By: Philip Bowring

President Rodrigo Duterte’s suggestion that the Philippines should change its name to something less colonial strikes chords in many, foreigners as well as Filipinos. However, his choice of alternative – Maharlika – is, at least for now, unlikely to give it much impetus.

The original Spanish naming, Islas Filipinas, was created in honour of the heir to the Spanish throne.  At first it was just given to Samar and Leyte. But after the heir became King Philip II, it was extended to the whole of the archipelago claimed by Spain and mostly conquered during his reign. Thus it has remained in Spanish, English and Tagalog versions.

Some feel it is demeaning to have a name which is not only so foreign but honors the nation’s conqueror. Others see it as being partly responsible for any perceived lack of nationalist spirit on the part of its inhabitants, among the world’s most emigration-prone people.

Others would argue that the name Philippines simply accepts an historical reality. Britain was so-named by its Roman conquerors, France is named after the Franks (a German-speaking tribe) who conquered it.

Duterte suggests the Philippines should have a “Malay” name. That is important in itself. Filipinos are without question Malay in the wider sense of the word and very much seen as such by Jose Rizal, the father of modern nationalism throughout the region. But the Malays of Malaysia are prone to confine it more narrowly to their specific language and numerous books and university “experts” referring to the wider Malay world omit it altogether or simply include Muslim Mindanao on account of religion not ethnicity.

So his call deserves to be noticed by neighbours. It may even be time to resurrect the notion of a Greater Malayan Confederation (MAPHILINDO) embracing the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. This was proposed by President Macapagal in 1963 to be an attempt to realise the dream of Rizal. It quickly fell apart, mainly due to three-way disputes over ownership of parts of Borneo. But the seed remains and might be a useful antidote to the current domestic focus on religious issues, and international focus on an ASEAN increasingly paralysed by issues involving China.

For the Philippines, a name change  would be if a suitable one was available. The islands were not an entity before the Spanish. Old names were more localised – islands or towns Luzon, Cebu, Maguindanao, Sulu, Butuan etc. Polities were small and rulers were a mix of Rajas, Datus, Sultans and Lakans

Duterte’s suggestion was Maharlika, a name originally proposed by President Marcos. That in itself stirs opposition given Marcos’ record. His claim to have operated an anti-Japanese guerrilla group called Maharlika is not supported by any independent evidence. Likewise, though Marcos did receive two decorations in 1946, most of his chestfull of medals were awarded in the 1960s!

Maharlika, depending on translation, could be problematical. It may mean “honorable” or simply “free” – the latter denoting a non-servile social status. It also appears as a low noble rank as defined both by early Spanish observers and now reflected in the fact that it ranks sixth in the Philippines Order of Sikatuna, awarded to both foreigners and Filipinos for work in diplomatic and international affairs. The top rank is Raja followed by Datu, Maringal na Lakan, Lakan, Maginoo and then Maharlika.

Another objection to the name could be its meaning in its Sanskrit original: Maha Lingga or Great Penis, reflecting the cult of Shiva. Hindu and Buddhist cultures were strong in trading centers including Butuan and Manila particularly in the 9-13th centuries. The practice of inserting small balls, even little bells, into the head of the penis was a widespread practice in the Philippines, Java, and elsewhere in the region at least until the arrival of Islam and Christianity with their distaste for phallic references.

So, if Maharlika is not suitable, what is? It may be possible to find a name which reflects the pre-Spanish reputation of the people for skill in boat building and navigation. Indeed, the name for the key local government unit, the barangay is derived from the name of a type of boat, the sort of boat which would have carried groups of families to new settlements around an archipelago fractured by mountains as well as the seas.

Another alternative may be to find an indigenous name but let Philippines continue to be used in other languages in the same way as countries such as China, Germany, Montenegro are unrelated to their official name.

Clearly, if re-naming is to take off, there must be a wider choice than one which may sound acceptable but whose message could too easily be understood.