The word maharlika has been gaining a lot of buzz recently after President Rodrigo Duterte talked about the possibility of changing the country’s name from Philippines to “Maharlika.”
In a speech he delivered on February 11, 2019, the President said the name would be more fitting because it is a “Malay word and it means more of a concept of serenity and peace.”
“Marcos was right. He wanted to change it to Maharlika,a Malay word, and it means more of a concept of serenity and peace,” Duterte said on February 11.
“Someday, let’s change it,” he said.
There are questions to be answered and issues to be explained whether renaming the Philippines as Maharlika is an upright move that will instill pride, honor and dignity to the nation befitting a free and noble people.
This is what this brief treatise aims to tackle.
Renaming the Philippines is not a new idea
This is not the first time that discussions to change the country’s name were made. In 1978, then-senator Eddie Ilarde filed a bill proposing that the name of the Philippines be changed to Maharlika, citing the need to honor the country’s ancient heritage before Western colonialists occupied the country. The bill did not make it to be passed.
A Spanish explorer first named the archipelago Las Islas Filipinas (Philippine Islands) in honor of Spain’s King Philip II. Spain ruled the Philippines for three centuries, and then the U.S. occupied it for 48 years.
Duterte’s statement was construed to mean that he is reviving an idea advocated by the late Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines’ former president and dictator who implemented martial law to keep himself in power for two decades. During his regime, Marcos popularized the word and named the state broadcaster, a north-south highway and a presidential hall after it.
It was also said the name also referred to Marcos’ fictitious guerrilla unit in World War II. A 1986 New York Times report said his fondness for using Maharlika was meant to honor his military experience, which army investigators later concluded was fraudulent.
Wensley Reyes, a history professor at Philippine Normal University, said this move reflects both Duterte’s admiration of Marcos and his aversion to Western interventions. Duterte has constantly attacked the United States and European countries for criticizing his human rights record and his deadly war against drugs.
“It seems like President Duterte is a staunch believer in the ideas of Marcos, and is taking the lead to concretize these ideas. Likewise, President Duterte’s opinions also reflect his anti-colonial stand, thus his pronouncements against Western ideas and interventions,” Reyes told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Adopting the name Maharlika is like sailing a tempest
Realizing Duterte’s plans, however, would take time. It is like sailing in a tempest where chances to pass through are slim. His proposal would require a constitutional change and an overhaul of government offices, businesses and documents that use the Philippines as the country’s official name.
The Philippine Congress, in a related move, has also pushed to revive a pre-Hispanic alphabet called “Baybayin” as the Philippines’ national writing system. The bill would require streets, public buildings and consumer products to use the ancient name.
Baybayin is an ancient script of 17 symbols before the country adopted the Roman alphabet as a writing system.
Reyes said changing the country’s name could lead to historical revisionism and misinterpretation.
“The pre-colonial past has its context that is different in our present-day situation. Studying the past provides lessons that could assist in nation-building. However, romanticizing the past may lead to sentimentalism and anachronism,” Reyes said.
“Moving forward as a nation requires critical dialogue and understanding of our national history,” he added.
But what does Maharlika really mean?
Marcos promoted the term Maharlika to mean nobility, but historians say it refers to the warrior class that served the ruling clans during pre-Hispanic times.
Actually, the Philippine term Maharlika has the same Sanskrit origins as the Malay Merdeka. It is therefore a corruption of the original Sanskrit Maharddhika meaning “rich, prosperous and powerful”, or the Malay word Merdeka which means independence or freedom. In the Malay world, this term had acquired the meaning of one who gained freedom, if not, literally, a freed slave.
In the south of the Philippines, the Bangsamoro people belonging to major ethno-linguistic groups of Maranao, Maguindanao, Samal, Tausug, Yakan and others use maradeka in the same meaning as freedom or liberation.
The term Mardijker is a Dutch corruption of the Portuguese version of the original Sanskrit word and was used to designate former Portuguese and Dutch slaves from India in the East Indies, known as Mardijker, whence the Malay meaning of “free” is derived.
Mardijker are the former Catholic slaves brought from India and the East Indies that were liberated by the Dutch if they abandoned Catholicism and embraced the Dutch Reformed Church. The term was significant during the anti-colonialist and pro-independence movements of the colonies of Indonesia, Malaya, and Singapore, in the history of Indonesia, history of Malaysia, and in the history of Singapore. It became a battle-cry for those demanding independence from the colonial administrations of the Netherlands and United Kingdom.
Siding Duterte, Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo told journalists covering the Palace that “maharlika means royalty.” But according to experts, maharlika actually has a different meaning, and it’s not quite as “peaceful” or noble as we think.
In a radio interview with DZBB, historian Rolando Borrinaga of the National Commission for Culture and Arts said that maharlika actually means “free man.”
Xiao Chua, a historian and assistant professorial lecturer at De La Salle University, said in a report by the Philippine Star that the misconception about the word’s meaning was due to a “mistranslation” of Spanish historical texts wherein maharlika was translated to noblemen. “When we read the English, we thought noblemen means royal-blooded,” he said.
Chua further said, “People were thinking, we want that name. It’s a romanticized name, kasi (for it is) royal. Hindi (No); it’s just an ordinary person who is free.”
Award-winning novelist Abdon Balde Jr. also took the issue to his social media, saying that the word was included in the Vocabulario de la lengua tagala. Its meaning, translated from Spanish to Tagalog, is “alipin na itinuring na malaya.” (A slave considered free)
‘Nothing wrong’ renaming the Philippines Maharlika
Actually, there is nothing wrong in renaming the Philippines Maharlika. If the nation is truly sovereign and free, it must end all slavery connotations and implications upon them. The people of the archipelago should not bear the name Filipinos anymore which still directly or indirectly mean subjects of the Spanish King Philip.
No one can deny the fact that the Philippines, especially those from Luzon and the Visayas were colonized by foreign subjugators for centuries, first by Spain, then the Japanese and the Americans. Even portions of Mindanao were conquered — except the Muslims who were able to suppress foreign subjugation and remained truly free, enjoying their ‘merdeka’ until lately when their lands were taken from them, given to migrants from the north under government programs.
These colonizers had made our country so poor that we can hardly overcome until the present. After our alleged independence on July 4, 1954, or June 12, 1896, the Philippine is still among the poor countries in the third world today — our natural resources, our cultures and civilizations are still being and manipulated by foreign interventions. This only mean one thing: the Filipinos are not free at all.
Changing the Philippines to Maharlika, or any other name, therefore, is better if it will end all colonial connotations of still being under foreign subjugation or interference. (MNY)
(This brief treatise is prepared on July 5, 2019 by Journalist Masiding Noor Yahya. It was supposed to be presented to a group of Malay journalist leaders in the Nusantara region led by Datuk Yazid Othman in a meeting of muslim journalist leaders in the region. Yahya is the founder of Ranao Star Philippines, longest running newsweekly published from Marawi City, Lanao del Sur in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region. He is also correspondent of the prestigious The Manila Times, oldest national English daily in the Philippines. In 2017, Yahya was conferred the title “Dean of Mranaw Journalists” by the reigning Sultan of Lanao, HRH Atty. Firdausi I.Y. Abbas, PhD.)