March 19, 2o17
CASER: A Proposal for National Consultation in the Philippines
Comment by Richard F.Dorall
(Edition: February 15, 2017)
OSLO, NORWAY. Peace panel representatives from the Philippine government and the Communist Party of the Philippines are in smiles during the third day of the talks held at Scandic Holmenkollen Park, Norway. (Photo from the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Facebook page).
So the peace talks between the Government of the Philippines and the Philippine Communist Party in Norway are off. And “bombs away” are being threatened. Released political detainees will be re-imprisoned on their return to the Philippines.
These are most distressing developments, but they still do not obviate the urgent necessity for Filipinos to face up to the root causes of the national unrest which were under parallel discussion during the now off peace talks between the Philippine Government (GRP) and the National Democratic Front Philippines (NDFP), and which the NDFP had outlined in a document titled “Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines” (CASER), and which was intended to be a pre-requisite for the permanent cessation of hostilities between the Philippine Government and the armed communists.
CASER outlines social and economic objectives such as economic and social justice and political reforms which all Filipinos can readily accept as national goals, but the document also spells out detailed structural, institutional reforms, many of which require societal and constitutional reforms, if they are to be enacted. These CASER details once implemented shall profoundly affect all of Philippine society as it now stands, requiring revolutionary changes affecting all sectors of society, from top to bottom, embracing all groups including Indigenous Peoples and the Bangsa Moro, and launching changes that will totally change Philippine society.
The problem with CASER is not in its laudable objectives, but rather in the operational details of the changes being proposed. CASER has also been tabled for discussion in far-away Norway, and is only being evaluated and negotiated by two parties, the Government of the day, and the communists, both who are but only two of many other parties and institutions in the Philippines directly to be impacted by CASER “reforms.”
The Philippine public has been largely kept unawares of the details laid out in the CASER document (currently a draft of over 80 pages in length). Neither the GRP nor the NDFP can honestly claim to represent all of the complexity which is Philippine Society today. The GRP of the day won the presidential election in May 2016 with a minority of the votes cast in a multi-candidate contest. The NDFP has never represented more than a small minority of Filipinos in both the urban and rural areas. Yet, both these non-representative parties have been negotiating in secret in far-away Norway, and other exotic European locations, without informing Filipinos of any of the scope and details of the proposed reforms, nor asking the Filipino people if they approve of any of these changes which will have deep and long-lasting impacts on all of Philippine society.
The now widely principle accepted both in the Philippines and internationally of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), this being a bottom-up participation and consultation best practice process, is being ignored in Norway, and CASER reform discussions have been conducted at the “top” with everybody else being left largely in the dark. FPIC, a principle ironically frequently mentioned as a pre-requisite in the “New Philippines” in the CASER document itself, requires an opening up of these secret negotiations between the GRP and NDFP to make them more truly democratic and representative of the collective wishes of all the Filipino peoples.
The Philippines may want to learn the lessons of representative national consultations from its neighbor, Malaysia, which has had three national consultations at major turning points in its history. Malaysia, a multi-ethnic country, has long-learned that complex societies cannot be structured, and then re-structured at various points in history, without involving representation of all major societal players in the decision-making, and action-implementing phases to ensure the success of proposals for profound social change.
Then Malayan independence (in 1957) from the colonial power Britain was late in coming compared to most of the rest of Southeast Asia. The main reason was the diverse Malayan ethnic communities had to compromise on a complex range of give-and-take relationships, structures, institutions, and their legal and constitutional frameworks, before agreeing to form an ethnic-based coalition government that has ruled democratically since 1957 till today. This first consultation, in the early to mid-1950s, was multi-ethnic in format, but having major social and economic implications. These negotiations between political representatives of the main ethnic groups were conducted in tMalaya, and in the United Kingdom, and in the resultant “Social Contract” that they agreed on formed the basis of the 1957 Malayan National Constitution which laid out how (Malaya’s diverse people would live by.
In 1963, Malaya formed a political federation with the British colonies of Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah, and became known as Malaysia. The “Social Contract” of the 1950s became increasingly frayed. The Non-Malay ethnic Chinese and (some) Indians benefitted more from Malayan and since 1963 Malaysian economic development than did the numerically majority indigenous Malay peoples. These led to inter-ethnic rioting in the immediate aftermath of the 1969 Malaysian General Elections (known as the May 13, 1969 Incident), resulting in National Emergency Rule being imposed.
The Malaysian Government immediately called for a National Consultative Council in 1970 to discuss the crisis, and to propose economic, political, social and constitutional reforms to solve the underlying causes of social unrest: poverty in all the ethnic groups, and structural economic imbalances between the ethnic communities. All major societal sectors, political, ethnic, economic and social, appointed representative members of the NCC, and they met in private talks to avoid inflaming public opinion by openly discussing “sensitive issues.” A revised Social Contract was agreed by the NCC, and then by the Government which lifted the state of emergency, and announced a New Economic Policy (NEP) for the next two decades (1970-1990) during which national social re-structuring to eliminate inter-ethnic disparities, and poverty reduction among all Malaysians, would be systematically dealt with as the top national priority.
