By Raïssa Robles
Today we commemorate the birth of Andres Bonifacio, father of the native revolt against Spain.
There were sporadic revolts under the Spanish yoke but it was Bonifacio who brought the resistance close to the seat of Spanish power.
Bonifacio’s life and death made me wonder what kind of living – not dead – heroes do we need today?
Do we need heroes to die before we can call them heroes?
I would rather have living heroes.
Say what you will about my low expectations, but in my book, one kind of hero is a public official who stares at a big suitcase full of money. Money offered as a bribe. No one will know that you have taken it.
Instead that person calls the police and utters that cliché from the TV series Hawaii Five O – “Book him.”
I am looking for such heroes to write about.
Since our Republic was born it has been ingrained in us Filipinos that corruption is a way of life, that it’s in our blood. We need heroes who will give us a complete reboot from that mindset. Heroes that will revolutionize our thinking that instead of meekly and placidly accepting corruption, we will fight it hammer, tooth and nail.
My search for heroes brought me to the doorstep of one of the most corrupt agencies in town – the Bureau of Customs.
I wanted to know why a Mr Nice Guy was suddenly hand-picked to head this notoriously graft-ridden agency.
Now I’m not calling the new customs chief Rozzano “Ruffy” Biazon a hero. He still has a lot to prove, especially to himself.
I just wanted to know if he had the makings of one and the ambition to be one. You know – based on my low expectations of what a hero should be.
Here’s what I found out about him so far.
Before you read on, do you know how young Bonifacio was when he died? Only 34. Although his arch rival Emilio Aguinaldo defeated him in the power play and long outlived him, in the end we don’t have an Emilio Aquinaldo Day but a Bonifacio Day.
Happy Birthday, Boni!
Now going back to Biazon, I would like to share with you all two interviews I did separately with him and his deputy (Danilo Lim). Both interviews were recently published by Asian Dragon magazine. I am posting them with the magazine’s permission.
Here’s the first interview:
It takes a pair of men who think outside the box to lead one of the most notoriously corrupt state agencies.
This, perhaps, was what Philippine President Benigno Aquino III had in mind when he handpicked this duo for the Bureau of Customs: the boyish, cheery-eyed Rozzano “Ruffy” Biazon as the Commissioner and the grim-looking ex-rebel general Danilo Lim as his deputy commissioner for intelligence operations.
Aquino separately told them to reduce corruption in the bureau and to raise revenues – a mammoth job.
“Why me?” Biazon, a Liberal Party member, told party chair Aquino when they met after Aquino had phoned him out of the blue and said, “Ruffy, I need you as Commissioner of Customs.”
His perplexity was understandable. A year before that after losing the senatorial elections, Biazon had offered to serve as Aquino’s tourism secretary – a job which would use his natural flair for playing The Nice Guy.
“Is tourism not possible?” he had asked Aquino during their meeting. But the president bluntly told him he had already picked Alberto Lim’s successor but Biazon was his choice for customs.
“He said he had confidence in me. He knew my capability,” Biazon recalled in an exclusive interview with Asian Dragon. “I asked him if there were interest groups that pushed my name (because) the last thing I would like to happen is interest groups approaching me and telling me – you owe us your post.”
If that was what happened, “I would have said no,” he said.
Recounting his meeting with Aquino, Biazon later wrote on his personal blog “The Way It Is: I Say It as I See It” : “He said I was his personal choice and no one intervened in my behalf. Just as I had not asked for it, no one asked it for me.”
Biazon asked Aquino what he could do and not do. “The president told me I had full flexibility in the exercise of my duties and responsibilities as long as I stayed within my mandate, within the bounds of the law and within the chain of command.”
“He said that aside from the collection of the right revenues, he wanted to make it costly for the smugglers to operate and for smuggling cases to be filed against them, especially the big ones.”
In traditional Philippine politics, appointment to the customs bureau is like winning the lottery.
But not, it seems, to the Biazon family.
“I had to think long and hard about it, since it was a position that I did not seek, a challenge that I did not consider,” Biazon said.
In a separate interview, his father Congressman Rodolfo Biazon said: “We all felt apprehensive (about his accepting it because) you can be destroyed there.”
The elder Biazon quoted his wife Monserrat as even telling their youngest child and second son – “That’s a difficult job.”
Rodolfo also reminded his son, whom he had named after the Italian actor heart-throb Rossano Brazzi in the movie South Pacific – “Remember, you have a name to protect. You must take care of the name I’m handing down to you.”
The anxiety of this 77-year-old battle-scarred marine general is understandable. Rodolfo Biazon succeeded despite poverty. He was the eldest son of a washerwoman. He helped feed the family by also washing clothes, selling bread, newspapers and junk. Yet he managed to snare a slot at the Philippine Military Academy.
