EDJA: The man who should have been president

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Senator Edgardo Angara, also known as "EDJA," would have been president in 2001 had he been elected as vice president when he ran with Joseph Estrada in 1998. The other night, he celebrated his birthday which also served as the launching of his UP Fellowship Program. Those who went to the celebration at the Makati Shangri-La were former president Erap Estrada and his colleagues in the Senate like Manny Villar, Migs Zubiri, Joker Arroyo and Loren Legarda. Ed has a lot of friends from business, media, the academe and of course the legal profession who, in one way or another, became part of ACCRA Law which he founded with Senator Juan Ponce Enrile.

Ed is probably the longest-serving senator in the post-EDSA Senate, and over the years, a lot of his legislative work has been geared towards strengthening the country's educational system and giving the poor equal access to education. Not so surprising considering that "EDJA" is a self-made man, born to a middle class family in Baler, Aurora. The late literary great Nick Joaquin, in his book Ed Angara: Seer of Sea and Sierra, described the dense jungles of Baler and the roaring ocean as the "gym and playground" of Baler's favorite son.

No doubt the senator's humble beginnings shaped his strong belief in education being the great equalizer. Even as a boy, he already showed extraordinary intellect, graduating as valedictorian in elementary and high school, putting himself through college in UP where he obtained his law degree. One of Ed Angara's landmark bills was the Free High School Act which made it possible even for the poorest among the poor to finish secondary education, and it was mainly though his efforts that the Commission of Higher Education (CHED) and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) were created - both of which have enabled the DepEd to focus on the job of providing basic education for Filipinos.

Ed says he has already put some 5,000 private scholars through college - many of them having finished various courses from UP, CEU, FEU, PUP and other private and state universities all over the country. Since 1994, close to five million poor students have benefited from institutionalized educational assistance programs and scholarships initiated by the senator, including a number of Fulbright scholars.

Commenting on the sorry state of education in the country in one of his past interviews, the senator - who was UP president for seven years - called the deteriorating situation "a ticking bomb." We have squandered our "intellectual capital," he said, pointing to the near-bottom rating of the Philippines in international achievement tests on various subjects, particularly in English comprehension.

When Angara was UP president, he fought for the State University to maintain its tradition of fiscal autonomy and academic excellence, linking up with the business community for faculty endowments. Naturally, having competent teachers is a key component in maintaining high academic standards - but how can the Philippines even expect students to have quality education if the teachers themselves - most especially in public schools - cannot even express themselves in good English, and lack the necessary teaching skills for Math, Science and other subjects that would give our youth at least a fighting chance in the global arena?

I am one of those who believe that if we are to give any form of charity to the less fortunate, the best kind would be anything that has to do with education. You can give money, material things, property and even land to people but these things can be lost. The only thing that will last is education - the one thing that cannot be sold or mortgaged, unlike "dole-outs" and virtual failures like the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program - where farmers ended up losing their land because they had to sell or mortgage their titles due to lack of agricultural support systems.

Even before he became Agriculture Secretary, Ed Angara already envisioned a fisheries modernization program where farmers and fisher folk would be given improved seeds and plant materials, provided better irrigation and given better financing and market access to improve their lot in life. Like gentlemen-farmers Danding Cojuangco and the late Enrique Zobel, Angara knew that the agriculture sector would be crucial in maintaining the country's food security and sufficiency.

More than giving land, what were equally important were post-harvest facilities for drying and storage of seeds and crops, farm-to-market roads and various infrastructure, as well as new technology to improve harvest. Obviously, the global food and rice crisis underscores the growing importance of the agriculture industry - a fact that people like Danding Cojuangco have been warning about for years.

Ed Angara turned 74 last Sept. 24. He could have been president, but fate had other plans. He would have probably made a good president, and I am certain he would have pushed education and agriculture as among the pillars of his presidency. But is it too late? Maybe not.