It’s a very difficult decision: Do we, or don’t we? Change the Constitution.
I don’t think anyone disputes that the 1987 Constitution has many flaws that need correction. Too much of it goes down to the details that should be in law. Details that can change as circumstances change.
The economic sections are a prime example of this.
In 1935, when the economic provisions were introduced, there was rudimentary AM radio, negligible commercial air travel, and cars that could reach 100 kph if they struggled hard enough. The only household appliances were a simple refrigerator and a toaster. TV was unheard of. Today, I can turn on the TV and CNN is right there in my living room. It doesn’t need a transmitter here, or even an office, so why not let it have one if it wants? The constitutionally-mandated 100% Filipino ownership of media is meaningless.
Technology has removed borders. Satellite communications, fiber optic cables, and digital technology were all unheard of in 1935 and a rarity in 1987. They are a part of our lives today, so we may as well let the foreigners in as they’re already in.
In 1986, protecting the Filipinos in a country struggling to define itself seemed a desirable thing to do, particularly on the economic side. But the Constitution should have had but one paragraph to state that as national policy. A general statement of national policy suffices. If any restrictions are needed, a law can be passed to suit the times.
No other country in the world has economic restrictions in its Constitution — so why should we? Remove them entirely, and then, if a restriction is deemed necessary, introduce it in a law. Congress has the power to do so at any time. That achieves the same result, as a law can still decide how to manage investment in a sector, but from a positive point of view. We’re an open society that has occasional restrictions, and not a closed society that has discretionary openness.
We are the most closed economy in the ASEAN region. In the OECD 2019 ranking of 84 countries, only three are more closed than the Philippines: Occupied Palestinian Territory, Algeria, and Libya. Certainly not a group we should want to belong to. We are also the slowest in attracting job-creating foreign investments. There’s a causal link there.
During President Duterte’s time, much of this was cleverly got around by redefining what was a public utility. But the right move is to remove the restrictions entirely. Restrictions have no place in this technological, global world.
On top of this, there are three other economic sections of the Constitution that need to go. One calls for a self-reliant and independent national economy effectively controlled by Filipinos. Another gives preference to qualified Filipinos, something that applies even if a foreigner is more qualified. The third is unnecessary — it says, “acts which circumvent or negate any of the provisions of this Article shall be considered inimical to the national interest and subject to criminal and civil sanctions, as may be provided by law.”
The problem is that every time change is raised, the concern that it will spill over into self-serving political changes rears its ugly head. And there’s good reason to believe this could happen.
Changes were first raised in 1997 under President Fidel Ramos, but it failed. Once more, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo thought she’d try but that failed too, although it got awfully close. Even President Duterte tried — and failed. During President Estrada’s presidency, he created the “Philippine Constitutional Commission” to review the 1987 Constitution and propose amendments. It got nowhere. President Noy Aquino also supported amending the economic provisions of the Constitution to allow for greater foreign investments in certain industries. But nada.
President Marcos Jr. doesn’t seem too interested but the congressmen are. Which, in itself, brings into strong relief what their real agenda could be. Particularly as they want to recommend the changes through a Constituent Assembly of themselves. The fear is that by doing it this way, the politicians will hijack the review to include political changes beneficial to them and not to the nation. But that fear has been with us through five presidencies; time and time again, constitutional change has been deferred because of this fear. Well, that fear will be with us in the next administration and the next, and the one after that. We have to bite the bullet sometime.
The question is, when is that time? It can’t be put off forever. Not if we want a thriving country in a modern world. I believe that the time is now. Without President Marcos’ enthusiasm for it, though, it’s hard to see how it could succeed.
This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP.
Peter L. Wallace is a member of the MAP Energy Committee, the MAP ICT Committee, and the MAP National Issues Committee. He is the chair of Wallace Business Forum.