Interview with Karen Davila on ANC’s Headstart
Karen Davila: Senator Bongbong, thank you for coming.
Sen. Bongbong: Thank you, Karen, thank you very much.
Karen: I think you’d be perfect because you have the historical perspective on exactly what Section 105 of the Customs Code meant. Because no less that your father, former President Ferdinand Marcos, actually crafted this section in honor of OWFs in the ‘70s. What was the balikbayan shipment concept of the Customs Code.
Sen. Bongbong: Well, it’s really very simple. It was just to give an advantage, to give an added incentive to our OFWs to continue to work. Because at that time, it was a very new idea to work in large numbers, you know, the whole OFW trend. So it was really just to give them an added incentive to make there lives a little easier, because we all understand that it is a great sacrifice for any Filipino, especially, to be away with their families and to be away with their love ones. So kung konting kunswelo, sige pag bibigyan kayo namin ng… a certain amount na at that time is 10, 000,
Karen: Which was is a lot then.
Sen. Bongbong: Oo, actually puno na yung balikbayan box sa sampung libo.
Karen: And the exchange rate was, I don’t know, in 70’s, my gosh…
Sen. Bongbong: I suppose there was a very simple calculation: what were the remittances that were sent back by our OFWs and what would be the so-called “lost” revenue to customs because of the balikbayan box?
Karen: So alam na ng father mo noon na may lost revenue ‘yon noon?
Sen. Bongbong: Kung gusto mo talagang i-tax lahat ‘yun, yung kikitain ng gobyerno ay napakaliit compared doon sa kinikita ng gobyerno sa remittance. Kaya’t wala namang comparison talaga ‘yun. Ano ba naman yun? It ‘s a very Filipino thing actually. In the end, it is the way of showing that this is the reason we are sacrificing, so we can send you all this little trinkets and gifts… If you think about it, ano ang laman ng balikbayan box?
Sen. Bongbong: Damit, candy, laruan ng bata, yung pinaka bagong labas na sneaker na wala pa sa Pilipinas, yung mga ganon. Napakaliit na bagay and it’s perplexing to see why Bureau of Customs will focus on that? If what their intention is to curb smuggling, if their intention is increase their collections, I think they have really lost there perspective here in not prioritizing the larger-scale smuggling probably that goes on in the amounts of billions. I keep on remembering the reports before, about a couple of years ago, of thousands of missing containers.
Karen: Hindi pa nahanap.
Sen. Bongbong: Kung nawawala mo yung dalawang libong containers, siguro ‘yan ang dapat mong unahin. At tsaka alam naman nating lahat – I mean, we are all grown ups here – we all know what goes inside the Bureau of Customs, we all know about the syndicates, the fixers that operate. Actually some of them are the employees of the Bureau of Customs. Perhaps if we’re going to direct our attention to smuggling, those are the one that we should be running after, not the balikbayan who works very, very, very hard and makes extreme sacrifices. We always say, “Sila ang bagong bayani.” Tapos ganyan ang gagawin natin sa kanila. How is that logical?
Karen: Ok, now I had Customs Commissioner Bert Lina, I think Monday, that was Monday, and he claims that now of course numbers of balikbayan boxes are hitting 800,000 this Christmas. He claims that, unlike your father’s time, not all of them are from OFWs. He says a lot of them are online shopping, sent to bazaars, Greenhills with tags, clothes all above 10,000 already. So he was saying, they come out un-taxed.
I want to ask, when you look at social media, it’s quit certain that everyone supports the OFWs, but do you think they are those who take advantage of the box?
Sen. Bongbong: Undoubtedly there will be some who will try to take advantage to abuse the privilege and of course we should try to do something about that. If you look to relative numbers – again the prioritization is the thing here – where do direct your attention? Where do you direct your action? At the larger incidents of like billions of smuggling. With the balikbayan box, again, it is not necessary to open all of them. We have equipment.
Karen: Yes. So you’re saying you don’t have to open all of them.
