Culture clash: Why Freddie Aguilar isn’t ready

Paolo Mercado
Culture clash: Why Freddie Aguilar isn’t ready
'I believe his views on Cultural Revolution and Purification will set us back from being participants in a globally connected creative world'

Headlines have been a-buzz lately because of the controversial “appointment” of Freddie Aguilar as Head of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

Apparently, Freddie Aguilar had asked the President to form a Department of Culture and the Arts, and it was suggested that he head up the NCCA while waiting for this department to be established. 

 The NCCA has vehemently challenged this supposed appointment as it is not within the President’s authority to appoint the NCCA head. Others have challenged Freddie Aguilar’s qualifications to lead such an esteemed entity. He may be a good musician, but does he have the vision, organizational skills and leadership qualities essential for such a job?

Going beyond the NCCA leadership controversy itself, I would like to argue that there is a case for establishing a Department of Culture and the Arts. However, I do not believe Freddie Aguilar would be fit to head this said department because of his stated agenda.

Why we need a Department of Culture and the Arts

I believe there is a need to elevate the NCCA as an executive department because such would be critical in leading a national creative economy agenda. As is the case with more progressive countries, this new executive branch must in fact be the Department of Culture, Arts and the Creative Economy.

Such department can go beyond the cultural “preservation and promotion” role of the NCCA and drive programs that define, measure and grow our Creative Economy potential through job creation, tourism, education and intellectual property monetization of our Cultural and Creative Industries. As an executive department, the Secretary of Culture, Arts and the Creative Economy will be part of the Cabinet, allowing for proximity to the President and the opportunity to deepen collaboration with the departments such as the DTI, DEPED and DOT. 

Such a department can continue the cultural preservation and promotion missions and mandates of the NCCA. But where it can make a big difference is if it also formulates a national creative economy agenda that drives value creation as well.

This agenda can include the:

  • Development and prioritization of Creative Service Outsourcing opportunities (i.e. BPOs for creativity) in collaboration with the DTI. Pockets of efforts are already happening within the country, but we are at a race vs. regional competitors such as Singapore where big companies like Lucas Films have established their offshore studio to do the finishing work on films such as Star Wars VII. 
  • Promotion of cultural and creative tourism through global recognition and accreditation in collaboration with DOT. The UNESCO Creative Cities Network has accredited 116 Cities around the world for its work at preserving and promoting culture and creativity. There is no single city in the Philippines in this UNESCO list, though many of our ASEAN neighbors are included. A Department of Culture, Arts & the Creative Economy can and should prioritize this agenda.
  • Levelling up of Philippine Creative Education for both domestic talent development as well as regional competitiveness, in collaboration with DEPED, TESDA, and CHED. The Philippines has a tremendous opportunity to become a regional resource for education because of our English fluency and local faculty competence. The Asian Institute of Management has been a regional education hub since 1968, and accelerated English language courses offered by Ateneo and other universities have likewise attracted thousands of Korean students to Manila since the mid-1990s. While Singapore ambitions to be the creative education capital of ASEAN, they still need to hire foreign faculty for their creative programs. The Philippines has an opportunity to be competitive in creative education as the level of our local creative faculty is world class.
  • Championing of Filipino creative and cultural intellectual property protection and monetization. For us to move up the value chain of the global creative economy, we need to move beyond being mimics and renderers of other people’s ideas. We will need to become recognized authors and creators, and for this, a national creative IP protection agency is essential to protect the designs, compositions, stories and finished work of our artists. 

These are the massive opportunities for a Department of Culture, Arts and the Creative Economy. With focus and perseverance, this department can grow the Philippine Creative Economy to the size of the BPO industry, if not bigger. 

Cultural revolution? Why Freddie Isn’t ready

TORRE DE MANILA. Freddie Aguilar gives his opinion regarding the Torre de Manila issue. Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Freddie Aguilar said he dreams of a Department of Culture and the Arts that will lead a “cultural revolution” in the Philippines. In his interview with the media, Aguilar stated:

“Pangarap ko talaga na magkaroon tayo ng cultural revolution dito sa Pilipinas. Sabi ko, ito lang po iyong revolution na walang mamamatay. Ang ibig sabihin ko po sa cultural revolution ay pinapangarap ko po na ibalik ‘yung mga talagang Pilipino na pag-uugali natin, pati sining natin, pati panulat natin, ibalik sa atin ‘yun tinanggal sa atin ng mga banyaga.

