Calling a spade
Business World, 24 July 2013


…And the Reader is assured that there truly is no pun intended in this title, one of the very few I supply (usually the title of my column is in the editor’s hands).

First, there is the matter of the resignations of the two top officials of the Bureau of Customs (BoC), Ruffy Biazon and Danilo Lim, almost immediately following the President’s speech, during which he alluded to the BoC “whose personnel are trying to outdo each other’s incompetence.” PNoy mentioned a Department of Finance (DoF)-supplied estimate of 200 billion annual (presumably — he didn’t mention the time period) revenue loss from smuggling. If this DoF estimate is correct, then indeed the BoC personnel are not just incompetent, but grossly incompetent, and/or criminally negligent.

The President then exhorted, in his next paragraph, “conscientious employees” of not just the BoC, the Bureau of Immigration (BI) and the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), which he had also singled out for reprimand, but other government agencies as well, to do even more, that it was not enough to “lie low and hide inside your cubicle.”

But now comes the questions: if the BoC was “incompetent,” shouldn’t Biazon and Lim have been fired even before the SONA, and used as examples of what the Tuwid na Daan ethic should be? Or, if Biazon and Lim formed part of what PNoy considered as “conscientious employees,” shouldn’t they also have been fired because they must have been lying low and hiding inside their cubicles? What happened to the principle of command responsibility?

More to the point, seeing as he didn’t fire them, why hasn’t he accepted their resignations the moment they were handed in? Does that mean that he doesn’t plan ahead? Or does that mean that his displeasure with the BoC as reflected in his speech, was merely for show?

Why all this waffling?

In fairness to Danilo Lim, his resignation is reportedly “irrevocable” — meaning that the President has no choice but to accept it. However, the force of Lim’s irrevocable resignation is diminished somewhat by his failure to set an effectivity date to it — one recalls with nostalgia Manny Pangilinan’s irrevocable resignation, effective immediately, from the Ateneo Board of Trustees after that plagiarism brouhaha. Now that’s what I call a firm decision. Command responsibility. Class.

And now comes news that a third BoC official, Juan Lorenzo Tañada (obviously a member of the Tañada clan), also offered his resignation a day after the SONA. The operative word here is “offered,” because it seemed to be conditional on the President’s satisfaction (“kung hindi na siya masaya sa trabaho natin”). Frankly, I don’t think the late Senator Lorenzo Tañada would have approved of such conditionality in his grandson. In any case, given the harshness of the President’s SONA remarks, how is it possible that there is still doubt as to whether he is satisfied with the performance of his appointees? Does anyone think that the President was “masaya” with the BoC in any respect? Unless of course, everything was just a moro-moro among the administration officials.

What exacerbates matters is that while PNoy rejected the resignation of Ruffy Biazon, he accepted the resignation of the BI’s Ricardo David, who was former AFP Chief of Staff. We are given to understand that PNoy’s rejection of Biazon’s resignation was because he (PNoy) understands that the culture of corruption is deeply entrenched in the BoC, and that it will take some time to change it. Does that mean that the culture of corruption is not deeply entrenched in the BI, and that David had more than enough time?

We will now pause for head-scratching and shaking all around.

And then there is the matter of the criticisms leveled at the SONA. I agree with some of them. For example, instead of addressing the employment situation (are we, or are we not experiencing jobless growth?) head on, PNoy talks about the improved employment prospects of TESDA course takers, who in their totality represent only 1.3% of the country’s labor force.

The President also left himself wide open to attacks by bragging about the country’s diminishing rice imports (attributing it to our increasing self-sufficiency in rice), and by talking about intercropping for coconut farmers. If he had only asked his NEDA Director General Arsy Balisacan about it, he would have been told that in the first place, the mantra should not be self-sufficiency, but self-reliance; and that in the second place, while our formal/official/declared rice imports are diminishing, the smuggling of rice has become the equivalent of a sunrise industry. Arsy, by the way, would probably also have told him that unless farmers had more access to credit and more extension workers to help them (farmers, after all, have not benefitted from education), as well as access to markets, the intercropping plan would be nothing but the best of intentions paving the road to hell.

It must also be pointed out that the 2.9 billion that PNoy mentioned as the potential savings from DepEd’s Armin Luistro’s bringing down the price of 100 million textbooks for some 20 million public school students by 28 each, pales in comparison with the 10 billion — and still counting — losses from the ghost projects, not to mention other corrupt practices, arising from the legislature’s pork barrel. And yet, like the employment situation, this slap in the face of the Tuwid na Daan was ignored by PNoy. Another sin of omission.

Moreover, I wasn’t too enthused about his stirring — and misplaced — defense of the MWSS. What does its turnaround from losses to profits have to do with the fact that its concession agreement with its concessionaires is grossly disadvantageous to the government? Certainly, the present MWSS administration had nothing to do with the concession agreement — but it has no call to blame the concessionaires for expensing their income taxes, which is clearly provided for in the agreement.

On the other hand, many of the critics’ attacks are baseless — or rather, based on partisan politics and/or misunderstood analyses: their suspicion that the country’s excellent economic growth is the product of fudged data. Or their complaints on the general level of prices going out of hand. Or that the performance of agencies like the DPWH or the DBM, or the DFA have been greatly exaggerated. Or that water distribution should be nationalized (or de-privatized) or and re-regulate the oil industry. Or that the Conditional Cash Transfer program is a failure.

My suggestion: If the Reader wants a non-partisan take on the performance of the Aquino administration, go to the Movement for Good Governance Web site (full disclosure: I am nominal Chair of said group). Or, go the National Statistical Coordination Board’s Web site, and look for their StatDev. Both will give the Reader the plain, unvarnished facts.