Sen. Bongbong: There’s no need! And I think they finally came to the proper position in that only if there is a reason, may tip na sinasabi na, “Si ganito nagpapasok ng baril, nagpapasok ng droga,” ayan. Direct your investigations to that. Pero we have eight million, more or less, OFWs out there. Of that eight million, I would say that 99.999 percent are perfectly legitimate and again, let us say they stop all the abuses in the balikbayan box, how much will they be able to collect then as compared to the 24 billion dollars that the OFWs are remitting? Konting balance naman dito. Kung sasabihin nating yung OFW, lahat sila nag s-smuggle, lahat sila nagaabuso, then maybe you can direct your attention to that. We should go back to original idea that this is an incentive, this is a small compensation to the OFW’s to there families. Everybody in the Philippines, every single Filipino has a relative, has a friend, or knows somebody working abroad, every single one.
Karen: So you would define that as “balikbayan?” Because in Customs Code during your fathers time, he define it as a returning resident coming back with – literal ‘to noon – with a balikbayan box.
Sen. Bongbong: That’s right.
Karen: So you’d have to show your passport, you’re with the box. Of course time have changed, the boxes come without people. So would you like to redefine it? I’m curious how you would do.
Sen. Bongbong: As a matter of fact, yes, I would like to redefine it, increase the allowance. It is presently now pegged at $500, but that was determined in 1990. 25 years ago. [The value of] $500 is now about $1,800. Yes, I would like to redefine. I would like increase the allowance perhaps up to $2,000 because of inflation, because of exchange rate, etc. etc. But as a concept, the importance of the balikbayan box, and every Filipino will understand, is not the value of the goods inside the balikbayan box…
Karen: That’s a good point. Because Customs is concentrating on the value. Gucci bag tina-tax-an nila, second hand, Louis Vuitton bag, tina-tax-an.
Sen. Bongbong: That is not the importance of the balikbayan box. It doesn’t make sense at all.
Karen: So it’s not the value.
Sen. Bongbong: That’s not the importance of that. It is the way for our OFWs connecting or a way of showing them affection, their remembrance, their thoughts. It’s saying, “Iniisip namin kayo. Nakita ko ito, mukang bagay sa iyo. Ipapadala ko sayo.” Tapos, “Anong kailangan niyo dyan?” “Mahal na ang shampoo rito, walang magandang imported na shampoo.” Ipapadala sa box. It’s an expression of affection, it is an expression of loneliness,of homesickness, all of those things. It is not the $500, that is actually almost meaningless. The true meaning of a balikbayan box is that very Filipino, cultural heritage of close and enduring family time. It’s just to enforce that we’re still family, I am still thinking of you, and I’m here only because of you… ‘Yan ang ibig sabihin ng balikbayan box.
Karen: But during your fathers time, it is also says in Customs Code, “No Luxury items, jewelry. That will be taxed.” Do you still agree with that?
Sen. Bongbong: Yes, absolutely.
Karen: Ok, lets say you put in speakers, a microwave… I’m curious what your stand is?
Sen. Bongbong: I don’t think those things can be considered luxury items. If you look into any Filipino home, mayroong microwave…
Karen: Good point, so even the definition has changed?
Sen. Bongbong: Oo.
Karen: Hindi na luxury iyon?
Sen. Bongbong: Alam mo naman, the economy is like that. Luxury items become necessities as time goes on, so things are very very different. Look, if the abuse is that it is going to use for some kind commercial [sale], kung nagpapasok ka in [large] amounts, kung ipagbibili mo dahil hindi ka nagbabayad ng tax at malaking kikitain mo, ‘yun. How much you can put in a balikbayan box that you can say is commercial quantities? Everybody has seen the laman of the balikbayan box. We don’t see diamonds, luxury items, wala namang ganoon.
Karen: Last question, about Customs equipment, when Bert Lina was here, he said they have X-rays for container vans, but they were also doing it randomly. If they do it to more vans, it will congest daw the port. People have asked, bakit daw hindi sila mag scan? Sabi naman ni Senator Allan Cayetano, “Dapat pre-shipment inspection.” Wala raw silang K-9 Units, walang dogs. I want to ask you, what should the Customs have para wala ring nakakalusot pero facilitated?
