In mid-2020, House Deputy Speaker and Sorsogon Representative Evelina Escudero proposed the creation of a separate Department of Culture. This was prompted by the clamor for higher levels of budgetary support to agencies under the National Commission on Culture and Arts (NCCA), particularly the National Museum of the Philippines, the Surian ng Wikang Pambansa, and the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
In some ASEAN countries, there are ministries of culture and information that perform the work of agencies involved in cultural development and oversee the public communication infrastructure. The pitch for a separate Cabinet-level department has not gained traction. Meantime, the Senate has yet to concur with a House bill creating a new Department of Overseas Filipinos.
Two new Cabinet -level departments have been established during the current administration: The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (DHUD). Given the massive spending incurred to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is evident that the establishment of yet another separate department would present formidable budgetary challenges. A huge increase has also been earmarked for the devolution of key functions and projects to the local government units (LGUs) in compliance with the Supreme Court decision on the Mandanas-Garcia cases.
Strategic policy perspective
We revisit Representative Escudero’s proposal from a strategic policy perspective. Last week, we highlighted the fact that one of the three pillars of the Ambisyon Natin 2040, the country’s long-term development program, is the Malasakit pillar that emphasizes social cohesion. High trust among peoples must be established. In turn, the people must trust public institutions and dedicate themselves to the attainment of the common good.
To achieve this lofty objective, Philippine Development Plan (2017-2022) focuses on the important “basic mission of culture and heritage to strengthen values and identity, and enhance the quality of life.”
In the current set-up, the NCCA is designated as the overall coordinating body for cultural development as provided for in Republic Act 7356. Four principles under pin the NCCA’s existence: First, pluralistic, or embracing the country’s diverse ethno-linguistic profile; second, democratic, or supporting mass participation; third, non-partisan, or inclusive of creed, ideology, age, gender or class; and fourth, liberating, or seeking the “emancipation of the Filipino psyche in order to ensure the full flowering of Filipino culture.”
The cultural agencies under the NCCA have harmonized the delivery of cultural services. The Cultural Center of the Philippines became the national coordinating center for the performing arts, lining itself with local arts councils and propagating outreach programs.
Regional museums were established by the National Museum in Angono (Rizal), Basco (Batanes), Padre Burgos in Vigan (Ilocos Sur), Kabayan (Benguet), Kiangan (Ifugao), Magsingal (Ilocos Sur), Puerto Princesa (Palawan), Butuan (Caraga region), Tabaco (Albay), Fort Pilar (Zamboanga City), Boac (Marinduque), Jolo (Sulu), and Iloilo City.
Even under the NCCA set-up, localized interventions in the provinces and countryside have animated awareness of the country’s richly diverse culture.
Having a Department of Culture with greater oversight function and sub-national presence will ensure more effective policymaking and program implementation at various levels – except that it is not presently feasible from a national budget standpoint.
On closer analysis, national culture is the larger, over-arching concept that includes “the norms, behaviors, beliefs, customs, and values shared by the population of a sovereign nation;” and “refers to specific characteristics such as language, religion, ethnic and racial identity, cultural history and traditions.”
Ideally, propagation of the national culture could best be achieved through the formal educational system. However, other priorities had to take precedence. The establishment of the K to 12 system resulted in the bifurcation of responsibilities for basic education to the Department of the Education, and to the Commission on Higher Education for schools, colleges and universities at the tertiary level.
The imposition of martial law also tarred the concept of a national culture as harsh memories of the era of dictatorship festered – until the resurgence of the democratic ethos was fueled by the triumph of the People Power revolution. Yet, this period of democratic renewal was short-lived as it was overrun by the resurgence of traditional politics. Unexpectedly, the emergence of an original Pilipino music (OPM) genre’ emerged as a solitary bright spot in Philippine cultural development during martial law and in the post-EDSA era.
To the credit of its administrators – past and current – the NCCA and the cultural agencies have painstakingly carried the torch of cultural development, unfazed by bureaucratic and budgetary constraints. They have propagated the seeds of cultural awareness in the regions and provinces, thereby enhancing ethnic consciousness while promoting Filipino solidarity.
We look forward to the return of long queues at the National Museum after the critical period of the current contagion passes. A Filipino cultural renaissance could provide the healing balm for revitalizing the energies of a citizenry ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.