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Diagnosing pathologies in the 1987 Constitution

 

Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco is a practicing lawyer and author of the book “Rethinking the Bangsamoro Perspective.” He researches on current issues in state-building, decentralization and constitutionalism. 

 

Charter change is a core commitment of President Rodrigo Duterte. As part of his effort to fulfil this promise, he issued in December 2016 Executive Order No. 10 to organize the Consultative Committee (Con-Com) on constitutional reform.

 

The mandate of the Con-Com is to “study, conduct consultations, and review the provisions of the 1987 Constitution including but not limited to the provisions on the structure and powers of the government, local governance, and economic policies.”

 

However, this committee is still just a plan on paper as the President announced a few months ago that members of this envisioned Con-Com will be named only after the Bangsamoro Transition Commission presents the new version of the Bangsamoro Basic Bill. Sadly, given the declaration of Martial Law over Mindanao, no one can really say with some degree of certainty when exactly this day would be.

 

Nevertheless, both chambers of Congress have already mobilized their respective committees responsible for constitutional amendment and revision. Their hearings however, have been focused mainly on determining the wisdom and necessity of federalizing government. This is understandable because shifting to a federal structure of government is the main motivation of the President in pushing for charter change.

 

Consequently, public discussions on charter change has been dominated by appeals for finding a consensus on what sort of federal structure is well-suited for Filipinos. Understanding constitutional reform has thus been unfairly framed to the public as simply the process of shifting to a federal form of government.

 

But revising the constitution actually encompasses a broader political reform effort. It is essentially a re-set button because the range of what aspects of our political system can be improved is wide open. Hence, charter change is also an opportunity to address anomalies within the overall political framework such as the domination of dynastic families in the electoral process or the substandard political party system that allows these traditional political elites to skew elections in their favour.

 

The reality is pathologies in a constitution can emerge during its reign. These pertain to provisions in the constitutional text itself that may have been designed with good intentions but have eventually become debilitating to the political system it purports to govern. Our very own 1987 Constitution is no exception. Therefore, public discourse on charter change should also involve identifying, and analysing, what these pathologies are.

 

For instance, one matter that needs to be tackled in the constitutional reform process is our national language. Article XIV lays out an interesting arrangement on this subject that needs to be reconsidered.

 

We have one national language, which is Filipino (See Section 6). But we also have two official languages, which are Filipino and English (See Section 7). And no law has ever been passed to remove the status of the latter as such. In fact, until now the language of government, of legislation, and of the courts in the Philippines continues to be English.

 

Then, we also have auxiliary languages or regional dialects such as Cebuano, Hiligaynon,Ilocano, Waray, Tausug, so forth, which are all contemplated to function as a third level means of communication within the regions where they are spoken.

 

But realities on the ground dispute this neat grouping of Philippine languages. Most Filipinos commonly relate with English as the official language of the state because it is widely used by government. Moreover, the usage of Filipino as the language of the nation is suspect because it is basically a Tagalog clone. And hence it is very rarely spoken by nationals outside the Tagalog region.

 

In the context of religious worship for example, there are no Filipino masses in Pampanga but only English and Kapangpangan. In Visayan speaking areas such as Cebu and Zambaonga, masses are celebrated in English and Bisaya. Indeed, in malls outside of Metro Manila, Filipino is only spoken by vacationers and by the “natives” to them as merely a matter of courtesy. In their day-to-day lives, locals always communicate with one another through their dialect.

 

A provision that is inconsistent with the actual conditions and sentiments of the people has no place in the state charter. Correspondingly, our experience of languages spoken in the country necessitates a rethinking of the constitutional designation of Filipino as the sole national language.

 

Is it still necessary to have just one artificially created national language given the richness of our linguistic heritage? Or is it now more appropriate for our language diversity to be officially acknowledged because it reflects the narrative that is real to all Filipinos? A constitution could recognize more than one national language after all.

 

Additionally, should English now be unequivocally accepted as the lone official language of the Philippines because doing so more accurately reflects the reality experienced by many in the polity? English is obviously a colonial language. But considering that American colonization is a fact of life that is universally shared in the Philippines, the designation of English as such would certainly be more unbiased for all Filipinos than Filipino.

 

Hence, the new charter can prescribe several national languages to reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity of the country. Furthermore, with Filipinos now being genuine citizens of the world, the new charter claiming thelingua francaof the day as our one and only official language makes practical sense. Insisting on keeping both English and Filipino as the official languages of the state on the grounds of nationalism seems anachronistic. Our nationhood now ought to be founded on deeper grounds than just having a common native tongue.

 

While there is no guarantee that the President’s timetable for charter change will be followed to the letter, as responsible citizens, we are duty-bound to deeply reflect on our national charter while the Con-Com and Congress fulfil their respective mandates. And to make the constitutional review process truly robust, we must actively participate in the hearings and consultation sessions they would initiate towards this end. So that whatever happens in 2019, or even in 2022, we will still end up enriched by a more profound appreciation of our 30-year old Constitution.

 

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