IT WAS PROBABLY THE BRIGHT purple sheath dress she wore when then President-elect Benigno Aquino III announced the members of his Cabinet that made TV viewers take notice of Julia (pronounced Hul-ya) Abad.
The gamine-looking, 31-year-old Abad, who was standing behind Mr. Aquino, literally stood out among the soberly dressed men sitting behind him. Ironically, the new chief of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS) wants a low profile.
Younger sister Patsy thought Abad went overboard in her get-up. ?Grabe, Ate, ang arte mo naman,? she said after seeing Abad on TV.
It seems looking good is Abad?s coping mechanism for the stress that is slowly building up.
?I don?t want to be stressed and look it,? she said with a smile. ?Stressed ka na nga, pangit ka pa.?
Abad was taking time to relax in her rented house in Quezon City when the Inquirer arrived for a hastily arranged interview. This time, she wore a bright yellow sheath dress and walked around her digs barefoot.
Her living room is a calming mix of Asian, shabby chic and minimalism.
On the walls are ink drawings made by her brother Pio. ?He drew them straight on the paper. He didn?t use a pencil to draft them first,? she said proudly.
Abad disappeared and quickly came back with a watercolor painting, this time made by her father, Budget Secretary Florencio ?Butch? Abad, which she hung above a console laden with jars and candles.
?I think this is his only painting. I think he made it during a time when he was very bored,? Abad said.
The work dated 2008 features a lighthouse and two unidentifiable human figures?a scene from picturesque Batanes, where Abad was married two years ago to Englishman Andrew Parker.
Behind the scene
Abad was initially uncomfortable with being interviewed. Most of the time she had her arms crossed in front of her chest, her back very straight as she sat on her sofa.
?I don?t want to be a high-profile personality. I think that ... just as PMS has [lain low] through the years, as just the support mechanism for the President, so should I as the head,? she said.
?We work behind the scene. It?s the President that the public should focus on. It?s just enough to know that we?re providing support for the President and we?re doing the best we can. We know we won?t do everything perfectly but that we?re doing what we can, and giving it our best shot.?
The work of PMS is basically technical in nature, unlike those of busier departments whose secretaries are constantly visible. Abad said this made her ?glad.?
?PMS is a support staff system for the President. I think that?s why he asked me to [head] it because that kind of work is what we?ve been doing for him in the [Senate]?so, in terms of being familiar with what his needs are, technical staff work and support,? she said.
PMS as troubleshooter
Asked to explain, Abad said: ?PMS does whatever the President asks it to do. It was intended to provide policy support to the President, get inputs from the departments, digest [them], process [them] and [give] feedback to him so that when he asks what?s going on in this sector, you [can] provide a brief for him using inputs from the different departments.
?But I guess over the years, it evolved depending on the personality of the President it was serving. [At some point, the staff] added the screening of certain appointees [to its job description]. Also the preparation for presidential engagements, monitor priority projects if they were being done on time, sort [out] institutional conflicts that needed to be resolved...
?After a while, parang naging troubleshooter.
?But in the end, it really depends on what the President asks you to do.?
Chief of staff
Abad was Mr. Aquino?s chief of staff (COS) during his three years as senator. They met by chance shortly after he won in 2007 and just as she was preparing to take up further studies in Singapore.
He asked if she would consider becoming his COS ?because he wanted a young team.?
Obviously, Mr. Aquino was pleased with her performance. Her name was among the first he announced as joining his Cabinet.
Abad said Mr. Aquino had become ?used to the style of his [Senate] staff.?
?That?s why he wants to bring it in?so that [the transition] is seamless. You continue providing the same kind of support that he?s been used to, and I would think when you?re going to a new thing, it?s good to have a similar, familiar and dependable kind of support,? she said.
But Abad was not entirely unfamiliar with Mr. Aquino before she signed up as his COS.
She recalled that back when she was a kid in the 1980s until Mr. Aquino?s initial stint at the House of Representatives, he and her father were involved in work in various nongovernment organizations.
After studying communications at Ateneo de Manila University, Abad worked as a writer for the Ayala Foundation, as the executive assistant of then Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman before the ?Hello Garci? election fraud scandal, and as ?citizen participation intern? of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.
She went to the John F. Kennedy School of Government for a master?s degree and returned to Ateneo to teach political science.
By the time Mr. Aquino offered her the COS post, ?I was doing foundation work,? Abad said, adding:
?I thought maybe I want to do something related to public policy. So I?d even gone to do some interviews at the National University of Singapore. I was almost going to get a job there when I came back here after [the 2007] elections.
