerful forces” are preventing them from instituting reforms in the agency, should have saved Biazon because he had not shown the political will that was needed to reform the customs bureau. Nobody told them reforming the Customs bureau would be an easy task.

Now that he has decided to keep Biazon, Aquino should give the young former congressman the full authority and support to institute drastic reforms in the bureau. Biazon, for his part, should start seriously cracking down on the erring officials and employees by firing and prosecuting those found to be corrupt. He should also go after customs brokers who have made a mockery of the country’s customs laws by offering bribes to virtually all levels of the customs bureaucracy – from the guards to the clerks to examiners and port collectors – to get the shipments of their clients out of customs without paying the appropriate taxes and duties, if they ever pay at all.

Brokers offer to get importers’ shipments out for a fixed amount that are often much less than the estimated tax or duty that would be levied on the cargo. They would then assign fixers who would make sure that the needed papers are processed fast and that the taxes to be paid are just a little percentage of the budget accepted from the importer. Thus, the government gets just a negligible amount of what it should legally take. Sometimes, no taxes are paid at all.

It is common knowledge that a broker or importer’s representative can’t get inside a customs office without bribing the guards, or have their papers processed without greasing the messengers and clerks, or have the import documents signed without a payoff to the signing officials, or get a low tax appraisal without kickbacks to examiners and collectors. The government pays these bureaucrats to do their duties, and the importers and brokers pay them more so they wouldn’t.

According to sources, these erring importers, brokers, customs examiners, and port collectors are under the protection of powerful officials from both Malacanang and Congress who exercise appointive and budgetary powers over the bureau.

Last January, Biazon ordered a reshuffle of officials to include two of the alleged “three kings” in the bureau. But the two, who reportedly enjoys the backing of two ranking government officials, have remained in their lucrative posts despite failing miserably in curbing corruption and hitting their target collections.

Biazon should not make the mistake of merely reshuffling the 12 port collectors. They would just continue their shenanigans in their new assignment. He should dismiss and prosecute the erring collectors if he finds incontrovertible evidence against them. He should also go against other ranking Customs officials found to be in cahoots with importers.

Sending these corrupt officials to jail and confiscating their ill-gotten wealth would send shivers to other recalcitrant customs and other government employees, and hopefully make them think twice before violating the people’s trust.

If Aquino has the political will to really change the errant way bureaucrats are performing their duties, he should start at the Customs Bureau by really pouncing on the corrupt and the incompetent and sending them to jail. He should also order a crackdown on customs brokers who have enriched themselves by cheating the government on behalf of their equally corrupt importer-clients.

By truly reforming the customs bureau, the Aquino administration would serve warning to other corrupt agencies and officials and, at the same time, significantly increase government revenues needed to improve the economy and alleviate poverty.

Such an undertaking needs not just tough talk, but serious and sincere action. He has to send a strong message that he means business, not business as usual.