Pag tinanong mo ang mga tao balang araw, hindi na po nila iisipin na taga-Luzon ako, wala akong pakialam sa Visayas. Taga-Visayas ako, wala akong pakialam sa Mindanao.

Pag nagkaroon po tayo ng cultural revolution, pag sinabi po nating Ilokano, Kapampangan, Bisaya, lahat po iyan maninindigan na siya ay Pilipino.” 

My interpretation of the above is that Freddie Aguilar wants to drive an agenda of Cultural Purification and Unification. Regardless of the man’s qualifications, his stated agenda alone would be cause for concern as I believe it would actually pull the Philippines back into the backwater of cultural isolation rather than push us forward towards global recognition and value creation. 

I am sure Freddie Aguilar knows that the term Cultural Revolution refers to Mao Ze Dong’s destructive ideological cleansing program that ravaged China from 1966 to 1976. Mao’s Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution was meant to purify the country from ideas not in line with Mao’s Little Red Book and in so doing unify the country under one pure ideology. This Cultural Revolution led to widespread destruction of cultural heritage & the suppression of political, intellectual, religious and indigenous minority persons and perspectives not aligned with those of Mao.

I am also sure Freddie knows that China’s Cultural Revolution is recognized by the Chinese Government itself as a massive failure that was “responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the Country, and the People since the founding of the People’s Republic.”  So if he knows this, then why would he stigmatize his own agenda by calling it a Cultural Revolution? 

But let’s say that Freddie is unaware of the stigma behind the term Cultural Revolution, his agenda of Cultural Purification is doomed to fail because it assumes there is in fact a pure Filipino culture underneath all the “foreign” influences and that transcends regional diversity.

Our religions, customs, cuisines, languages & arts are all heavily influenced by foreign cultures be it Spanish, Chinese, Malay, Indian or Anglo-American. If you take away Christianity & Islam and return to indigenous spiritism, take away the alphabet and restore the alibata, take away all English, Spanish, Malay, Indian and Chinese influences from our languages, customs and cuisines, would our culture still be Filipino? It would not. We would have a multiplicity of indigenous cultures from the isolated societies that the early Islamic, Chinese and Spanish traders and explorers found in our Islands. It may be pure in its indigenous roots, but it would not represent the totality of Filipino culture as we know it today.

Freddie believes that his Cultural Revolution will also create a singular Filipino identity in lieu of the strong regional identities.  He may find however that it is precisely the foreign influences in religion, language and education that binds us across the different regional differences. Foreign religions such as Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) and Islam binds Filipinos together across our different subcultures. English, though foreign, is the language of education, government, and media. Its use is sometimes more acceptable to Visayans and Cebuanos than Tagalog. English also allows us to participate and many times excel in the international arenas of the arts, business or politics where our command of the language makes us an active citizen of the world.

Foreign influence is not only ingrained in our culture, it is essential to promoting our own talents and culture to the world. Jose Rizal, our national hero, wrote in Spanish because he wanted to give European audiences a window into our culture and the challenges we faced. Luna and Hidalgo learned their respective forms from the classical Western traditions and gained recognition and respect outside our country. Our National Artists, such as Lamberto Avellana, Nick Joaquin, Arturo Luz, and contemporary creative heroes, like Lea Salonga, While Portacio, Kenneth Cobonpue, Ronnie Del Carmen and Brillante Mendoza have achieved recognition not by shunning foreign influence but rather by learning to hack it.

In closing then, I agree with Freddie Aguilar that the Philippines needs a Department of Culture and the Arts, not only to preserve and promote our culture, but to turn it into an economic value driver as other progressive countries have done. 

However, I do not believe that Freddie Aguilar has the right agenda and vision to lead this department. I believe his views on Cultural Revolution and Purification will set us back from being participants in a globally connected creative world, and his overzealous nationalistic idealism would lead to policies that will isolate, stagnate and alienate Filipino creativity. –  


Paolo Mercado is a business professional and advocate of a Philippine creative economy agenda which envisions turning culture and creativity into an economic growth driver for the country. He is currently SVP for Marketing, Communication and Innovation at Nestle Philippines. He is a recognized international marketing and advertising expert and has worked in France, Switzerland, and China. He is currently enrolled in the Berlin School of Creative Leadership executive MBA program.

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