Sen. Bongbong: I think we have to do like all the other Customs all around the world do. You need to have spot-checks. If you have suspicion or if you have specific information that this shipment is “problematic,” that this shipment probably has smuggled goods, then you can look into that. There is no port in the world – airport, seaport – that can inspect every single items. We have to do random checks, so let’s go with that. The technology has much improved, though I can’t understand why we do not have K-9 Units. They have a budget for it. So the problem is not in the balikbayans, the problem is not in the OFWs, the problem is ‘yung patakbo sa Customs, ‘yun ang ayusin nila.
Karen: Ok, last question, Migrante wants the taxes from all the balikbayan taxes be removed, what’s your stand?
Sen. Bongbong: If we do that, I would say the instances of abuse, magiging large scale na. Mag papatong dalawang daan… delikado na ‘yan. I think we should still specify the limit and I think we should move it from $500 to $2,000. There is several bills that have been filed to that effect.
Karen: There are 28 deleted provisions in the BBL. Now you had said that there are eight integral issues. Tell us what major changes have you suggested?
Sen. Bongbong: The areas that we made the biggest changes are of course in the areas with questionable constitutionality. We made as much as we could, we tried to make sure that every provision was constitutional. Secondly was the aspect of inclusivity. One of the shocking revelations that we came to during the hearing process was that the government of the Philippines was only speaking to MILF. This is a fundamental mistake because the Muslim Filipinos are not a homogeneous group. There are different tribes, there are different sultanates, and you have to also take into account non-Moro inhabitants who came before the Muslims in southern Mindanao. All of these groups have not been consulted so we try to include their issues, to include their inputs and we conducted hearings specific to those different groups.
Karen: The geographical area…
Sen. Bongbong: The geographical area we followed the original suggestion: ARMM provinces and the cities of Cotabato and Isabela. THe non contiguous areas we removed from the list where plebiscites will be conducted simply because should they agree to be part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous region, and they are non-contiguous, it is impossible to administer that situation. We had to take care of that.
Also, government exercising the reserve powers of certain departments. Many reserved powers were moved from reserved power to concurrent power simply because there is a necessity for the Bangsamoro government to coordinate. Let me give a good example, land registration. In the original BBL, it was said that land registration , all of those issues on land will be handled be the Bangsamoro government.
Sen. Bongbong: Locally. So papano kung hindi tumutugma yung titulo sa LRA at sa Bangsamoro? That’s just impossible and you know what will happen. Giyera ran. We had to coordinate that. All of those things, even just something simple like the names of corporations, the list of the names of corporations. Hindi naman pwedeng mayroong ABC corporation sa Maynila tapos mayroong nanamang ABC corporation sa Bangsamoro. Sino yung mayari ng pangalan na yon? Those are just simple administrative concepts.
Karen: But the biggest revision would be…?
Sen. Bongbong: The biggest revision would be that. The inclusivity. Of course the most important are the constitutional questions but the biggest revision would be in the actual conduct of government services and government work and the inclusivity. We have included other groups aside from the MILF.
Karen: Did they ask for something specific? Can you tell me what group you spoke to who said, “Senator, we were not spoken to.” Can you add this?
Sen. Bongbong: The sultanates were not spoken to. The LGUs where not spoken to. The IP’s were not spoken to. The business groups were not spoken to. The women’s groups were not spoken to. All of these people, when the government now says they’ve had hundreds of consultations, what those consultations in fact were say eto na natapos na namin ang BBL. Here it is. We will explain it to you and that’s what they call a consultation. But before the fact, before the negotiations, ano ang iniisip ninyo? Ano sa palagay niyo ang kailangan natin para magkaroon ng kapayapaan.?
Karen: What did they say? I’m just curious, did they ask something different?
Sen. Bongbong: Just representation.
Karen: Oh that’s it.
Sen. Bongbong: For example, one of the most profound things that I heard during that hearing was “We are not against any of this but you need us.” the sultanates for example said “you need us to help you. “We want to help. Give us a role.” The sultatnates have existed before there was a Philippine republic. And we still have a very important role to play especially at the local level and so one of the main conflicts that we have are these conflicts between families. At the very local level. And these are arbitrated by the sultans and we lost that. We put it back in.
