Occasionally, my daughter Shoshie announces that she’s going to be the richest person in the world when she grows up—this is what living in a poor country like the Philippines will do to a kid. She recently made this remark as we passed a girl about 9 years old, dressed in an odd kind of caftan many sizes too big and holding a limp infant as she begged.
“You should just want to have enough money,” I said. “Why have too much?”
“I’m going to give a lot of it to the poor,” she said.
“Then you won’t be the richest person in the world,” I told her.
“But I’m going to have a lot of jobs.”
“Then you won’t be the richest person in the world.” I explained that typically people are rich or poor in inverse proportion to how many jobs they have or how hard they work.
“You only need one job,” I told her. “You’re a dual citizen, so when you are old enough come back here and be a customs official. Then you’ll make a lot of money and won’t have to do a thing for it.” I’m not sure she got it. It’s hard to explain to a 6-year-old. Hell, I don’t even understand it.
Few countries can compete with the Philippines when it comes to corruption—it’s always near the top of the list of most-corrupt nations and the G20 nations recently blacklisted it, along with only three other countries, for its banking practices. In polls, Filipinos tag customs as the most corrupt department. And for good reason.
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. When an examiner named Rene Agulan opened a shipment of books, he demanded that duty be paid on it.
“Ah, you can’t be too successful in this country,” I said. “If you are, then people start demanding a cut.”
“Even before you are successful,” she said. “But, yes, I’m a Filipino, but I have to admit this is true. Have you heard of ‘crab mentality’?”
I’d been hearing of this so-called crab mentality since I first arrived in the country 10 years earlier. It’s the notion that crabs will climb on top of one another to escape the pot in which they are to be cooked, but, instead of letting one crab escape, the remaining crabs pull the other one back.
But most crabs I’ve encountered in the Philippines are small-time little hermit crabs or dashing sand crabs. The crabs in government are the kind you’d find in an old Japanese horror film, with an entire city’s population running in fear as the crabs snip away public works, entire highway projects, intangibles, such as hope and justice, and, now, books.
“Yes,” I told her. “I’ve heard of crab mentality.”
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.
I thought about it. Maybe I should start writing a few. Harry the Cultural and Educational Potter and His Fondness for Baskerville Type.
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.
The writer David Torrey Peters, who once spent a year in Cameroon (which is even more corrupt than the Philippines), wrote of being pulled out of a taxi by a policeman who demanded that he produce his immunization card. David did this, but the cop told him that he was missing an AIDS vaccination. When David told the man that there was no such thing as an AIDS vaccine, the policeman was indignant.
“You think just because there isn’t an AIDS vaccine I can’t arrest you for not having one?”
This is the I-will-say-everything-with-a-straight-face-no-matter-how-absurd hallmark of corruption. It’s what Orwell wrote about in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language” when he warns of the ways in which bureaucrats defend “the indefensible” by twisting words to suit their purposes. Though he singled out English, corruption happens in every language. However, he did make special mention of undersecretaries as being among the worst purveyors of actual meaning. Not that that has any relevance here (cough, cough), Undersecretary Sales.
During this time, the only bright spot for book lovers in Manila, or at least those who wanted to read foreign as well as local authors, came in March with the sailing into Manila Bay of the M.V. Doulos, the oldest operating passenger ship in the world, built only a couple of years after the Titanic. Destined to be scrapped within the next couple of years, the ship chugged into town, laden with books. The Doulos is run by a religious group and sails around the world as a kind of floating bookstore/library with an international crew of volunteers.
What?!! Volunteers?! Have they no shame?
The sheer shock of a boatload of selfless individuals sailing into Manila Bay must have given customs officials a brain freeze, dazing them long enough for the old ship to make it past the Great Book Blockade of 2009.
I visited the Doulos on one bright Sunday afternoon with Shoshie, Margie, Naomi, and two of Shoshie’s friends. We walked up the gangplank into a scene of sheer chaos—a frenzy of book-hungry Manileños. A heartening sight, but not unexpected—the Philippines is one of the largest markets for books written in English in the world and new bookstores with such names as Power Books and Fully Booked have been cropping up all over metro Manila in recent years to compete with the ubiquitous and aptly named National Bookstore.
Throughout February and March, bookstores seemed on the verge of getting their books released—all their documents were in order, but the rules kept changing. Now they were told that all books would be taxed: 1 percent for educational books and 5 percent for noneducational books. A nightmare scenario for the distributors; they imagined each shipment being held for months as an examiner sorted through the books. Obviously, most would simply pay the higher tax to avoid the hassle.
Distributors told me they weren’t “capitulating” but merely paying under protest. After all, customs was violating an international treaty that had been abided by for over 50 years. Meanwhile, booksellers had to pay enormous storage fees. Those couldn’t be waived, they were told, because the storage facilities were privately owned (by customs officials, a bookstore owner suggested ruefully). One bookstore had to pay $4,000 on a $10,000 shipment.
The day after the first shipment of books was released, an internal memo circulated in customs congratulating themselves for finally levying a duty on books, though no mention was made of their pride in breaking an international treaty.
As the narrator of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker Prize–winning novel, The White Tiger, says, “Stories of rottenness and corruption are always the best stories, aren’t they?”
Now, once again, Filipinos can read those words from a foreign author and customs can reap the benefits. And Shoshie? We were just reading a Filipino folktale the other night about a certain King Crab and his war with the mosquitoes. She only laughed when I suggested she might like to grow up to be Queen Crab.