RODRIGO DUTERTE, the perpetually disgruntled president of the Philippines, is unhappy about the name of his country. “I want to change it someday,” he remarked earlier this month in one of his customary rambling speeches. “No particular name yet but, sure, I would like to change the name of the Philippines, because the Philippines is named after King Philip.” The Philip in question was a 16th-century king of Spain. A Portuguese explorer in the pay of the Spanish crown, Ferdinand Magellan, was the first European to visit the archipelago, which he claimed for Spain. (He was then killed by locals.) Mr Duterte says he would prefer a name inspired by the indigenous, Malay culture.
It was the second time in three weeks that Mr Duterte had called for a new name, making it sound like an official government policy. But his spokesman, Salvador Panelo, is woolly about that: “He is expressing an idea again…as usual.” If it is policy, it will require an amendment to the constitution, which would have to be approved by plebiscite.
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That seems unlikely. If the reminder of colonialism makes ordinary Filipinos bridle, they do so less openly than their president. And the first time Mr Duterte aired the idea of a name change, in February, he diminished the chances of it ever becoming reality by suggesting a new name associated with Ferdinand Marcos, a former dictator: Maharlika. Mr Duterte explained: “Marcos, he is really right. He wanted to change the name to Maharlika, the Republic of Maharlika, because Maharlika is a Malay word.” Mr Marcos thought the word meant “nobility”, and said it had been the name of a guerrilla group he claimed to have led to resist Japanese occupation during the second world war.
Most historians, however, believe that Mr Marcos invented the guerrilla group, or wildly exaggerated its exploits, in order to cast himself as a war hero. Many academics also dispute the assertion that Maharlika means nobility, saying it refers to a lower class in the ancient hierarchy. Moreover, the word does not seem to be Malay at all, but rather derived from Sanskrit. The consensus seems to be that it means “man of ability”, although a persistent minority translate it as “big phallus”. In 2016 an online petition urged Mr Duterte to rename the Philippines the Republic of Maharlika. Of the country’s 105m citizens, just seven signed up.