Jun Abaya: New battle for ex-Navy man

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SECRETARY ABAYA Keeping a razor-sharp focus on the task at hand ARNOLD ALMACEN

Military officers take pride in the specialized training that equips them with the skills to tackle and complete any task given to them, whether on the battlefield or beyond.

Those skills are certainly coming in handy for Joseph “Jun” Abaya at the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), which he has headed for less than a year.

Abaya, who was on his third term as a Cavite representative when he was appointed DOTC secretary, has all the academic credentials to make a top-grade military officer and political leader, and then some.

He was an engineering student at the University of the Philippines when he topped the entrance examinations for the Philippine Military Academy. He was sent on a government scholarship to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where he finished his bachelor’s degree in mathematics with distinction.

He is a master’s degree holder in electrical engineering from Cornell University and earned a law degree from Ateneo de Manila University.

Abaya’s lineage goes all the way back to the President of the First Philippine Republic, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, who is his great grandfather. He is also a descendant of the Ilocano revolutionary hero Isabelo Abaya.

 

Different kind of battle

These days, however, Abaya is fighting a different kind of battle, as the DOTC has to content with public discontent, if not anger, over inefficient transportation services, a looming fare hike at the Metro Manila railway systems and recent air and sea accidents.

As one of the major implementing agencies of President Aquino’s public-private-partnership (PPP) program, the DOTC has also become the face of frustration over the delays in the roll-out of these crucial infrastructure projects.

At a recent roundtable discussion with Inquirer editors and reporters, Abaya made no excuses for these perceived shortcomings. His attitude is surely a reflection of his military training: keeping a razor-sharp focus on the task or tasks at hand.

Long-running issues

Three years into the Aquino administration, the DOTC still has to address long-running issues like the inadequacies of the country’s mass transport system and airports, particularly the controversial Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s (Naia) Terminal 3.

In addition, Philippine carriers are still unable to expand further into the US and Europe because of the restrictions imposed by their federal aviation authorities since 2008 and 2010, respectively, over safety concerns.

According to Abaya, a reassessment in the thinking at the DOTC may help in finally resolving these issues, possibly before the end of the Aquino administration.

What he found when he took over the department from now Interior Secretary Mar Roxas was that everything was to be a priority, he said.

“Everything in the pipeline I just have to push out, whether airports, railways or ports,” he said.

“I think now we had to rethink that and we have to focus on certain projects. I don’t think it would be a lesser [scenario] than what we started. We just have to focus that indeed key projects need to happen,” Abaya said.

2016 cutoff date

By the end of Mr. Aquino’s term, Abaya expects most PPP projects of the DOTC, valued at about $2 billion, would be finished or awarded.

“If the cutoff is 2016, probably 70 percent of what we talked about could be finished. The 30 percent would be after. It’s important that these projects are awarded,” he said, referring to contracts covering railway and airport rehabilitation and operations.

Keeping to the good governance and transparency tenets of the “tuwid na daan (straight path)” administration will also reduce, if not eliminate, any chance that these projects could be reversed under a different administration, he said.

“I think with the way we are going about things now, there would not be enough grounds to reverse these projects,” Abaya said.

Being transparent means that the Aquino government will not go for unsolicited projects because of past experience, he said.

“Clearly, the bias of the government is to go through the solicited proposal route. Before, unsolicited was very common,” Abaya said.

“What we have learned from that is the private proponent comes in with a grand plan, government bites then signs up not knowing what it is getting into. The project gets implemented and then we wonder ‘what happened?’” Abaya said.

New airports, etc.

While PPP projects are important for the government’s goal to boost infrastructure investments, which in turn fuels sustainable economic growth, the DOTC is also doing plenty of work outside the PPP framework.

New provincial airports, for instance, are being funded and built by the DOTC. These include airport facilities in Panglao, Bohol; Puerto Princesa, Palawan; Caraga in northeastern Mindanao; and Tacloban, Leyte.

For Naia Terminal 3, the agency is hoping that Japan’s Takenaka Corp., the airport’s original contractor, would soon sign a construction work agreement. This will allow Naia Terminal 3, which opened in 2008 but still operates at half of its intended capacity, to achieve full operational status by the first quarter of 2014.

As for the US and European Union bans, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), an attached agency of the DOTC, expects both to be lifted possibly within the year.

The real face of DOTC

Apart from these initiatives, the DOTC is also moving to improve its own services catering to public commuters through its attached agencies, the Land Transportation Office (LTO) and Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB).

“I always say the real face of DOTC to the public is the LTO and LTFRB,” Abaya said.

The LTO is looking to release soon new plate numbers with enhanced security features.

The DOTC will also be bidding out the information technology service provider contract for the LTO, so the agency can finally be linked to the LTFRB, paving the way for more efficient services to motorists.

Much has been made of Abaya’s military background. Not many know that he actually served as aide-de-camp to then President Cory Aquino, the President’s late mother, when he was a young Navy lieutenant.

Upon his return to the Philippines from Annapolis, he joined the Philippine Navy as an Ensign. It was during his assignment as presidential services officer with the presidential yacht, Ang Pangulo, that Cory Aquino tapped him to become her aide-de-camp. He served for 20 years with the Navy, retiring with the rank of lieutenant commander.

Abaya then ran for a congressional seat in Cavite’s first district. He is a close ally of Roxas in the ruling Liberal Party. Because he kept out of the limelight, unlike his more ambitious colleagues, Abaya was the largely unseen manager of the House impeachment team that prosecuted ousted Chief Justice Renato Corona at the latter’s Senate trial last year.

Naval traditions at DOTC

But it seems naval traditions—at least in terms of showing respect to seniors—continue at the DOTC.

Abaya, who turned 47 this year and is one of the youngest secretaries in the Aquino Cabinet, addresses a lot of people in his department as “Sir.”

“Like the guys in CAAP are more senior than me,” he said. The CAAP chief, Lt. Gen. William Hotchkiss III, is 70.

This former military man, however, admits that he does not find “much pleasure” in recreational shooting, the favorite pastime of President Aquino, who, his critics believe, tends to favor his “shooting buddies” for plum government positions.

But for as long as Abaya’s policies are on target, the public and his commander in chief shouldn’t mind one bit.

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