Karen: At the house, the MILF is asking to return some of the revised provisions. Can the MILF still lobby for anything to be returned or that’s it.
Sen. Bongbong: Of course they can. We listen to everyone. The whole process in an inclusive one. That’s precisely what we’re trying to stress. Yes, of course, anyone can speak. Anyone can make their opinion known. We will listen and then we will decide what we feel is the most judicious way to go.
Karen: But there are non-negotiables.
Sen. Bongbong: There are non-negotiables. THe constitution questions are completely non negotiable. And that’s not a policy that we undertook. It was the way that our system of laws operate. That is non negotiable. Also the inclusivity. The other main point that we tried to strengthen and to make more rigorous and to accelerate for that matter is the decommissioning process. Malaking bagay yun.
Karen: When is the schedule?
Sen. Bongbong: We are still coming up with a schedule. What we’ve been able to come up with in the substitute bill is to strengthen the capability of the international decommissioning body in terms of inspection, actual inspection of combatants, the arms, what condition they are in. And furthermore, I’m thinking of giving them also the power. Dahil sa ngayon the surrendered arms are put in storage and are guarded over by the AFP and the MILF. I would like to put them beyond use is the term we have been using.
Karen: What would you do with beyond use?
Sen. Bongbong: Destroy them. Sisirain mo. There is a very specific way. The decommissioning of arms, for example, after the second world war, hinahati nila yung receiver and then they plug up the barrel para hindi na magamit. We should give the IDB the capability of doing that para tapos na. Can you imagine if there are thousands and thousands of arms may babantay pa, there’s a danger na may papasok, nanakawin yung mga baril. Sirain na natin yun. So it cannot go back. And this stems from the very simple idea: there are no arms, there’s no war. so if we get to that point, we can discuss, we can debate, pwede pa kayong mag-boxing pero walang gyera.
Karen: When do you think will this be signed into law? President Aquino before he leaves, do you think? Will he see the light of day, claiming the BBL was signed into law? There’s at least a year.
Sen. Bongbong: I simply cannot predict. It’s impossible to predict. Right now in the house, the interpolation process on the Bangsamoro law has been struggling. And by the way we no longer talk about the Bangsamoro Basic Law. That has been rejected by both houses. It is now the Basic Law on the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region.
Karen: For 2016, your term as senator ends already on 2016. Either you run again for senate or you run for higher office. Where are you leaning towards running for?
Sen. Bongbong: The discussions really have centered on higher office at least for me. The option of reelection to the senate, we have not been discussing it any longer. with the different groups we are talking about my running for higher office.
Karen: So what position?
Sen. Bongbong: There’s a good question. Well it’s extremely difficult to make a decision at this point.
Karen: So you mean running for the senate is out for you again?
Sen. Bongbong: For now. As I said, the option still remains. All I can say is the discussions I’ve been having with different groups, with my own party, with other individuals, have really centered on higher office.
Karen: Who has spoken to you? Vice President Binay, has he spoken to you to run with him for Vice President?
Sen. Bongbong: Not he himself but of course we hear of the reports in the media and we have very many common friends, so it is not only the vice president, but all the different groups.
Karen: What did you say? Did you say yes?
Sen. Bongbong: We’re still in the midst of discussing everything.
Karen: Would you be open to running with Binay?
Sen. Bongbong: I’m open to anything at this point. I always say this is Philippine politics. You cannot discount the possibility of things that you did not imagine would happen. Never say never when it comes to politics. And again I always go back to the simple principle of keeping your options open?
Karen: But what about Duterte? Have you met?
Sen. Bongbong: We have met.
Karen: Can you share the plans?
Sen. Bongbong: Well not specifically on elections. Basically asking him what are you planning to do and he said he asks me what are you planning to do? We talk about it, what do you think if this happens, what do you think if that happens?
Karen: Don’t the surveys faze you? For the presidency you have at least these internal surveys coming out. The Magdalo survey. Grace Poe at 43 (percent), then you have Binay at a steady 25-33 (percent) rate. Secretary Mar Roxas jumping up with PNoy’s endorsement. And then in the VP race, you have senator Chiz that’s in the 40s (percent) level and you have two partymates that declared they will run: Alan and Antonio Trillanes. Yun ang tanong ko. Paano yun?