He shot to fame in 1989 when he fought back an assault by renegade soldiers of the military headquarters. President Corazon Aquino made him military chief and after he retired, a grateful nation voted him senator in 1992.
It was at the Senate where his son Ruffy first learned politics as his father’s chief aide. Ruffy, then newly married and a new father, was at loose ends. He had planned to take up medicine and had finished medical technology at the University of Santo Tomas after switching from a zoology course at the University of the Philippines.
The first-hand experience plus his people-friendly skills made Ruffy try out in politics. In 2001, he narrowly won the congressional seat of Muntinlupa with 1,500 votes over Ignacio Bunye (who went on to become then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s spokesman).
Last year, both father and son gambled on switching seats which they had to give up due to constitutional term limits. Ruffy lost but his father won the seat in Muntinlupa.
When he was recently offered the customs post, it surprised Ruffy Biazon because “I don’t even consider myself as within his (Aquino’s) immediate circle.” He noted that in Philippine politics, this bureau “is given to those who are in the inner circle or because they were recommended by somebody in the inner circle. In my case it was not.”
Biazon, who prides himself in his ability to make firm decisions, waffled and asked for time to consider the offer. “I think before I talk. I think before I act,” he wrote about himself in his personal blog.
In the end, he decided to say yes. “Ruffy told us, how can I say no to him?” his proud but anxious father said.
Soon after coming in, snide remarks about him appeared in newsletters devoted to sectors dealing with customs. One columnist painted him as a “mere med tech” – a reference to his university degree.
Flicking off this slight on his capability, Biazon pointed out that even at 42 he had already served 16 years in government, including nine as a congressman doing oversight work.
“In every investigation, my line of questioning is always what is the authority given to you; what is the procedure you are supposed to follow? And you will see where the loopholes are. That’s the experience I’m drawing from.”
He leans towards order and processes – a bias seen in his choice of college degree and youthful pastime – painstakingly assembling scale models of World War II tanks and soldiers. It was also perhaps a vicarious way for an army brat to be with an absentee father. But he never thought of soldiering. “I didn’t want the life.”
Biazon intends to improve the bureau’s “processes”. He said “the challenge here is to close off all the loopholes in the system. To deny the opportunity, the exercise of discretion. Here, it’s really the exercise of discretion that provides the opportunity for smuggling.”
When he was 12 days into the job, he said he noticed the proliferation of hao shiao employees – or people loitering inside the bureau premises who were neither employed there nor representing broker firms. “But they have an effect (on transactions). They are runners” doing functions “as simple as bringing one (piece of) paper from one section (of the bureau) to another,” he said.
“It’s a system that has been here for a long time. I guess it’s embedded. I would say it’s a loophole in the system because non-organic personnel have a say in the process. They are there intervening.”
Asked to elaborate further, he said, one Australian businessman told him he ships to Manila only one product all the time, using the same procedure. “Every time I bring it in I would always encounter difficulties (including) with assessment” of duties, the Australian complained to him.
The businessman said it was so unlike in Australia where, when traders have a problem, customs officials talk to them directly. “His experience here (in Manila) is there is always somebody between him and the Bureau of Customs. He has to talk to his broker, who has to talk to an unidentified person, and that unidentified person has to talk to Customs.”
Asked how he intends to change that, he said he would enforce a “no ID, no entry” policy and assign different access levels to the entire complex. “If you do not have business in a particular area, you should not be there. I believe the bureau should be a secure facility because it is a sensitive government office dealing with revenues.”
At the same time, Biazon hopes to give importers a more direct access to the bureau. One way is to have the bureau’s website redesigned to make it “interactive” for certain transactions to be done online.
“Why do traders try to cheat in their taxes? Because there is cost involved going through the process, the leakage in the system. If we make the process simpler, more honest, the businessman I think will be ready to pay the right taxes,” he said.
Can someone so clean-cut and boyish-looking succeed in outsmarting toughies? The politician in Biazon swiftly kicked in as he said, “To me, it’s not just about having a tough guy look, having people afraid of you. It’s more about people respecting you how you conduct yourself. How you inspire others to do the right thing.”
“I’m a people person,” he said. “One of the major problems here is, employees have lost a sense of mission that this is all about service. I hope to bring back that mindset.”
His father agreed with his son’s self-assessment. “He can say no without saying no. Me, when I say no, that’s accompanied by a cuss word.”
He recalled that in one father and son debate where he started invoking his age, Ruffy told him – “Papa, you have a problem. You are always combative. You are a warrior. I am a statesman. That is the difference between us.”
“I was disarmed,” the elder Biazon said.
Looking for heroes, I talk to an ex-general now chasing onions