Sunday, May 3, 2015

If you can't beat them

published April 27, 2015, The Standard
Customs Commissioner John Philip Sevilla resigned last week, supposedly because he cannot anymore stomach the politics that has prevailed at the bureau, even under this supposedly tuwid na daan administration.
Sevilla did not give some lame excuse about his exit—health reasons, for example, or time with family—just so he can extricate himself from this administration without burning any bridges.
In interviews with Rappler immediately before and after his resignation, Sevilla, a US-educated investment banker before he stumbled into government service, said specifically that the event that triggered his exit was the pressure on him to appoint lawyer Teddy Raval, head of the bureau’s Intellectual Property Rights Division as director of Enforcement and Security Service.
Raval’s appointment, according to Sevilla, was being pushed by the Iglesia ni Cristo, a popular religious denomination in the Philippines known for its rigid attendance rules and its ability to dictate on its members whom to vote for during elections.
Sevilla says he has never heard from the Iglesia itself that it really wanted to install Raval in the post. What is apparent is that “people from the government” who want to please the Iglesia are the ones exerting the pressure on Sevilla. Who these people are, he has not said.
This is not the only reason, however. In his year and four months at the helm of the government agency perceived to be the most corrupt, Sevilla has been getting text messages from various powerful people, not telling him to do this or that, per se, but requesting him to give certain favors to or appoint friends. According to Sevilla he has refused all these, because giving in to one will send him on a slippery slope.
He is quiet when asked whether he really resigned, or was asked to resign and by whom.
Soon after, the Palace and the Finance Department acknowledged Sevilla’s exit,  perfunctorily acknowledging his efforts at reform but saying that sometimes people reach a point when they must rest. And then they named former Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina back to his old post to immediately fill the gap. Lina owns Air21, a big cargo service provider, as well as several others. This should have been a red flag, but now the Palace tells us he has divested his interest in Air21.
(So it is possible to name a replacement at once. It makes one wonder why the government felt it had to put someone at the head of customs at once after taking its sweet time naming the head of other bureaus and commissions.)
What a waste. Sevilla’s training, skills and orientation made him the ideal person to reform and professionalize the bureau, which in the eyes of many is teeming with entrenched corruption that it is practically irredeemable. True enough, in his relatively short stint at Customs, Sevilla increased collections by 21 percent year on year even as these were still below target. He also filed administrative complaints against 30 employees in a bid to rid the agency of corrupt elements even as only one of these cases has been resolved.
He has greater, measured targets. He had been working on achieving a four-hour processing time by the end of the year. He also wants to have paperless processing. Early on, he had said that appointments to any post within the bureau should be on pure merit. Finally, he had staunchly rejected the idea that bureau insiders should  be given priority. It is the idea, precisely, to open up Customs to new blood, fresh ideas, and untainted approaches.   
Where he fell inadequate, as we know now, is in his willingness to compromise.
It’s a sad day for the rest of the country when a good official like Sevilla throws his hands up  in the air in exasperation, saying “I’ve had enough.” There goes another one who could have made a difference—but he’s just one person going against the politicians, the syndicates, all those who are part of the established order that benefit only the few and the powerful.
To hell with Daang Matuwid, indeed. Does one not really have an option but to give up and leave?
In the end, Sevilla tries to deflect the attention away from himself. He instead remembers the hundreds, if not thousands, of Customs employees, especially in the field, who make sacrifices and take risks every day, away from the glare of headlines. One, for instance, reported that his family was “visited” at home by armed men they did not know because he seized some illegally shipped goods at the port.
These people need and deserve a resolute, honest leader, in the same way we do not need and deserve a hypocritical, sanctimonious government that turns out to be as rotten as the others it claims to despise. 
adellechua@gmail.com

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