Sisyphus’ Lament

Ed Angara: The Lee Kuan Yew we never had

Former Senate president Edgardo Angara’s life was not only celebrated by presidents and senators of every political leaning. It was even more touching to see a diversity of students and former staffers voice admiration on social media. His casket was proudly placed under that immortal quote in the UP College of Law foyer, and Philippine Law Journal editors posted citations to his 1950s articles.

Beginning my career in the old Accralaw building in Makati in 2006, I squatted in his old secretary’s cubicle while waiting for an office.


I never anticipated that Angara himself would one day pass by and give me a pop quiz at 8:30 a.m.

Angara never let on if he noticed that I had my shoes off and had been stretching my legs before the day began. Or that I considered his unused Accra office the most secure location in the building for calling girls at night, in the days before unli-calls.


Months later, out of the blue, Angara asked me to sit in while a visiting Harvard Business School (HBS) professor interviewed him. In seeming coincidence, he had borrowed an Accra conference room.

After the professor left, he smiled and said he did not need my notes. Rather, he heard I was leaving for Harvard Law School. He told me to invite the professor to lunch when I landed, as I now had one friend waiting.

That simple episode conveyed priceless life lessons from Angara.

First, despite his intellect, he emphasized the need to build goodwill and networks, and not just within the Philippines.

Taking his advice, I had lunch in the posh HBS faculty dining room. I then had lunch with a study in contrasts: a Palestinian then an Israeli; a Bhutanese princess then an Afghan refugee; a blue blood who wanted to enter politics, then a son of Mexican immigrants.

Angara implicitly shared how he built organizations such as the Asean Law Association and longstanding friendships that spanned the globe.

Second, despite his stature, he made time for young people and their perspective. He mastered nudging headstrong youths instead of imposing his brilliance.


After Harvard, literally the night before I flew to London to begin an international career, I met him to receive a signed copy of his biography to read on the plane. I was surprised to interrupt his private dinner with Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, but he said he wanted to see me off.

Spontaneous Facebook tributes revealed my experience was hardly unique. Such was the man respected by University of the Philippines activists during martial law and the mentor to today’s generation of politicians.

Today, taking Angara’s lesson to heart, I make time for aspiring young fools who want to change the world, from journalists to bankers.

Third, Angara showed me the mind of a consummate technocrat, one who never stopped learning.

Last year, I met Angara at the gigantic Kinokuniya bookstore in Orchard Road, Singapore. We had a running conversation while scouring shelves for Harvard Business Review books and new biographies of Asean leaders.

A gleeful bookworm at a Big Bad Wolf book sale is nothing compared to Angara in a bookstore that occupies an entire floor.

Mere days before he passed, we were texting on artificial intelligence, implementing the Data Privacy Act he authored, and his plans for a book on Asean relations.

Such is the man who authored laws as diverse as the National Health Insurance Act, the Overseas Absentee Voting Act, and the Senior Citizens Act, and beloved to equally diverse constituencies.

Angara’s passing signals the transition from our Edsa Revolution era statesmen.

It remains a cruel twist of fate that where Lee Kuan Yew built modern Singapore and Tun Mahathir Mohamad built modern Malaysia, we could never elect a visionary technocrat like Angara. The Philippine leader who most closely paralleled the institution builder, formidable diplomat and charismatic lawyer that was Lee never claimed he did.

Perhaps one of the idealistic, idea-rich young senators eulogizing him will finally take us to where Angara spent a lifetime pointing.

React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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TAGS: Edgardo j. angara, Oscar Franklin Tan, Sisyphus’ Lament
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