The Stupidification of the Filipino — Bureau of Customs Deliberately Hindering Our Opportunities to Read?

UPDATE: Do read The Great Book Blockade of 2009: Timeline and Readings for in-depth coverage. Kudos to MLQ3.

A couple of days ago, I read this post The Great Book Blockade of 2009 and ended up being yet again pissed off at the stupidity of government agencies.

But let the post speak for itself. Quoting from the post:

Over coffee one afternoon, a book-industry professional (whom I can’t identify) told me that for the past two months virtually no imported books had entered the country, in part because of the success of one book, Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. The book, an international best seller, had apparently attracted the attention of customs officials.

The importer of Twilight made a mistake and paid the duty requested. A mistake because such duty flies in the face of the Florence Agreement, a U.N. treaty that was signed by the Philippines in 1952, guaranteeing the free flow of “educational, scientific, and cultural materials” between countries and declaring that imported books should be duty-free. Mr. Agulan told the importer that because the books were not educational (i.e., textbooks) they were subject to duty. Perhaps they aren’t educational, I might have argued, but aren’t they “cultural”?

No matter. With this one success under their belt, customs curtailed all air shipments of books entering the country. Weeks went by as booksellers tried to get their books out of storage and started intense negotiations with various government officials.

What doubly frustrated booksellers and importers was that the explanations they received from various officials made no sense. It was clear that, for whatever reason—perhaps the 30-billion-peso ($625 million) shortfall in projected customs revenue—customs would go through the motions of having a reasonable argument while in fact having none at all.

Customs Undersecretary Espele Sales explained the government’s position to a group of frustrated booksellers and importers in an Orwellian PowerPoint presentation, at which she reinterpreted the Florence Agreement as well as Philippine law RA 8047, providing for “the tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing.” For lack of a comma after the word “books,” the undersecretary argued that only books “used in book publishing” (her underlining) were tax-exempt.

“What kind of book is that?” one publisher asked me afterward. “A book used in book publishing.” And she laughed ruefully.

Likewise, with the Florence Agreement, she argued that only educational books could be considered protected by the U.N. treaty. Customs would henceforth be the arbiter of what was and wasn’t educational.

“For 50 years, everyone has misinterpreted the treaty and now you alone have interpreted it correctly?” she was asked.

“Yes,” she told the stunned booksellers.

Here’s the link to the relevant law, RA 8047, and here’s the text of the Florence Agreement.

Amazing. Seriously.

If there’s anything I hope gets done about this, I hope that a class action suit will be filed on behalf of book importers in particular and people who read books in general, against the Bureau of Customs. Heck, file it against the government at large, for violating a treaty of which the Philippines is a signatory.

If anything, it should be the educators among us spearheading such a protest.

See, it’s sad enough that quite a number of people do NOT consider the Philippines having a reading population (a situation that has a catastrophically detrimental effect on our educational system), but it really gives our people the shaft when the government itself gets in the way of our getting stuff to read. It wasn’t reading educational material that makes a man complete — it was reading per se that Sir Francis Bacon says that makes a full man.

I remember one of my former colleagues, a brilliant supervisor who had a pithy comment when our Catbertian human resources people want to restrict the reading of newspapers in the office. She said, “Gusto ba nila tayong maging mangmang?” I agreed fully with her reaction. Getting in the way of folks’ acquiring new knowledge does imply that the people making such an imposition do want these folks to not learn anything new.

Maybe the government does want to keep our people benighted? Heh. Shades of the Noli and the Fili.

Do also read MLQ3’s column amplifying on the same topic… if we’re going to let this slide, we’re going to be doing the education of our kids a great disservice. If we can’t get quality reading material easily, what next for them?

Heck, we’ll be doing our own continuing education as we go through life a great disservice by letting this travesty slide.

3 Comments

  1. GabbyD (Post author)

    wow. thanks for writing about this.

    this is weird! the florence agreement says nothing about what kind of books it is limited to.It says:
    Article I

    1. The contracting States undertake not to apply customs duties or other charges on, or in connection with, the importation of:

    (a) Books, publications and documents, listed in Annex A to this Agreement;

    looking at annex A we find:

    Annex A

    Books, publications and documents

    (i) Printed books.

    that is as general as one can get…

    this is something people should try to change. the customs people are just wrong. plain wrong.

  2. GabbyD (Post author)

    here is a link to the McSweeny’s article:

    funny!

    http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/manila/1dispatch6.html

  3. Renato Pacifico (Post author)

    “Do also read MLQ3’s column amplifying on the same topic… if we’re going to let this slide, we’re going to be doing the education of our kids a great disservice. If we can’t get quality reading material easily, what next for them?” — Jester-in-Exile

    jESTER, we don’t need hundreds and thousands of books … what we need is just one big fat old book! IT’S CALLED THE BIBLE!!!! ha!ha!ha!ha!ha! What good in going to school. What good in reading books. When we still believe in some God who predestined us to be slaves and 2nd class citizen in our country? HA!HA!HA!HA!HA!

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