It’s a hostile environment for the commissioner of Customs

As I have said before, the post of commissioner is one that works in a very hostile environment. The record shows that very few commissioners have served beyond two years, some even holding the post for only a few months. The bureau’s history is rife with quick turnovers of leadership, which is one of the contributors to the difficulty of having a successful customs reform.

Destabilization of a sitting commissioner, especially one who is pursuing reform, is a given especially because there are many sectors who want to preserve the status quo of the "kalakaran (practice)." Some will move heaven and hell or spend a fortune just to remove a sitting commissioner for various reasons – some for business interests, some for political reasons, or some simply want the job for themselves. (READ: Biazon: Politician backers worsen Customs corruption)

Media ops, rumors

In my case, I was just about 3 months into office (I assumed the post September 2011) when rumors started circulating that I was going to be replaced as commissioner. With still almost a year to go before the senatorial elections, and without any statement coming from me, word went around the Bureau and in media that I was going to be replaced since I was going to be a senatorial candidate in the 2013 elections. 

Another supposed reason cited for my replacement was that the BOC under my leadership was not meeting the target, even though I was not even 6 months into office. The rumors were rife, to the point that it undermined my leadership and it had an impact on my effectivity. 

Any commissioner pursuing an agenda of reform in the Bureau is bound to face opposition and even retaliation from those who stand to lose if there is a change in the status quo. With the high stakes and huge gains they get from the kalakaran in Customs, it is the height of naivete to think that they will not try to sabotage and undermine the reform agenda of the commissioner or destroy the reputation of the commissioner himself. And with the resources at their disposal, you can be assured that the width and breadth of their influence is multi-sectoral.

One of the tools that are used by those who would undermine a commissioner’s reform agenda is the media itself. Frequent and constant black propaganda or “media ops” against the commissioner and the reform agenda can make the public believe that the reform efforts are insincere, a failure, or ineffective. A commissioner, who only has the in-house public information office with a limited budget to communicate to the public, is no match to a well-funded operation against him.

What makes it worse is when authorities jump in on the issue, based on the propaganda that come out in media, and pounce on the commissioner as additional pressure. During my time, the BOC was called to face legislative inquiries by both houses because of stories that came out in media. The strange thing about it was that the BOC intercepted and seized smuggled goods and yet we were questioned by the legislature about our actions.

Destablization efforts

If the BOC leadership is unstable, the smugglers and others who benefit from the kalakaran are the ones who gain. When there is uncertainty on whether a commissioner will stay in office, there are some in the ranks who become lax in supporting or implementing the programs initiated by the commissioner. It becomes a reason for stakeholders to be cautious and even slow down or withhold transactions for fear of their shipments being caught in the middle of a leadership change which may bring with it policy changes. This results in the dip in collections since transactions slow down, something that can be added to issues that may be thrown against a commissioner. 

Such destabilization efforts may be due to several motivations – one, to retaliate. A successful reform program will lead to the halt of the activities and income of affected illegal businesses. Another is that it could be part of a political agenda where customs may play a part in. While still another motivation is that someone just wants the job so bad and the sitting commissioner is in the way.

There was even one rumor during my time that someone who dearly wanted to get the post had already begun accepting goodwill money from certain BOC officials which were meant to ensure that they get good assignments upon the person’s assumption into office as commissioner.  Unfortunately for those who allegedly gave goodwill money, the person never assumed the commissionership.

BOC DAYS. Ruffy Biazon, then Customs commissioner, checks some seized goods. File photo by Rappler/Jose Del

BOC DAYS. Ruffy Biazon, then Customs commissioner, checks some seized goods.

File photo by Rappler/Jose Del

I have been told that there have been commissioners who left the office, either voluntary or by removal, who were the subjects of such destabilization schemes. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons why there have been only a few who serve beyond two years as commissioner. The mortality rate is high. 

Instutionalized, irreversible reforms

But the frequent turnover of leadership is one of the factors why reform programs seem to lose momentum. There is no continuity especially if each commissioner who assumes the post has his or her own idea of what needs to be done. Most of the time, we have been tactical in approaching customs reform. What we should consistently do is base the tactics on an overall strategy.  (READ: FAST FACTS: Changing leaders at the Bureau of Customs)

Customs reform should be institutionalized, irreversible, and sustainable in order for it to be successful. Unfortunately, quick leadership turnovers prevent us from achieving institutionalization, irreversibility, and sustainability.

A strategic, not just tactical, approach is necessary if we wish to attain the level of success that customs administrations in other countries have achieved. Because of the quick turnover of leadership in the past decades, we have been unable to sustain whatever gains from reform initiatives by commissioners.

Previous initiatives such as automation and use of technology, like the completion of the National Single Window, the upgrade of the Customs electronic system with paperless transactions, use of GPS technology for cargo tracking and other programs that reduce or limit human intervention, should be pursued by the new leadership.

Passage of the customs modernization bill is also a must. Not only will it update the law to the needs of the current global trading environment and make the Philippines compliant to our international commitments, it will also modernize an outdated law and reduce opportunities for corruption.

True Customs reform goes beyond the replacement of people. It must include modernizing infrastructure and policy. I hope the next leadership will be able to pursue it before the end of the current administration. –