What is Needed is a Culture Frame, Not Charter Change

by Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D.

The move to change the Constitution through such contrivances as a ‘people’s initiative’ is reflective of the informal pressures the operative culture bears down on our formal systems. It shows the vulnerability of our institutions before the bulldozing power of personal interests, particularly when combined with the grasping need to hold on to power at any cost.

Much of our social anomie has to do with this softness, this general inability to make our institutions work when faced with assaults from that complex of intertwined personal interests and alliances among our political elite. We see it in the shooting down of the impeachment case in Congress, and in the impaired credibility of the Comelec, whose leadership continues to serve as handmaid to the biddings of those in power.

Thus, a major consequence of the current political crisis is the deepening of distrust in the efficacy of our institutions. Even ‘people power’, once a viable instrument for what has been called ‘direct democracy,’ has been degraded into a tool for political manipulation as an ill-disguised mimicry of popular will. Not only can people see through the obvious ploys to stagemanage support; there is profound disillusionment that the entire apparatus of power is mainly used for the interests of those who have entrenched themselves as players in the power game.

Part of the complex of reasons behind this breakdown of trust is the lack of a positive experience of institutions that can hold their own against the onslaught of unofficial pressures. We have yet to develop a deep enough respect for rule-keeping, as against the tendency to bend and bow before the powers, especially when accompanied by the soft seductions of personal influence. Against this backdrop, the Supreme Court’s reversal of a series of presidential decrees deemed suppressive of our liberties is a watershed, a decisive defense against the tidal forces eroding the ramparts of the established legal order.

Studies show that the ‘rule of law’ is a major factor in the growth and stability of nations. The ability to enforce the law, to keep faith with social contracts and sustain a just system of reward and punishment enables a society to flourish in a secure environment. This capacity for rule-keeping, however, is a matter of culture, those historically learned patterns of behavior by which we organize our common life. What we now call the ‘rule of law’ is a product of modernization, of centuries of habit and custom in those countries which have gone through the struggle of breaking out of the arbitrary rule of despotic monarchies, of sorting out what to them is right and fair and putting in place mechanisms and institutions to ensure that these are defined with some degree of objectivity and continuity.

Unfortunately, in the scramble to build nation-states after decolonization, countries like ours have had to borrow concepts like this without the accompanying values and norms that made them work in other societies. We enshrined in our own Constitution echoes of the ‘right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ without the social and economic context that makes this possible. This highly developed language for ‘rights,’ which we have thus adopted, is rendered meaningless in a society largely occupied by the rudiments of survival.

Also, our sense of ‘nation’ has yet to be developed and enlarged beyond the sakop, that sphere which, to my mind, defines the boundaries of what we are prepared to own and feel responsible for. Some analysts have decried the fact that we seem to lack what the Europeans call ‘a sense of the commons,’ that public space which is acknowledged to be for the good of all and hence owned as an area of common concern. My own sensing is that we do not divide our social space between ‘public’ and ‘private,’ but between ‘loob’ and ‘labas,’ between whether you are seen to be part of the sakop, or taga-loob, or outside of it and thence beyond the sphere of the group’s sense of responsibility. We do have strong solidarities, but only within that narrow space bounded by the affairs of those who immediately belong to us, like our families, friends and cronies.

Whether due to colonial experience or the archipelagic nature of our geography, this narrow sense of solidarity got stunted at the level of Kamag-anak Inc. Unlike, say, Japan, which for centuries closed its doors to western influence, we had no time to consolidate warring shogunates into a cohesive and relatively homogenized nation. Instead, we find ourselves stuck, unable to transcend group interests, become a nation and, in the global age, present a competitive and solid face to the world, like ‘Japan Inc.’

In short, we need an appropriate infraculture for the formal structures that are already in place if we are to see them work. We all know that while we have a democratic system installed, what actually operates is an intricate network of shifting alliances based on patronage and clan loyalties. There has to be some fit between our borrowed mechanisms of formal democracy and the operative culture. We need to evolve a cultural consensus on how we are to be governed, mediating between indigenous and modern patterns of organizing society.

Instead of piecemeal changes, we need a common frame for understanding and interpreting our own past, for defining who we are and what we stand for as a nation. The American Declaration of Independence was one such frame. Overnight, in an upper room, Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues defined for themselves what America stood for. As an immigrant country bereft of a common history and tradition, it had to formally declare its self-identity as against other nations that had evolved out of accidents of history and geography.

Constitutions are normally a formal statement of what exists, a product of a nation’s history and its already existing customs and beliefs. Sometimes, a country’s legal tradition and the norms behind it can be so strong that there is no need for a formal declaration, as in England. In countries like ours, there is a need to see to it that the existing hardware, –that is, the structures and institutions that were transplanted here and are already in place, — are backed up by a corresponding software of values and habits. Otherwise, any change we make is merely tinkering with the machine.

Charter change for now is like putting the cart before the horse. While not at all perfect, there is enough good in the present one, like the provision against family dynasties, which has yet to be inscribed in our hearts and minds as a people. Let us, as with all our other institutions, make it work for now. Any changes to it must be debated and framed within our own cultural context and historical exigencies. Outside of such a context, it will remain just a piece of paper that can be thrown aside when found to be technically inconvenient by those in power.

Melba Padilla Maggay, Ph.D., President and CEO of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture (ISACC). Send feedback to isacc.admed @ gmail . com