December 30, 2012

What drives Jun Abaya?

(Transportation and Communications Sec. Jun Abaya with his wife, Dr. Ria Abesamis-Abaya.)

IT probably isn’t easy to be named after a revolutionary hero like Emilio Aguinaldo, but Joseph Emilio Aguinaldo Abaya, the new transportation secretary, seems to carry it quite well.

In fact, Abaya, or Jun to his friends, seems every bit the overachiever as his great grandfather, the first president of the Philippine republic. Second in a family of six boys of former Congressman Plaridel Abaya and Consuelo Aguinaldo, he is currently acting president of the Liberal Party where word has it that he is being groomed as a future presidential standard bearer. (He insists President Aquino was just joking when the latter said, “Baka ikaw na rin ang susunod na magiging pangulo” at a recent LP sortie.)

Until recently, he was chairman of the powerful House Committee on Appropriations which successfully passed the 2013 budget. He also managed the House of Representatives prosecution panel during the historic impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.

Even in his youth, Abaya seemed quite in the thick of things. He was some sort of math genius and a consistent honor student at Philippine Science High School, the elite secondary school for the country’s...uhm...nerds.

While studying to be an electrical engineer at the University of the Philippines, Abaya took and topped the entrance exams at the Philippine Military Academy. (His dad was a former PMAer as well.) This qualified him to join the US Naval Academy where he was able to get a BS Math degree in 1988. Unsurprisingly, Abaya was a consistent dean’s lister at the Annapolis institution.

From there, Abaya studied for his Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering at Cornell University in New York. Upon his return to the Philippines, he served as aide-de-camp to President Corazon Aquino while enlisted in the Philippine Navy. With his father on his third term as congressman, Abaya went to the Ateneo Law School to prepare himself for a legislator’s life. He became a member of the Bar in 2007. He eventually retired from active military service after 20 years, with the rank of lieutenant commander.

(In similar fashion, at age 17, Emilio Aguinaldo was already a barangay official in the town of Binakayan, in what is known as the present-day Kawit, Cavite, according to Wikipedia. By 26, he was already Kawit’s first municipal captain. As member of the Magdalo faction of the Katipunan, Emilio successfully held off and defeated the Spaniards in various battles in Cavite. At age 29, Aguinaldo was elected first president of the Philippine republic. He died in 1964 at the age of 94, just two years before Abaya was born. Abaya’s mother, Consuelo, is the daughter of Emilio Jr.)

(Abaya is acting president of the ruling Liberal Party...and perhaps, if President Aquino had his way, future President of the Philippines as well.)

Abaya says the stories that stick out the most about his Lolo was that “he had an anting-anting, and had a friendly kapre that sat in a huge tree [at his home in Kawit], that’s why he never lost any battles. Mom would say Lolo is a quiet type of person. He never spoke English, maybe because of his anger [toward the Americans]. When he lost to Manuel Quezon [in the presidential elections of 1935 under the Commonwealth government], Lolo dedicated his life to helping the veterans [who fought for independence from the Americans]. He just quietly faded away in Kawit. I don’t think he even drank nor smoked.”

The eventual question is, of course: Does Abaya ever dream of becoming president of the Philippines someday? “No. President ng Magtatahong at Magtatalaba ng Kawit, pwede pa!” he answers in jest, then lets out a hearty laugh. Seriously now, even President Aquino says so! “He always likes to make jokes. You don’t plan for those things,” Abaya insists.

With his boyish charm and endearing smile, Abaya can actually be mistaken for just another college student, especially when he dons his favorite ensemble of sports shirts, jeans and sneakers (or sometimes sandals). “Ria [his wife] knows if I can get away with wearing this everywhere, I would!” the DOTC chief says sheepishly.

Though exposed to the American life and culture while a student at Annapolis, Abaya’s taste in music is strictly Pinoy. He is a fan of Noel Cabangon, Joey Ayala and...wait for it...Yoyoy Villame.

As DOTC chief, Abaya says his most pressing concerns are: getting the country’s aviation safety status upgraded to Category 1, implementing a P10-increase in Metro Rail Transit fares in 2013, rebidding of the information technology infrastructure project under the Land Transportation Office, “getting Naia-3 fully commissioned and online and addressing the structural deficiencies of Naia-1,” hiring more aviation experts for the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines and air traffic controllers, to name a few.

(A young Abaya upon his graduation from the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1988.)

Considering the amount of work that has to be accomplished in a little less than four years until the Aquino administration steps down, this devoted soccer dad’s greatest fear about being DOTC secretary is spending less time with the family. “First of all, my response to the congratulations [on my appointment to DOTC] was, ‘Thank you. But kindly pray for us, but most especially for Ria and the kids. They’re the most affected sector in society with this decision.’”

For now, he still manages to bring the three kids to school in the morning, though the weekends are getting to be a challenge. (After our interview, which was held on a Sunday, he was off to Malacañang for the announcement of the Bangsamoro draft framework agreement. A pediatrician by profession, Abaya’s spouse, the former Ria Abesamis, tells me that she is realistic enough to expect that their regular family vacations may not include Jun in the meantime that he is serving in the government.)

But Abaya says he is determined to follow the example of the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, who always made it a point to be home with his family in Naga during the weekends. “The second [greatest fear], is not meeting the President’s expectations and the people’s expectations. Sabi ko nga, if the President figures out I’m a disservice to the people, I could easily go,” Abaya stresses.

“I think the amount of work…eventually I’ll catch up with it,” he adds. “I’m not intimidated by the technical stuff. The politics, the media…that is something I’m not used to. I don’t want to be the center of attention. But it’s part of the job, I will have to do it.”

By most accounts, Abaya passed his first formal press conference with the DOTC beat reporters with flying colors - our female and gay colleagues in media can't help but swoon over the the new secretary whom they think is a total dreamboat! (Oh, but wait ’til the consumer groups start protesting the MRT fare hike! Ouch!)

Sounds like the beginning of a thrilling ride for the good secretary.

(Something Like Life is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror. This profile of DOTC Sec. Jun Abaya was published on Oct. 16, 2012. This is the unabridged version. Photos courtesy the Abaya family.)

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