?I saw [Mr. Aquino] and he said, ?You know, it?s good I ran into you because I want to talk to you. I?m looking for a chief of staff, would you consider??
?I was surprised. He?s friends with my dad and he wants me to work for him. I thought, ?Gosh, chief of staff ng senator! I didn?t know how to answer.
?He said, ?You think about it. Let me know by the end of the week.? By the evening I thought, it?s a good challenge.
?I come from a political family. But I took up communications in college because everyone expected me to take up political science. I don?t want to go into that just because; I want to know if it?s something I really like.
?I tried to do other things, so it?s a little bit of a tug-of-war. I vacillated between doing private like NGO, foundation work and doing government. So if you look at my CV, you?ll see that [I?m here and there] pabalik-balik ako.?
?I know him better?
Abad thought Mr. Aquino?s COS offer was ?an opportunity to work for someone who believed in things that I cared about even when I wasn?t working in government...?
?In the beginning, it was [an issue] of getting used to what he wants?the kind of writing, what sort of information he thinks is important...? Abad said.
?What?s important to one person is not important to another, so you need to know how to filter to suit your principal... Now [in the PMS], it?s a little easier because I know him better. I don?t have to keep running and asking for approval for everything,? she said.
Mr. Aquino thinks she?s ?very macro? and does not ?micro-manage,? Abad said. ?I pick people that I trust. And then I let them do their own thing.?
She said that when Mr. Aquino got used to her style as his COS in the Senate, he learned that her preferences were ?sort of the same as his.?
Abad was part of Mr. Aquino?s transition team that met with its counterpart in the Arroyo administration. She was also privy to how some Cabinet members were selected, but would rather downplay her role.
She said Mr. Aquino ?discussed things with me while he was making decisions.?
Her dad?s daughter
Just as Mr. Aquino drew brickbats from campaign critics for capitalizing on being his parents? son, Abad said she had become aware of similar opinions from some sectors. (Her father earlier warned the Inquirer: ?Don?t call her Butch Abad?s daughter!?)
?It was the President who said during his campaign, ?What kind of person you are today, you cannot deny that who your parents are has contributed significantly to your inborn talents, as well as the character that you?ve developed through the years,?? Abad said.
?As for achievements, those you can claim to be your own. But sometimes I?d like to say [to others], ?Kayo naman, introduce me as my own person so I have my own personality.? But I?ve gotten used to it,? she said.
Abad added: ?I?m proud to say that I?ve managed to keep my family and my professional life quite separate. It?s hard to work with your dad. We worked together in the campaign also (she as Mr. Aquino?s COS in the Senate and he as campaign manager of the Liberal Party). So you have to really put a fine line between when are you the daughter and when are you colleagues, especially when you relate to your principal.
?When he thinks about us, I don?t want him to think of us as father and daughter, except when he can?t find my dad. ?Where?s your dad? Hanapin mo (Find him).? That?s the only time.?
?I really am the daughter of Butch and Dina Abad. There?s nothing you can do about it and actually, I?m quite proud to be their child. I wouldn?t be this kind of person if they were not my parents. But I would like to think that where I got to today, I probably did largely on my own, and I think they will agree.?
It?s been said that the positions Abad and her father hold in the Aquino Cabinet, as well as her mother?s fresh term in the House, put all three in a delicate situation.
Cyberspace is full of such comments from Filipino bloggers, with one saying that the Abads are in an enviable place: ?Ang sarap maging Abad ngayon.?
To this Abad said with a shy giggle: ?For now, our qualifications will have to speak for themselves. If you will look at my and his qualifications, they?re not to be sniffed at.
?I would like to think we?re both qualified for what we?ve been asked to do. And later on, we?ll just have to be judged by our performance, whether we?ve managed to keep that line between family and profession.?
In the meantime, critics will have to contend with Mr. Aquino?s declaration that Abad enjoys his ?absolute trust.?
Youth on her side
After the interview, Abad arranged the folders, thick sheaves of documents and occasional magazine on foreign affairs that she had brought home from work.
She groaned that she had no time to organize.
The future is predictable: Her dining table would be covered with reports and all sorts of paper work soon enough.
But unlike other government executives, one thing Abad has on her side is her youth. Which leads to an amusing story.
Right after Mr. Aquino?s inaugural on June 30, Abad and her family proceeded to Malacañang to attend the other functions set for the day.
Sister Patsy, whom Abad described as having ?the same hair and build,? was mistaken for her several times.
?She?s 20 and I?m 31, and we can still be mistaken for each other! So many people shook her hand,? said an amused Abad.