During a long flight from Indonesia to Sweden, this thought crossed my mind: I will land in a country that tops Transparency International's list for its anticorruption environment.
As a customs official in Indonesia, where my office is publicly perceived as corrupt, I was keen to see the customs administration environment in Sweden and compare it with that in my own country. I assumed that in a "clean" country, there must be a "clean" customs office that I can learn from.
A few months after my arrival, I arranged to visit the customs office in Gothenburg, the city with largest port in Sweden. It was a very simple arrangement without complicated procedures, which was fully facilitated by an official from Tullverkert, the local name for Swedish customs, headquartered in Stockholm.
I sent her an email to introduce myself as a customs official from Indonesia, who was assigned to study in Sweden, and keen to do a field survey of the local customs office. She replied promptly to my request, and put me in contact with someone at the local customs office on the designated day.
I was scheduled to visit the office in the middle of winter, and met for a few minutes with the head of the office and her deputy. They introduced themselves and a counterpart - a senior customs inspector, similar in rank to my post at the Tanjung Priok customs office. So, two customs inspectors from two different countries and settings met.
Since we shared similar official tasks, the conversation got warm and fascinating. Basically, as customs inspectors, our task is to determine the customs tariffs and valuations that result in an order to pay, if any, tax and duties, and then to issue a permit to release the goods from the port.
In Indonesia, this task is technically not so difficult, particularly if the import declaration is well documented. But sometimes it becomes very difficult when the importers only provide limited supporting documents and information. It becomes even more difficult if the importers have some hidden agenda for this, and tease us with bribes or even terrorize us to get their goods released.
The same experience was also shared by my counterpart in Sweden, but it was far less pressure here. All importers are registered in a computerized system. The importers also work in an environment where the competition between them is critical for survival.
In this environment, only few staff are required. At the Gothenburg customs office, there are less than 100 employees, a very efficient number for the largest port in Scandinavia, with total throughput of more than 850,000 TEUs per year, compared to Tanjung Priok Port, which has throughput of only 250,000 TEUs per year, served by more than 1,000 employees.
I told my counterpart that a similar policy had also been applied in my country. However, this policy was only applied a few years ago, and may much time to eliminate bad importers and customs brokers. Another reason for the delay is the transparency and fairness in determining bad and the good importers. The criteria and the list should be made transparent to the public, so they can assess for themselves and see the performance of these importers. By doing so, the spirit of competition to become a good importer or customs broker will spread quickly.
At the Gothenburg customs office, you will not see many noisy people or even a crowd. During my visit, I saw fewer than five importers come to the office, which itself is very small. I asked my counterpart, "Why so few?" And he replied, "Why does there have to be a lot?" The importers can submit and manage their document from their office through the Internet-based system. The only reason they come to the office is if there is a particular case or appointment for goods inspection. And I just smiled, remembering how in my country there is an ironical redundancy that has been around for many years.
And my counterpart told me that not all documents had to be checked by customs inspectors, only a few of them, end even then for particular cases, such as for personal imports. It is too difficult, if not impossible, for a customs inspector to check the veracity of a company's import declaration without having access to their bookkeeping.
I reflected on what he said, with my personal experience when examining the documents of automotive companies, consisting of thousands of items. It is impossible for a customs inspector to spend the whole day accurately checking each item.
So to avoid a flood of people and documents at the customs office, we need trustworthy companies willing to maintain their bookkeeping and documents, and willing to cooperate for audits in addition to the electronic submission system, or EDI. Otherwise, the electronic system will just become an additional burden that proves costly with less significant purpose. Do such companies and systems exist in Indonesia? I believe so, and it is the task of the government to improve them by setting the appropriate rules.
In fact, having good importers and customs brokers in addition to reforming customs officials and the electronic system are tremendously important. You cannot raise good fish in a polluted pond.
Thus preparing good customs officials and a sophisticated system is important, but not enough without setting a suitable customs environment. In short, the customs reform will never succeed without a reform of the customs environment as a whole.
Therefore, a social re-engineering of this environment is necessary. In the era of free trade liberalization and regional integration, such an attempt should be at the top of the agenda for the upcoming government to keep the country globally competitive and maintain the reform movement.The writer is an inspector at the Finance Ministry's Directorate General of Customs and Excise, and a PhD candidate in technology management at Chalmers Tekniska H*gskola, Gothenburg, Sweden. The views expressed are his own.