Duterte is Right: The Philippines Needs a New Name, But it Also Needs an Entirely New Constitution

Yesterday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte proposed renaming his country in order to change international perceptions of The Philippines and to furthermore inaugurate a new era of optimism, strength and national revival internally. When proposing Maharlika as the new name for the country, Duterte explained how the word “Philippines” was a product of a colonial legacy that he has long opposed. Duterte stated:

“It’s named Philippines because it was discovered by Magellan using the money from King Philip [II of Spain]. That’s why when the stupid explorer came, he named it the Philippines. Actually, [former President Fernando] Marcos was right. During the time of Marcos, he wanted it changed to Maharlika – The Republic of Maharlika because Maharlika is a Malay word and it means serenity”.

Duterte is correct to say that an indigenous name would help to create a new mentality in a country whose modern progress has been retarded by what Duterte has identified and attacked as “the colonial mentality”. However, a new name without an entirely new constitution will make such a change more symbolic than substantial. In order for a would-be Republic of Maharlika to reach its maximum potential, it needs a new political and economic system worthy of the new national name.

The fact that Duterte seeks to permanently change his country by alerting the world to a would-be new name, is symptomatic of the wider reforms that Duterte has ushered in since attaining the Presidency in 2016. However, when it comes to systematic political reform, Duterte has been held back by many of his own insufficient advisers who continue to believe that a fatally flawed political system can somehow be revitalised when in reality, it needs to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.

A new name when combined with full scale constitutional reforms could help Filipinos/Maharlikans understand that the ways of the past have failed them and that a new model is required for the nation to reach its maximum potential. Frankly, the old system is far more detrimental than an old name.  Just as The Philippines was named for a foreign king, so too is the presidential system that the country inherited from its former US colonisers, a symptom not only of an imported system of governance, but of a political model that values a single individual over a comprehensive set of ideas, principles and policies.

When looking at the history of what today is called The Philippines, it is necessary to recall that The First Philippine Republic of Emilio Aguinaldo had a constitution which implemented a unicameral parliamentary democracy. The Malolos Constitution of 1899 was the first modern constitution of a united Philippines which preceded the full subjugation of the country by the United States.

In this sense, a Republic of Maharlika with a unicameral parliamentary democracy would satisfy the requirement of combining an indigenous political system with an indigenous name, whilst it would also help to end the tyranny of presidentialism in which the whims of a single individual are more relevant than a genuine quorum of political consensus around a set of policies. There must clearly be a shift away from not only a name derived from a foreign king, but more crucially, there must be a shift away from a political system that is one step removed from a hereditary monarchy.

Beyond this, the federal reforms that Duterte supports would help to revitalise local autonomy and rehabilitate local cultural characteristics in a country that was initially united not through consensus but through external force. This is not to say that the country should be broken up, such a thing would be a lose-lose situation for all Filipinos/Maharlikans. Instead, federalism will help to strengthen unity by allowing regions of the diverse country to shape their own economic aspirations rather than simply work to fill the coffers in Imperial Manila. Furthermore, as there are many unique regional cultures within what is now called The Philippines, Federalism will help these cultures to flourish according to their own terms, rather than be dominated by the uniform cultural qualities of a vast country governed from what for many, is a far away capital.

Finally, a new economic model will help to make a would-be Republic of Maharlika into a country that sheds the reputation of the contemporary Philippines as the perennial basket case of ASEAN. Whilst Duterte’s economic reforms have already helped to change this negative reputation, so long as the 1987 Constitution which entrenched the power of the Aquino family, continues to restrict foreign direct investment (FDI) through reactionary restrictions on investors holding a controlling interest in their investment, it will be difficult for Maharlika to experience genuine long term sustainable economic renewal.

While Shakespeare once poetically questioned the value of a name, so long as a new name for The Philippines could usher in a new anti-colonial mentality and even more crucially, a new constitutional and economic order, then it is absolutely correct to welcome the The Republic of Maharlika to the world’s stage.

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