Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 26 April 2017

From 1960 to the 1990s, one of the most prominent public officials in Philippine economic and public management was Armand V. Fabella.

Men of importance to the country’s economic history should be chronicled for posterity. Roel L. Landingin’s recent biography (Anvil Publishing, 2017, 341 pages), Public Choice: The Life of Armand V. Fabella in Government and Education, is a contribution toward this need.

Long public service at the top. Armand Fabella’s time at the top of government service spanned the presidencies of Diosdado Macapagal to Fidel Ramos.

Macapagal’s economic technocrat. Armand Fabella was the closest economic aide to Diosdado Macapagal as director-general of the Program Implementation Agency (PIA). Holding additionally the post of presidential assistant on economic affairs, Fabella could funnel all economic matters that needed the president’s attention and action of the PIA.

A nuance of the planning structure of the time was that the National Economic Council (NEC) served as the main planning agency. But PIA began to get more economic staff assignments to advice the president on the action to take. PIA often wrote the memoranda for presidential action.

Government reorganization guru. Fabella was put temporarily out of a job when Marcos defeated Macapagal in the 1964 election. The PIA was renamed the Presidential Economic Staff (PES).

All these young technocrats – who knew of Fabella’s abilities – would soon occupy major posts in the Marcos government. Melchor became executive secretary, Zalamea the chairman and chief executive officer of the Development Bank of the Philippines, and Virata subsequently became secretary of finance after a brief stint as head of the Board of Investment (BOI).

It was not, therefore, surprising that Fabella would be ensnared back into government. Marcos first appointed him as a member of the Government Reoganization Commission. Once martial law became fact, Fabella was tasked to reorganize the government machinery.

His first task was to reorganize the economic planning function. The National and Economic Development Authority (NEDA) was created and replaced the NEC and PES, hence redefining the structure and coordination of the government machinery regarding the reform of economic services.

(Appointed to lead the NEDA as director-general, I became a principal beneficiary in my government work. I organized the new NEDA organization from the reduced NEC and PES staffs and brought in new blood to make coordination and planning more effective.)

As reorganization head, Fabella prepared the restructuring of specific departments of government. Major government corporations and institutions were created, restructured or redefined. Many government services as we know them today have been become available because of the efforts at this reorganization.

Armand Fabella’s skills were also used in the area of banking reform. The central bank of the country harnessed his services to become a member of the government study group that would reform the banking and financial services in the country.

Thus, he played an important role in opening the banking system to make it more effective. The recommendations of the group included raising the capitalization of banks, allowing foreign investment in banks up to the required limit, and improving regulations to modernize and provide room for expanding their services.

Low profile worker. When Corazon Aquino became president, Fabella again served in a less prominent, but still important role. His knowledge of economics and organizational reform would further be harnessed in terms of government reorganization and financial reforms.

Further, he would serve as government negotiator with multilateral and bilateral economic institutions on the pursuit of economic and loan projects.

Secretary of education. Fidel Ramos appointed him as secretary of education. The appointment was not unexpectedly different from his past experience in economic development issues.

Fabella inherited ownership of the Jose Rizal College (now University) from his father’s work as an educator. He has served as president of the college sometime in between major government appointments.

Being secretary of education was for Fabella the culmination of a logical drama in education.

Biography tracks the life and origins of Armand. The biography traces the family origins, connections and career of Armand Fabella. Obtaining direct access to his family, Roel Landingin also could use the unfinished notes for a memoir that Fabella had been working on before his death.

Armand Fabella came from a wealthy and well-connected family. His forebears were a rich, landowning Pagsanjan, Laguna family. His father was a pioneer of the accounting profession who became a prominent citizen and practitioner who also founded Jose Rizal College.

As a family, the Fabellas enjoyed the best in life. Armand was born in Paris, France and was baptized in the famous Notre Dame Cathedral.

Family finances enabled his studies at the best schools. He got his bachelor’s degree in economics from Harvard University in the early 1950s. He took a year’s study at the London School of Economics. He was among the early founders of the Philippine Economic Society, serving as its first president.

Fabella married into the Katigbak family, also a distinguished, similarly situated family from Laguna. Marinela, his wife, was a daughter of the late senator Maria Kalaw Katigbak who served during the 1960s. One of his cousins married Emmanuel Pelaez, who would become the vice president of Macapagal.

Landingin interviewed Armand Fabella’s co-workers and friends who crossed his long career path. The book, therefore, contains anecdotes galore from co-workers, friends and family. The snatches of life that are drawn together combine into a coherently impressive picture of the man.

As a recently returned young economist when Ramon Magsaysay was president, Fabella helped to write a government report that suggested central bank policy revisions. At 31 years of age, he was second in command in the PIA. Within two years, he was the chief.

Though very young and inexperienced, his brash, confident personality quickly evolved into a studious, sharply witted public official with a cutting repartee and good sense of humor.

He mastered the art of getting his team of co-workers to produce results for him. He understood the questions to ask and to demand from them good and useful answers.

An introductory essay by former prime minister Cesar Virata further adds perspective on Fabella’s life and contributions.

Armand Fabella was born on April 21, 1930 and died in 2008.