Pag-asa (the Filipino word for hope) is the largest island in Kalayaan, a group of islands that is part of the disputed Spratly island chain in the West Philippine Sea. The Spratly islands are claimed wholly or partly by China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. In 1978, the Philippines established the municipality of Kalayaan, formally claiming the island group as its territory; a community, including a small military presence, has since set down roots on Pag-asa.
Last June 15, the Philippines reached a new and meaningful stage in its claim when a school was opened on Pag-asa. Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio B. Bito-onon Jr. presided over the no-frills and no-fanfare opening of Pag-asa Elementary School, with five kindergarten pupils and a lone teacher sharing a multipurpose hall converted by the community members themselves.
Bito-onon expressed the hope that the school-age children of families living on Pag-asa would go to school there instead of traveling all the way to Palawan. “If you talk of social services on the island, we have housing, we have health, but when it comes to education, we’re zero. For 34 years we had no school, and residents were already clamoring for it,” the mayor said.
He added wistfully: “Students always had to leave the island for the mainland (Palawan) to study. They would stay with one parent or their grandparents there, and so the family members are separated. I wanted to change that.”
The very idea of a school on Pag-asa stands for a long-term and life-changing Philippine presence in the disputed area. China, which claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the entire Spratly island chain, was predictably unhappy about this development. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei was quoted in reports as saying that Manila should “refrain from taking any measure that will complicate and exacerbate the current situation and affect peace and stability in the South China Sea.” But Malacañang, through spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, said simply that the people living on Pag-asa “are Filipinos,” and thus “we will provide for them.” Bito-onon pointed out: “I am only fulfilling my mandate to provide basic services to my constituents… We are not affected by what China is protesting about.”
What Bito-onon actually needs are donations to fund the construction of an actual school building for Pag-asa’s children, because the municipality’s budget provided by the national government unfortunately cannot cover expenses for the planned 2-story, 6-classroom structure. Last July, Pag-asa Elementary School found a willing donor in the party-list group Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT); its representative, Antonio Tinio, earmarked P4.3 million of the second tranche of its Priority Development Assistance Fund to build the school. Said Tinio: “A school standing on Pag-asa is an earnest affirmation of Philippine sovereignty in the Spratly group of islands—the provision for education, a basic social service. This school will guarantee that the hope of Pag-asa’s children for a better future is secure.”
However, very little has happened since then. The school remains unbuilt and the problem, of all things, is red tape. Last week, Bito-onon revealed at a press conference that the Department of Budget and Management was taking too long to approve Tinio’s proposal. He pleaded for swift action: “If the project of Congressman Tinio pushes through, it will be a big help for us. That will set a landmark in the history of Kalayaan.”
The mayor has clearly been inspired by the changes taking place with the opening of the school. “We’re trying to come up with as normal a community as possible, and this is one important step,” he said. “The kids were very excited. They grabbed their new schoolbags and prodded their parents to bring them to class early.” On Pag-asa, the Philippine flag flies proudly and Filipino schoolchildren prepare for their future. The island constantly lives up to its name.
It would be a shame if red tape—dreaded bureaucracy at its worst—is allowed to serve as an obstacle to such high hopes. It behooves the national government to exhibit political will by putting its money where its mouth—as well as its claimed territory—is.