Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 22 May 2019

A name change is cosmetic in the face of far more pressing concerns

The new proposed name for the Philippines is distracting from bigger issues

The midterm elections are being viewed as a referendum on President Rodrigo Duterte's poloicies, particularly his violent war on drug crime. AFP  
The midterm elections are being viewed as a referendum on President Rodrigo Duterte's poloicies, particularly his violent war on drug crime. AFP  

Rebranding a company is one thing. Changing the name of an entire country is an altogether more complex business, with ramifications far beyond the cost and inconvenience to cartographers. Commentators have suggested that Rodrigo Duterte's proposal to change the name of the Philippines to Maharlika is nothing more than a distraction designed to demonstrate that the president, whose health is the subject of increasing speculation, is still in charge. Whether he is serious or not, Mr Duterte has a valid point when he says that changing the country’s name would be a symbolic break from the Spanish colonial past of his country, named after King Philip II of Spain.

Countries do change their names, and for a variety of reasons. In 1989, Burma became Myanmar to expunge the memory of more than a century of British rule. And in April last year, King Mswati III of Swaziland announced that his country would be known as Eswatini, meaning “home of the Swazi people”, on the grounds that people often confused Swaziland with Switzerland. Earlier this week, Macedonia became North Macedonia, ending a three-decade-long row with neighbouring Greece over which country could lay rightful claim to an ancient name linked to Alexander the Great. But Mr Duterte’s proposal, one which was first mooted by the late, corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos, seems little more than a divisive populist gesture. The name Maharlika speaks to a noble warrior status and certainly befits Mr Duterte's combative stance on many societal issues. However, politicians and Filipinos at home and abroad have expressed disquiet.

Opposition congressman Neri Colmenares said it was more important to protect the Philippines' sovereignty in the face of interference from China and the US. And senator Panfilo Lacson, while supportive of the idea, pointed out that Filipino culture, history and attitudes were inseparable from their colonial past. Others have pointed to the association between the name and the roots of Christianity in the country. Certainly name changes are emotive and political, evoking strong emotions on both sides of the debate. Many of the new names given to towns and cities in India have prompted accusations of an erasing of the country's Muslim heritage. Nor can history be rewritten by altering a few letters. But ultimately such changes are merely cosmetic when there are far more pressing issues in the Philippines, from mass unemployment and poverty to poor infrastructure. A new name will simply paper over the cracks of far bigger concerns.

Updated: February 13, 2019 07:23 PM

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