charter change

[OPINION] What is needed is culture change, not charter change

Melba Padilla Maggay

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

[OPINION] What is needed is culture change, not charter change

Alejandro Edoria/Rappler

'Instead of just tinkering with the system, 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 move to change the Constitution through such contrivances as a “People’s Initiative” is reflective of the informal pressures that 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 current power holders have a grasping need to hold on to power at any cost.

Much of our social anomie has to do with our institutional softness, this general inability to make our institutions work when faced with assaults from that complex of alliances based not on party principles but on personal interests among our political elite. 

We see it in the transparent conflict brewing between the Duterte and Marcos factions, former bedfellows who are now at each others’ throats in the struggle for ascendancy. We see it in the malleability of Congress, marching to the tune of whoever happens to be Speaker playing as Pied Piper. We see it in the impaired credibility of the Comelec, whose leadership continues to serve as handmaid to the power that appointed them.

A major consequence of the almost surreal political drama of this country is the deepening of distrust in the efficacy of our institutions. 

This breakdown of trust is mostly accounted to 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 a rise in influence besides the prospect of affluence.

Even People Power, once a viable instrument for what Lockean liberals call “direct democracy,” has been degraded into a tool for political manipulation, an ill-disguised mimicry of popular will. Not only can people see through the obvious ploys to stage-manage support, but 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.

Must Read

Charter change rift deepens between Senate, House

Charter change rift deepens between Senate, House

Studies show that the rule of law, not tinkering with the Constitution, is the major factor in the growth and stability of nations. The ability to enforce the law, to keep faith with social and business contracts and sustain a stable and 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 the process of modernizing habits and customs in those countries which through the centuries struggled to break out of the arbitrary rule of despotic monarchies. They sorted out what to them was right and fair and put 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 and institutions from their former overlords 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. The West’s highly developed language for “rights,” which we have thus adopted, is rendered meaningless in a society of impoverished people 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, be responsible for, and be accountable to. 

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 hence 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 within our small balangays, unable to transcend clan 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.

Must Read

[OPINION] Kontragahum, class compromise, and the nationalist question

[OPINION] Kontragahum, class compromise, and the nationalist question

Instead of just tinkering with the system, 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 Constitution, 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 functional social 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 implemented for lack of an enabling law. Since 80% of the present Congress are descendants of entrenched dynasties, efforts to implement this remain dead in the water.  

This shows that fundamental change can only happen when the existing culture and structures make it possible. Without such a context, a Constitution 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 is president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.

1 comment

Sort by
  1. ET

    I agree: “… fundamental change can only happen when the existing culture and structures make it possible.” Unfortunately, what our existing culture and structures create is DECEPTIVE change. Hence, our “Constitution will remain just a piece of paper that can be thrown aside when found to be technically (let me add: politically and economically) inconvenient by those in power.”

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!