Aquino’s uncaring bureaucrats

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

Outraged Filipinos trapped in traffic, trying to make both ends meet, and appalled at the unremitting corruption in government, have been cursing the Aquino bureaucracy, which teems with people who seem to have been chosen for their posts not only because of their closeness to their boss, but also for their capacity to make life even more difficult for the long suffering people of this country.

In addition, they also demonstrate on an almost daily basis their common contempt for the poor and powerless. But by so doing these bureaucrats are actually doing everyone a favor.

For example, Joseph Emilio Aguinaldo Abaya, a member of the ruling (as in a monarchy) Liberal Party, a three-term member of the House of Representatives, and currently Benigno S. C. Aquino III’s Secretary of Transportation and Communications, has unwittingly enlightened us on how badly some have been misled into thinking that government functionaries care about anything other than themselves and the perks of their office.

In one of those rare moments of bureaucratic candor, Abaya betrayed how the Aquino bureaucracy — or for that matter every high-level bureaucrat including Aquino himself — regards the people.

When asked what the administration he serves intends to do about the horrendous traffic jams in the National Capital Region (and presumably in other cities), Abaya said the traffic situation “isn’t fatal.” He followed that comment with the even more clueless “clarification” that the traffic mess is “not burdensome to the daily lives of the people.”

His remark about the supposedly non-lethal quality of the chaos in the streets that has literally brought the capital to a standstill recalled Aquino III’s own riposte in the aftermath of typhoon Yolanda in 2013, when he sneered at a complaining local official that the official shouldn’t be whining; he was still alive, wasn’t he?

Lesser minds apparently think alike. They share the same contempt for the people they pretend to acknowledge as their bosses, while secretly regarding them as their coolies and servants. That’s because they don’t go out much — not in the same way most Filipinos do when they leave their homes for work or school.

Abaya and company have never had to wake up before dawn so they can get into line at the nearest Metro Rail Transit or Light Rail Transit station. He hasn’t had to sweat bullets when the air conditioning fails. He hasn’t had to risk his life each time a coach breaks down or loses its brakes. He hasn’t had to take a bus that requires an eternity to travel a kilometer. He hasn’t had to waste gas while his car engine idles when sandwiched between a jeep, a bus, and a taxi — all of which, like the country of our sorrows, are at a standstill and going nowhere. And neither has he had to pray that he won’t be held up, abducted, shot or raped when in a cab stuck in EDSA whatever the hour.

Abaya did apologize for his remark by calling it “insensitive.” “Insensitive” was also among the curses hurled at another Aquino bureaucrat, Customs Commissioner Alberto Lina, for his plan to inspect balikbayan boxes for contraband.

“Insensitive” and other choice epithets such as “cruel” and “callous” were also among the descriptions netizens threw at Lina — although no one said stupid, idiotic, and self-serving.

Aware of the political fallout it was generating, Aquino III stopped Lina from implementing his plan a day after he had endorsed it. But the fact that Lina even thought of it should forewarn everyone that he can still devise other means of bleeding overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) — and that Aquino is there to listen.

On the authority of his own unconfirmed calculations, Lina had claimed that the country is losing P50 million a month, or P600 million a year, in duties on taxable goods in excess of P10,000 in value that OFWs supposedly bring into the country. Lina also claimed to be have found, among others, refrigerators and 16 TV sets during one inspection, a claim that provokes the question of how on earth all those appliances could have fit into a balikbayan box — unless he was referring to a container van and not a box. In any event, the Lina plan of random inspection implied that whether one is an OFW, an immigrant revisiting the country of his or her birth, or a returning tourist, everyone’s a suspect.

Granting that that is indeed the case — that OFWs, visiting immigrants, and returning tourists have been using balikbayan boxes to smuggle taxable goods into the country — have Lina and his gang at Customs ever bothered to ask what the country gains from the remittances of OFWs and other Filipinos abroad? OFW remittances in 2014, says the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, totaled $26.92 billion, or P1.20 trillion. Compare those figures to the P600 million that Lina claims is lost annually from untaxed balikbayan box contents, and it immediately becomes apparent that rifling through and stealing their property — which happens too often in the most corrupt and most inefficient agency of government — is not the thanks OFWs should be getting for keeping the economy afloat.

And does it really make sense for OFWs to smuggle guns and drugs into the country?

Studies on the goods balikbayan boxes contain have in fact established that the most common goods OFWs bring in after years of taking care of other people’s children, scrubbing toilets, and doing peon work, are appliances for personal use, chocolates and candy, toiletry, perfume for relatives and friends, etc.

Lina’s plan would have been an attempt to stop a hemorrhage with a band aid, if the intent — and it’s a huge if — was really to curb smuggling. Estimates of revenue losses from smuggling range from P50 billion a year to P100 billion. Rice smuggling alone costs the government some P21 billion in taxes.

In addition to rice, other agriculture products such as garlic and onions, luxury vehicles, even ceramic tiles and practically everything that can be marketed and sold are also smuggled into the country, despite — sometimes with the help of — the Bureau of Customs. And Lina would have gone after people who last year contributed over a trillion pesos to the economy but whom he claims cost the government P600 million in uncollected taxes each year?

The unreasonableness — the cruelty, injustice and ingratitude — of it all prompted OFW organizations, netizens, and even senators to demand that Lina rethink his plan. Lina had been citing the law to justify it, but it would have been interesting to see him and his lawyers tangle with Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who, if she’s anything, is one of the country’s most brilliant lawyers.

Lina’s foiled attack on OFWs couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Aquino III administration, there being only a scant eight months before the 2016 elections.

The politicians running for various posts next year, including the Liberal Party’s putative allies (Senator Ralph Recto, for instance), before Aquino stopped it were having a field day bashing Lina and the administration and being widely applauded for it.

Sure, much of the bashing was politics-driven, but much of it resonated not only among OFWs and their friends and relatives, but also among many Filipinos who can’t help but notice the disparity between calling people your bosses and making life even more difficult for them than it already is.

But no, the lesson in all these is not merely to vote for the so-called opposition in 2016; it’s to throw all the rascals out of the State and into the nearest landfill. Filipinos should thank bureaucrats like Abaya and Lina for once again showing them that they can expect no help from their ilk, and that the only ones who can help them are themselves — in the same way that, without the jobs an efficient and caring administration should have assured everyone, 6,000 Filipinos leave the country daily to find them elsewhere.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in Business World
August 27, 2015

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