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For the funds of it

/ 12:49 AM April 27, 2015

OKAY—business learned to live with the fact that the Bureau of Customs, or the BOC, was already the most corrupt agency in the entire corruption-ridden bureaucracy in this country with a rotten corruption record.

Despite the boast of our leader Benigno Simeon about his anticorruption feat, we were still ranked low, at a very poor No. 85, in the 2014 corruption perception index, as surveyed by Transparency International.

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Based on the latest from the BOC, the business sector would have to brace itself up for an even more intensified “collection effort” in the bureau, particularly with 2016 now only some months away.

It was clear, suddenly, there was only a single way to look at the departure of former BOC chief John Sevilla from the bureau: It was premeditated.

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That should be a rather telling sign to business people, particularly in their struggle to speed up BOC release of imported equipment and raw materials, not to mention their attempt to curtail massive smuggling that has been killing local businesses.

A couple of months before Sevilla announced his “resignation,” talk already went around that he was on the way out.

But the news media made it appear last week that Sevilla voluntarily resigned as customs commissioner. Sevilla himself gave interviews to the effect that his resignation was some sort of a spur of the moment thing.

But talk in business persisted that, actually, the Palace ordered Sevilla to resign. In short, Sevilla was fired.

On the day he was “scheduled” to announce his resignation to media, the Palace was also ready with its official announcement of his replacement: None other than the come-backing BOC chief Alberto Lina.

Remember, this was the Aquino (Part II) administration that left the entire police force, the Philippine National Police, hanging for several months now without a PNP chief.

What do you think—to this administration, the police would have to be less important than the BOC, and so our leader, BS, could simply allow our poor policemen to be massacred?

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The administration also could not be bothered to fill up vacancies in top positions at the Commission on Elections, the Civil Service Commission, and the Commission on Audit—all supposedly independent constitutional bodies.

Based on the latest count, the number of relatively high posts in the administration that our dear leader, BS, has yet to fill up— after some five years into his six-year term—could easily reach 200.

When it came to the BOC, the supposed resignation of Sevilla and the Palace announcement of his replacement could not have been more perfectly timed than synchronized swimming.

At the same time, the Department of Finance was immediately ready with its own official statement—some flowery press release—on Sevilla’s “resignation.”

Question: Why was the removal of Sevilla such an imperative move for the Aquino (Part II) administration?

According to reports, Sevilla cited, as a reason for his resignation, the pressure from Iglesia ni Cristo, or INC, which wanted him to appoint an INC-backed personnel at the customs police unit—you know, the tip of the BOC antismuggling arrow.

But word continued to go around business, insisting that some Malacañang emissaries at one time gave instructions to Sevilla, supposedly coming directly from our dear leader, BS.

And what was Sevilla’s response? Well, he would think about it. Really now …

Now, his replacement in the BOC, self-made billionaire Lina, was once part of the “Hyatt 10,” the group of government officials who resigned from the cute Arroyo administration, complete with earsplitting fanfare and elaborate media arrangement, supposedly to ignite public support for the ouster of Gloriaetta.

It so happened that the “Hyatt 10” was closely associated with the Liberal Party, which recently proclaimed that, for 2016, the political party would have no other presidential candidate than Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas III.

At least to think-tanks in business, Lina’s comeback to the BOC was not purely for the fun of it all, a sentimental journey back to the bureau, because it could look like it was also the handiwork of the Liberal Party.

Incidentally, merely reacting to rumors at one time, Sevilla was quoted in new reports as saying that he would not allow BOC to become the milking cow of politicos for election campaign funds.

***

Those looking for bright spots in the five-year-old mediocre Aquino (Part II) administration, the recovery of the Social Security System (SSS) perhaps could be one good stopover.

Under its CEO and president Emilio de Quiros, a banking and finance veteran equipped with a doctorate in Economics, the SSS in the past five years could be said to have started to regain its financial health.

Official figures showed that De Quiros already turned around the fund starting in 2012, posting surpluses in an important indicator for retirement funds all over the world: The “contribution” of members as against the “benefits” plus operating costs.

It meant the money that went into the SSS was more than what came out in the past three years, which was a complete turnaround from the trend in the past 11 years.

From 2000 to 2011, the fund consistently posted deficits of more than P83 billion, which inspired the World Bank and other multilateral agencies to declare that the SSS was a dying fund.

They warned that the time would come —and it would be pretty soon, as in only a few years—that the SSS could no longer pay for the benefits of its members.

The biggest reason, according to De Quiros in his info campaign earlier in his stint at the SSS, was the so-called unfunded liability, which ballooned to P1 trillion at one point in the past, prior to the Aquino (Part II) administration.

In other words, in our weird version of the pension fund, the benefit payments were so predetermined that they seemed to be inscribed in stone, and the SSS just had to cover those benefits no matter how low the contributions it would obtain from the members.

And that was of course recognized as the surest way for any pension fund to fail, and the SSS was actually headed towards a miserable failure, with its ability to pay for benefits continuing to deteriorate, until of course the determined De Quiros came around.

In a capsule, De Quiros cleaned up the SSS of lazy and corrupt top officials, and at the same time he instituted drastic reforms, including a campaign to increase memberships, expand its branch network and introduce new products.

As of last year, the SSS collected contributions from members amounting to P119 billion, while it paid out benefits of P102 billion, with the difference going to the fund to lengthen its life.

And a long life, precisely, was what a pension fund should be all about.

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