Sen. Bongbong: Wala. We will have to come into some kind of agreement and that’s why the political scenarios, the political options are shifting so quickly because there are so many unkowns. There are so many variables. If you look at it, how many have declared for the presidency. It is Sec. Mar and VP Jojo Binay. Sila palang. But neither of them have a Vice President.
Again, there are other names that have been coming up like Mayor Duterte and Sen. Grace but they have yet to declare and their actual situation is unclear. But to go back to your question about the surveys, I always see surveys as a starting point. I remember very clearly one of my political advisers long ago, when we first looked at surveys I said “Parang mababa”. And sagot niya sakin, “Eh kaya may kampanya e. Dun ka magsisimula.” So if you go back to 2010 elections, kung titignan mo the year before, the August of 2009, tignan mo yung mga nanalo, angbababa. President Aquino wasn’t even a candidate. It’s a guide, it is useful.
To give you an indication of what’s going on out there, if you’re top of mind right now. Or in a way, in a way, you can also see it clear that if you’re planning to run for a certain position, what is the work you need to do. Marami pa tayong hahabulin, I need to get at least another 20 percent…
Karen: Have you estimated how many Marcos loyalists are still active, voting in the millions?
Sen. Bongbong: That’s a very tangible term, Marcos loyalist, because the traditional term for Marcos loyalists are those who remain loyal to the Marcos administration after ’86, that were demonstrating and taking mass action. Ang tawag sa kanila loyalist. We have now a new phenomenon. Young people. “Marcos kami. Hanggang ngayon Marcos kami. Yung father ko Marcos, kami Marcos din kami.”
There are young people and I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised. There are young people, some students, some who have just entered the labor force. So it’s very hard to estimate. What we can do is we can be confident that there is now an Ilocano vote again. Because after 1986, nawala yung tinatawag na “solid north” e. BUt in 2010 we could see that it was returning, that the Ilocanos voted together.
Karen: Ilan ang solid north?
Sen. Bongbong: That’s another thing. That’s a new development. Ang Ilocano hindi na sa North. Nakakalat na kami all over the country.
Karen: So iba pa to?
Sen. Bongbong: Nagbago nga eh. Sasabihin sayo it’s the Ilocano vote. It’s no longer the solid north. It is the solid Ilocano vote. That is one way of trying to determine how this is going to work.
Karen: If you run for higher office, would say Imee run for senate?
Sen. Bongbong: We haven’t discussed that. I think she’s presently preparing to run for another term as governor but of course that option is available to her.
Karen: You have a big risk. Grace Poe if she runs and she loses, she is still a senator. Technically, there’s no loss. Chiz, if he runs, same thing, still a senator. Alan and Trillanes, the same thing. You are the only one, that if you run for higher office, you are taking a major political risk. If you lose, you lose.
Sen. Bongbong: Who dares wins, right?
Karen: Do you feel that it’s too soon? You’re building your own political capital.
Sen. Bongbong: That’s precisely what they’re trying to determine. Is this the time? Is this the right time? Should we wait? Should we not?
Karen: Why do you think that the moment for you in a way has opened for 2016? What did you see? Because it’s not survey driven completely. It has to be something. What did you feel or your supporters felt. What window was opened? Is it an Anti Aquino sentiment? Is it disappointment with the administration?
Sen. Bongbong: I think it is the political history in the recent years and the constant refrain “Buti pa noong panahon ni Marcos, maginhawa ang buhay. Buti pa noong panahon ni Marcos, tinutulungan kami ng pamahalaan. May mga programa, maraming proyekto. Mula noong pinalitan siya, wala na kaming nakitang ganon. Sana maibalik yon.” That is the general sentiment.
Karen: But are you ready that if you run, the old issues against your father will once again be brought to life?
