Vanuatu, Republic of: Interview with Mr. Benjamin Malas

Mr. Benjamin Malas

Director (Vanuatu Customs & Inland Revenue (CIR))

Mr. Benjamin Malas

Between tax incentives, friendly and hardworking people, and tropical climate, the Pacific Islands are a great place for international investors. In your opinion, what is the biggest potential that Vanuatu has to offer international investors over the rest of the Pacific Islands?

For the moment, there is no Income Tax in place (only next year onwards), and that is an advantage for startup investors. Political stability is another advantage for international investment.

Yet another one is compliance with Revised Kyoto Convention international standards, therefore being recognized by the World Customs Organization as meeting international best practices (a 21st Century Customs Office). We are fully committed to walk such path, strongly promoting integrity, which should be the highest value; for once one applies fairness in dealing with customers one gains their trust and the “message” gets passed around the world.

After all, we are the “gatekeepers” and once you lose your client’s trust no one else will come through the gates; that is (personally), why I do not tolerate misconduct or misbehavior in the organization and if it happens it is dealt with accordingly. For such purpose, we have a “new customs act” in place since 2010, and are still working towards meeting other conventions and regulations, which are relevant to support our activity.

The mission Customs and Inland Revenue (CIR) is: for the good of Vanuatu, Collect Revenue, Protect our Borders and Facilitate Legitimate Trade. What are your priorities as Director en these areas right now?

As we speak, the department of Customs and Revenue is undergoing a needed modernization and reform program (comprehending several funded projects), since fulfilling our mission of assuring our boarders to be safe plus ensuring needed revenue being collected while facilitating legitimate trade, requires having good systems in place.

We have two big divisions: Customs and Inland Revenue:

Customs wise we are introducing a Software System named Asycuda-World (in fact migrating from current ASYCUDA ++ version), managing cross border trade. It is a software being used by around 92 nations and supplied by UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development).

Inland Revenue wise we have the RMS Software, also now being migrated to RMS 7 Uplink which will take care of: income tax; e-filing and online payments, so more focused on paperless.  

Last September was created the Customs Brokers and Freight Forwarders Association. CIR was very supportive with the creation of this association. How important is the establishment of an open relationship between customs and the private sector?

To become compliant with existing trade best practices, it is vital to have the private sector support and buy-in. Therefore, our systems are also required to meet their needs (not just our needs). We are being evaluated by World Bank studies based on the time it takes for goods to be processed and customs clearance given.

Bottom line, we need to train our partners to become professionals at it, not only having the knowhow but becoming experts. They are the ones defining tariffs and matching them with goods, plus producing the invoice and providing clearance. So, to “go digital”, with electronic invoicing and paperless processes we need to trust them, having the error level shrunk to an absolute acceptable minimum.

What is relevant for us is to empower revenue. We have just realized that this year’s revenue budget of 12,3 billion was in fact exceeded (so we met our target and went beyond). My goal, nevertheless is to have the Government aware of how much we can make in revenue and being able to decide on how to proceed towards International Investment, by either lowering or maintain the income tax.

Following the conclusion of the National nCEN training on 6th July 2016, Vanuatu Customs now joins Fiji Customs as the only two Customs Administrations in the Pacific region, and only 20 others in the World, to have implemented this Customs intelligence system. How do you think this reposition Vanuatu customs on an international level? How this can benefit international trade?

By January 2018, and concerning immigration, we shall be taking over the role of boarder primary lane presence processing entity, so over the years to come you won’t see an immigration visa or passport being stopped. Having such a system in network with other custom offices around the world, enables intelligence sharing and therefore to better manage who comes into the country as well as how to deal with certain visitors while in the country.

The relevancy of the CIR Director’s role derives from being the referee at this “game” of people and assets moving around the world and arriving at Vanuatu; therefore, managing and minimizing such inherent risks and by doing so ensuring a good environment for investments to take place.

There is no doubt that Vanuatu Customs & Inland Revenue Department is an example for other regional countries.

Yes, we have defined our strategy, change the laws accordingly and now are reshaping the structure to best fit and address the needs of our clients.

As Government officials, we are responsible for the future of this country. When traveling to our remote islands (and this is something I have emphasized in several forums), I can’t help but feeling heart broken by the local health conditions; so, one of my tasks is to make sure revenue pours in and then it is applied towards mitigating such pain points that we have.

You were appointed as Director of the Department of Customs & Inland Revenue as of 18th of September 2014. What do you thing are you biggest achievements since then?

Having built an organization (through a Change Management process) which is stable and vibrant while respecting the “Chain of Command” plus being led by example.

As you can see I have here with me two Bibles, and I run my organization as something very precious for the country, which I treasure, therefore looking after my staff as my own big family; sometimes in General Staff meetings I tell them: I am your father.