Saturday, May 23, 2009


There is a huge uproar that is been going on for the last 3 weeks or so if one has been following Philippine based blogs. And recently, that “outrage” has even spread to mainstream media with several high profile columnists/journalists expressing their “indignation” on the matter. The heart of issue is about the taxation of imported books to the country which ultimately led to what Robin Hemley, an expatriate in the Philippines described as “The Great Book Blockade of 2009”. The whole brouhaha started when a book importer ordered a huge shipment of the popular Twilight novels of Stephanie Meyers (ostensibly to satisfy Filipino booklovers craving for vampire romance) and once that shipment arrived to the country, Customs led by a certain Rene Agulan refused to let the cargo out of the port not unless the book importer paid the “proper” custom duties on the shipment to which the importer initially refused citing the Florence Agreement. The Florence Agreement is an international treaty signed in 1952 by 98 countries around the world of which the Philippines is one of the signatories. The treaty’s objective is to promote international understanding by allowing the free circulation of educational, cultural, and scientific books. The means to promote such free circulation is through the removal of custom fees among the signatories of the treaty. It is because of that, no Philippine book importer had paid any custom duties for the last 57 years until that incident. The particular enterprising custom officer, Rene Agulan’s stated reason for his stance is that the Twilight novels were neither educational nor cultural and certainly it ain’t scientific at all hence, that particular importer had to pay custom duties somewhere between 1 – 5%. Because of the mounting storage costs of the withheld cargo, the particular book importer relented and paid the said duties. That act of “kowtowing” to the rapacious appetite of government for money (of which the government is perennially short of it due to ….) has set off a “bad” precedent. Every imported book shipment since then were levied a custom duties of 1 – 5%. This naturally raised a howl of protest from all the book importers, who refused to pay and sought out government explanation on the matter. What transpired was something of a tragic comedy. Sought for explanation, a wisecracked Department of Finance (the supervising government body of the Customs Bureau) undersecretary Espele Sales, who is also probably an expert grammar professor, cited a passage of the enabling law, R.A. 8047 to defend government’s action. According to her, the law provided for “the tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing”. Because of a “missing” or “vanished” comma right after the word books, our creative undersecretary interpreted the passage as to mean only “books used as raw materials in book publishing” are exempt from paying taxes. Every other else is subject to tax. Geez! She must be a pretty darn good grammar expert! I mean for the past 57 years, nobody got the “interpretation” of the law right until she came along (incidentally, if you have to get a good lawyer, get Espele Sales because she could help you to walk free of bloody murder by simply reviewing the incriminating affidavits for grammatical error or typographical errors which thus void its usefulness as an incriminating evidence). Anyway, because of the tiff between the book importers and the Tax agency, it was alleged that for two months, no new books has entered the Philippines (and hence the term, “The Great Book Blockade of 2009). It is no wonder that I felt that there is a dearth of new titles in the shelves the past few months. Anyway, like all issues in this country, this particular issue has also 2 opposite sides/opinions. On one side, there are those who doubted the very existence of a “blockade”. They argued that books never “disappeared” from the shelves at all during the tiff, which is quite true, a dearth of new titles maybe but disappearance? So where is the blockade? Furthermore, these people argued that 1 – 5% tax is “minimal” and that the “ridiculous” book prices are more of the book sellers doing. On the other side, some people are indignant; indignant of the government’s insatiable demand for “blood”, sucking every penny out of people’s pocket just to line theirs. The more statesman – ly of them argued that the government’s action are in contravention of the government’s lofty goal of uplifting the people’s literacy. By restricting the free circulation of books, we defeat the policy of expanding knowledge and literacy. Furthermore, the action amounts to a censorship and is an assault to the people’s freedom. Also, the government’s unilateral action has reneged it’s commitment to the spirit of the Florence Agreement to which it is a signatory. As such, it sends a “wrong” signal to the world that the Philippines government is whimsical when it comes to policy adherence and applications. Well, that’s in a nutshell, what the whole Great Book Blockade of 2009 is all about. So what do I think about the whole enchilada? Well, personally, I’m against the imposition of the duties on imported books (even though I’m not really a fan of vampire fiction) and my reason isn’t those lofty ideals of freedom but something more “grounded”. You see Philippine books are pretty expensive! I should know because I’m a book lover, I like reading books and I also collect books (to date, my Anobii account listed 271 books and I not only buy books from the local stores but also during my foreign trips). A “really good (imported) book” in the Philippines, hard bound, excellent paper quality written by a noted author can command a price of upwards 2000 pesos. The paperback edition of such book with nice paper quality sells at around Php1500 to Php2000. A “good book” (one in which the author is not that popular) with a nice paper quality typically sells around Php1000 – 1500. Between Php800 – Php1000 are the “downsized” version of a typically good book or the so – called mass paperback copies. Below Php500 are books whose printed pages are of newsprint quality. By comparison, in China, a paperback edition book with nice paper quality costs around Php300 – 400 (converted already) tops. As a matter of fact, last December, during my vacation in China, I’ve bought 7 books for 341 RMB or roughly Php2500 total. Imagine 7 books for the price of 2 or maybe even 1 bought in the Philippines (the books I’ve bought in China are scholarly works on Chinese History). Now that is expensive. It is due to this high price of books that book buying and collecting is fast becoming an expensive “hobby” of the “well – to – do”. A “financially struggling” individual can’t “afford” to read and collect books even if he loves books. It is for this reason that an imposition of a few percentage points of custom duties on the cost of books would only make books more expensive and the matter worse. However, it won’t be that bad if we have a “functioning” public library system instead of a pathetic one that we have now. In other countries I’ve been to, the public library system was so well – managed and well – endowed that people actually flock to it and literally crammed it. An example would be the Hong Kong Central Library, right across Victoria Park in Hong Kong, one of my favorite places. The Hong Kong Central Library is huge, 8 floors tall like a shopping mall but instead of merchandise on its shelves, it’s all books. The place is so popular with the locals that every seat in the place is taken and one literally has to sit on the floor in corner with his back against the wall just to be able to enjoy his reading. You can’t find those here in the Philippines. Without an “effective” public library system and with books getting expensive, how do you expect Filipinos who want to read to be able to read? One Anobii member used to say that “a room without books is like a person without his soul”. Perhaps not everybody would agree with his view but I think everybody could agree with me when I say that “you are what you read or didn’t read”. So, ever wonder why our country is like this?

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