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JALAL looks back over four decades

Solomoni Biumaiono
Sunday, February 17, 2013

Jalal Ud Dean is one of the few people who worked in the Customs Department when Fiji was still a British colony. Joining Customs in 1968 as an assistant customs officer he spent the next 42 years working for the department and eventually became the general manager.

He retired three years ago and for the last two weekends has been sharing with us his personal experiences at a customer officer and the various changes that took place within this frontline organisation that greets everything that or everyone who enters the country.

When he was recently asked of some of his recollections and unforgettable memories, Dean mused that writing them down would fill several pages.

He, however, told of his early days when he joined as an assistant Customs officer in 1968 when shipping was the main mode of transportation and the aeroplane was just starting to make waves.

"These covered from my very junior days, when I was an ACO and all the bullying we got from senior officers by getting us to do those tasks which they did not want to do. There was no ocean container traffic in those days and all cargo came loose on pallets," Dean recalled.

Back then all cargo sheds were open 24 hours and seven days a week and Dean said working long hours was a part of a normal working day in those days and at times work would continue well into the night and sometimes, work would start at midnight.

"Overtime hardly mattered because our wages were so low. The business hours were from Monday to Saturday and there were so many unforgettable memories at the wharf, in the Customhouse, in the Long Room, at the airports and the baggage halls."

In those days, the Customs officers' uniform was all-white, shirts and shorts with white stocking and black shoes and Dean said it was always hard trying to keep this crisp white uniform clean, especially at the wharves where dust caused by the transportation of cargo always find its way to soil them.

Dean is all old school and rightly so too. Unlike Customs officers nowadays, he did not have the luxury of depending on sophisticated computers and X-ray machines to scan people and cargo.

Even then, he was among some of the best Customs officers back in those days, especially when it came to scanning people arriving at our airports and wharves.

"All detection depended on the Customs officer's skills in studying body language. I caught many smugglers in my career and the good aspects were that I always received letters of commendation and several monetary rewards," he said. Dean testified that back in those days, the most smuggled item into Fiji was opium which was brought in from Asian countries.

"Fiji had a society of opium addicts, who lived around opium dens," Dean said.

During his 42 year career as a Customs officer Dean served under 10 Comptroller of Customs and they were Ernst T John Mabbs, Mr Charles Wooley, Leslie J Gardiner, R H Bechan.

The first local Comptroller was Suresh Chandra whose term was cut short by the 1987 coup before Ratilal took over. Then other locals who held the post also included Abid Ali, Tomasi Canuwale, Phil Sargent and Tony O'Connor was the last one after the Comptroller of Customs & Excise was operationally abolished by law and replaced with general manager Customs & Excise.

The change in positional name marked the change in the Customs Department which ushered in the modern era for this organisation.

Spurred by Australian aid, the institutional strengthening project overhauled not only the management structure of the Inland Revenue and Customs Departments but also improved their operational capacity and equipment.

It is, however, prior to this that the Customs Department first started innovating and improving its services and the first significant step was taken in 1968 when Customs laws that were written in the 1800s were finally repealed and replaced with more modern laws as apart from shipping, cargo transported by air started entering the country.

"Innovation in Customs commenced with purchase of Facit (Italian) mechanical electric calculators, which were large and heavy, and rattled away with lots of mechanically geared wheels that calculated by columns as pounds, shillings and pennies," Dean said.

These were later replaced with the Burroughs desk-top calculators, which used paper rolls and manual lever-action.

"In those days, battery-operated pocket calculators were not invented and all calculations were done manually as long-hand on pieces of paper. Later Customs purchased Burroughs electric ledger machines to record all collections by the cashier.

Customs records and official correspondence were kept using carriage-type Imperial typewriters but the mode of writing things down was still retained and kept in thick registers, a common legacy of Fiji's Colonial beginnings.

Dean still remembers the various Customs systems that was used in Fiji right from the colonial days up to the present.

In 1969, Dean said the Customs department entered a curve of significant changes where it adopted the Brussels Tariff Nomenclature system of tariff classification.

"The new Tariff book continued with the two-column system of duty rates. The two columns were Preferential and General Rates of Duty. Countries of origin which were members of the British Commonwealth attracted lower rates of duty and those which were not attracted double the Preferential Rates," he said.

And in the following year, Fiji became independent and again, things have to change because of the change in currency and weights and measures into metric system.

From 1970 onwards the Customs Department started relinquishing most of its responsibilities outside the area of landing goods and this saw the birth of organisations like the Ports Authority of Fiji which took over all wharfs and dock area control and the harbour master and port pilot roles.

Another one was the Marine Department which later became the Marine Department's Shipping Services.

Fiji was using the older Standard International Classification system and in October of 1970 adopted the new Brussels Tariff Nomenclature system.

In 1974 Fiji again switched the Custom tariffs to single line but this was again changed in 1984 into the new Harmonised System of tariff classification.

The system was so tedious because Customs officers, as it was customary in the government budget process, had to collate figures for the national budget

"Every annual Fiji government budget, Customs officers had to work extremely long hours manually collating complex figures, dissecting the figures from the Bureau of Statistics analysis of Customs entry totals and converting old SITC codes to new BTN codes.

"In 1983, Customs purchased a few desk-top computers, mainly to do the annual Budget work," Dean said.

This was when the Customs Department first went computerised where all its records were kept in a database.

It was not until 1996 when the department undertook the institution strengthening project that everything was finally put into computers.

"Innovation continued by having a flatter structure and general upgrade of Customs Officers to get higher education and specialisations in certain fields," Dean said.

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