Sen. Bongbong: Kung mayroon man akong sinaktan, I will always say sorry. But what have I been guilty of to apologize about? We have constantly said that during the time of my father, mayroong mga nasagasaan, mayroong mga sinasabing hindi natulungan o they were victimized in one way or another, of course we are sorry it happened. Nobody wants that to have happened. These are instances that have fallen through the cracks. Will I say sorry for the thousands and thousands of kilometers that were built? Will I say sorry for the agricultural policy that have brought us sufficiency in rice? Will I say sorry for the power generation? Will I say sorry for the highest literacy rate in Asia? What am I to say sorry about?
Karen: I think at some point you feel, what your father has done was also forgotten.
Sen. Bongbong: That’s the thing. It hasn’t. It is surprising that young people, who were not even alive at that time say that. It is a bit of a surprise because I can understand people who were alive and experienced the administration of my father saying that, but young people saying “no, no we know what happened in that time and we wish it could come back” and that is the new development that we have never seen before.
Karen: If you run for president, who will be your vice president?
Sen. Bongbong: Kung yung mga deklarado wala pa silang sinasabing na vice president, magdedeklara ako? I have been through many elections and I have not come accross an election like this. So late in the day na hindi pa maliwanag.
Karen: Have you and Grace Poe talked about the urban myth that you are siblings.
Sen. Bongbong: Constantly. We laugh about it all the time.
Karen: You call each other bro and sis?
Sen. Bongbong: Ang tawag ko sa kanya sis, ang tawag niya sakin kuya. In the begining, I’d say, you don’t do that to this lady because it’s unfair to her. It not unkind. Ako balewala, lalake naman ako. Yung babaeng tao hindi niyo dapat pinagsasabi ng ganon. But after a while, we came to the conclusion separately, why bother? I-career na natin. O sis, kuya, edi ok. In fact we’re always making that joke. But that, I think, tsismis nalang yan.
Karen: Did you ever hear it when you were growing up?
Sen. Bongbong: No. I never did. I never heard anything like that. I was surprised when it came up during the last election in 2013.
Karen: In the foundling issue, she even mentioned that herself. Kung totoo nga raw ang tsismis na tatay niya so [President Marcos], mas simple daw buhay niya kasi Pilipino.
Sen. Bongbong: The funniest reaction I got was from my mom. “Papano magiging anak ni Marcos yan, ang puti puti?” I guess we all just take it with a little grain of salt and have a good laugh about it.
Karen: If you were to run for VP, would you do it independently? Like how Alan. At least Senator Antonio Trillanes has declared. Si Alan, he admitted. nagpe-presenta siya sa NP. What would you do?
Sen. Bongbong: All of my discussions, all of my thoughts have been on the basis that I remain with the Nacionalista Party. I ahvew never really been comfortable with this trend in Philippine politics where turncoatism, you leave your party, you go to another, whatever is convenient, I think that’s has been a weakness of our system. I don’t buy into that. I don’t subscribe to that. Furthermore, the truth of the matter is, as a very practical matter, a national campaign needs a party machinery. I think the time that I’ve been with the Nacionalista Party, I can say that the party has been solid, it may not be the biggest party, but we certainly are the most cohesive.
Karen: I know you’re not yet sure. But if you decide to run, for Vice President muna, why would you be better than the other candidates?
Sen. Bongbong: I would not talk about other candidates to begin with. I would talk about myself. I think that I’m capable to take on the job. I think I’ve managed the job of a senator well. I have a good understanding of government, not only at the national level but certainly at the local level which is something I take great pride in and I think that’s terribly important because I believe still, despite the primacy of the national government in terms of directing policy, in terms of implementation, I still think that the driving force not only economically but even politically and socially should come from the local government.
Karen: Is there a part of you that wants to vindicate the history or the legacy of your father?
Sen. Bongbong: I’ve always answered that kind of question by saying that there’s nothing I can do that would change what my father did. And if I was an absolutely brilliant, great, mabait senator and my father was a bad president, he would still be a bad president. If, on the other hand, my father was a good president, and I’m a terrible politician, it would still not change that. What I do is the work as I see it. It’s not with some long return aiming saying “O, you see? We were right after all.” There is none of that. History will judge him properly. We’ll leave it at that.
Karen: When you declare, can you tell us?
Sen. Bongbong: Oh yes, you can count on it. Within minutes!