Panahon not

QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

Whoever urged President Marcos Jr. to issue that memo mandating all government agencies and schools to sing the new “Bagong Pilipinas” hymn and recite the accompanying pledge at flag ceremonies should be banished to the farthest reaches of Malacañang, in the archives chronicling his predecessors’ most stupid mistakes.

PBBM was already riding a cresting wave of nationalism (bordering, let’s admit it, on Sinophobia for many) because of Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea and scandals related to offshore gambling operations run by Chinese in the country. He also earned grudging points from even his staunchest critics and detractors for seemingly being open to investigating the human rights excesses of his iron-fisted predecessor and sanctioning the arrest of one of that man’s most notorious cronies (an unsuccessful operation that Vice President Sara Duterte found the delicacy to deplore for its “excessive use of force,” which you never heard her say about her papa’s murderous tokhang campaign).

Bongbong Marcos, in other words, was beginning to look and sound like what Rodrigo Duterte never could: a president with a grasp of the issues and a sensitivity to public opinion. Even former Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a prominent figure in the opposition in 2022, praised BBM for the latter’s recent foreign policy speech in Singapore, where he cited the Treaty of Washington whereby Spain ceded Philippine territory beyond what was stipulated in the Treaty of Paris. “This finally corrects the greatest misconception in Philippine history,” said Carpio, a militant advocate of Philippine territorial rights, “a watershed moment in our fight to defend our island territories and maritime zones in the West Philippine Sea.”

No, it didn’t mean that the old pre-EDSA issues were forgiven and forgotten, nor that new ones like the dubious Maharlika Fund haven’t emerged over the first two years of his tenure, on top of his wanderlust. But BBM has had the good luck – if you can call it that – of inheriting Chinese expansionism and the Duterte legacy, and the good sense to get on the right side of these thorny concerns.

Granted, there’s no real way to know if his deviation from Digong’s Sinophilia and trigger-happiness is sincere and not just a ploy to torpedo Inday Sara’s claim to succeeding him and install his own man. At this point, it doesn’t seem to matter much; so brazen has Chinese aggression been that even Duterte’s boys in the Senate have felt compelled to wear “West Philippine Sea” T-shirts, even as their lesser allies pose as “peaceniks” who somehow saw nothing wrong with the former president waging war on his own people.

So did BBM’s team – or BBM himself – think that this was the right time to reap some of that PR dividend, consolidate his gains and foist the “Bagong Pilipinas” brand on the country through a new song and pledge?

The implicit rationale, we can understand. It’s a page right out of his dad’s New Society playbook: use music – indeed, use culture and education – to generate team spirit, or at least some semblance of it. That’s what anthems, hymns and fight songs are for, from the American Civil War’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to the quintessentially English “Jerusalem” and the Nazi “Horst Wessel Lied.” Here in the Philippines, no martial law morning was complete without the “Bagong Lipunan” (its real title was “Bagong Pagsilang”) song playing on the radio.

To be fair (if it’s even possible to say that, given that the regime put me in prison for seven months in 1973), it was a catchy, well-written song, with a martial (what else) rhythm; that we still remember at least the tune five decades later attests to the success of its imprinting. It resurfaced on the airwaves shortly after BBM took office in 2022, reviving apprehensions of a New Society 2.0, but it seems to have been pulled shortly after, leading me to suspect that BBM, after all, wanted to be taken on his own and move away from his father’s shadow, which would have been the smart (if nearly impossible) thing to do.

But the imposition of this “Bagong Pilipinas” hymn and pledge again invites uncomfortable parallels and comparisons with what FM Sr. did – and I don’t mean just having the martial law anthem composed and played, but everything else that came with the New Society: the corruption, the arrests and killings, the submission of our institutions to autocratic rule.

If you don’t want to go there, let’s talk about just the “Bagong Pilipinas” song itself – have you even heard it? I’m not a music critic, but even I can tell that it’s barely singable, with an uneven tempo, with immemorable lyrics, the constant refrain of which is “Panahon na ng pagbabago” (“It’s time for change”), probably the tritest political message there ever was. You need a trained choir and a band capable of trumpet flourishes to render the piece effectively; I can be convinced that this will work only if I see and hear the President himself and his Cabinet singing the song from memory at the Malacañang flag ceremony (and let’s add the new Senate President, who has embraced the directive).

I don’t know how many millions went to the lyricist and composer of the song, who have mysteriously remained anonymous; clearly, they weren’t the late National Artist Levi Celerio and Felipe Padilla de Leon, who worked together on the “Bagong Lipunan” hymn. Perhaps BBM’s critics should be happy that they weren’t that good because, presidential mandate or not, this hymn and its equally problematic pledge seem fated to be ignored and forgotten for their sheer unusability, superfluity and irrelevance.

PBBM should have been advised that at a time when the nation needs to pull together against a visible external threat, we need constancy, not change, not confusion over who and what we are. We need our one and only National Anthem more than ever, and the same Pledge of Allegiance we have been reciting since our childhood years. Panahon na? Panahon not.

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Email me at [email protected] and visit my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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