The 1970s and 1980s were two decades of rapid Malaysia economic and social transformation. However, by the mid-1980s it became clear to the mainly indigenous Malay community that despite economic “re-structuring” in their favor, they still lagged behind the targets originally set by the NEP in 1970. On the other hand, the Non-Malays (Malaysian Chinese, Indians and Others) felt that the NEP was over-favoring the ethnic Malays, and that they were being disadvantaged. They wanted the NEP to be abolished at the end of its 20-year period. Furthermore, absolute poverty among all ethnic groups, although reduced, was far from eliminated. This resulted in heightened public tension, mass demonstrations from both ethnic sides if the national divide, and a growing anxiety that ethnic rioting could once again occur.
To meet the growing national disquiet, the then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir Mohamed, called for a National Consultative Council to discuss, and make proposals to Government on how Malaysia should proceed beyond the end of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1990. Some 150 Malaysians representing all political parties, both in the ruling political alliance and the opposition, all major economic and social (NGO) sectors, as well as those representing Malaysia’s diverse ethnic communities both large and small were appointed to this NCC. The writer of this paper was one of these 150 Malaysians appointed to this third national consultative council, and he participated in all the deliberations of the council from 1989 through 1990.
As in the case of the second national consultation in the immediate aftermath of the deadly May 13, 1960 ethnic riots, all deliberations of this new consultative council were held outside the scrutiny of the public and mass media, to minimize against any agitation in an already tense national situation. Members of the council were encouraged to give to and get feedback from their respective constituencies, but were barred from making public statements and leaking anything to the mass media, all to maintain the fragile peace and order situation.
This third national consultative council (officially known as the Malaysian National Economic Consultative Council) discussed not just economic issues arising from the impending end of the 20-years of the New Economic Policy (1970-1990), but all related social, cultural and even political issues. The council submitted its detailed multi-sectoral report and accompanying multi-volume appendices to the Malaysian Government in 1990, after more than one and a half years of intense deliberations. The Government of Dr Mahathir used the output of this third national consultative deliberation to formulate a Vision 2020 strategy to transform Malaysian society and economy to achieve the status of an “advanced society” by the year 2020, that is, in thirty years hence (1990-2020).
The 1990-2000s can be safely said to have become a “Golden Age” in Malaysian development, both social and economic, as Malaysians, for the most part, embraced the heady objectives of Vision 2020. Economic advancement was undeniable. The middle class grew appreciably in the Malaysian Chinese, Malay and Indian communities. The industrial and commercial sectors had now eclipsed agriculture and raw materials as the mainstay of the Malaysian society.
Another NCC for Malaysia under Najib Razak?
However, in the current decade (2010s) there is again a growing realization that while there have emerged rich Malays, and Indians to join with their rich Chinese counterparts, and, yes, there is a growing mainly urban yet multi-ethnic middle class, there stubbornly remain persistent pockets of urban and, especially rural, poverty. The Bornean states of Sarawak and Sabah have openly become increasingly vocal against Peninsular Malaysian “colonization,” especially of their natural resources. And there is now an awareness of the widening gap between the rich (who keep getting richer, and regrettably profligately so, irrespective of their ethnic origins) and the poor (of all ethnicities) many of whom cannot break out of a cycle of poverty they find themselves trapped in.
Again, Malaysians are now once more facing the challenge of the need for structural reforms, these requiring economic, social and political transformations if they are to succeed in changing Malaysian society for the better. And, inevitably, there are now calls, being led by the influential banker-brother of the current Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, to hold yet another national consultative council, the fourth since the 1950s, to deliberate on, and make recommendations on how Malaysia ought to be moving forward.
What lessons for the Philippines do Malaysia’s over 60 years experience of holding national consultative consultations offer?
First, when faced with the need for major national structural changes in society, consulting with all major players (political, economic, social, cultural and even religious) is preferred over secret negotiations among just two (or a few) parties. The principle of FPIC (Free, Prior and Informed Consent) must guided such transformational discussions, involving all those to be impacted, and getting them to consensually agree, before tabling the proposals to the Executive (the Government of the day) to convert into actionable multi-sectoral strategies.
Second, multi-player consultations are best kept representative, but outside the public-eye because the (free) media, and ordinary persons (especially in this age of Twitter and other social media) can very easily stir up emotions, and scuttle any possibility of consensus building which, by its very nature, is a listening, and give-and-take process. Consultative council members, to be sure, must consult with their constituencies and to receive guidance and feedback from them, but all due care should be taken to preserve the consultative process which should be protected against all possible destructive events stirred against it from the outside.
Third, members of the consultative body must be chosen not only because they represent their particular sector, but because they are first and foremost Filipino nationalists who will put the big-picture nation first above narrow self and sectoral interests. Anybody who does not put the nation first is a possible “saboteur” of any consensus-building process, and should be replaced by his or her sector with someone who understands what consensus-building is.
Fourth, building a national consensus, especially in a complex society of 100 million Filipinos, is not going to be achieved over-night, or in weeks, nor possibly months. It will take stamina, and true grit to stay the long haul. Being a member of a national consultative council is truly national service, an honor not to be taken on lightly. Failure to achieve a truly national consensus is a personal failure, something to be mourned, not celebrated (for “standing up to principles”). The nation and all its people must come first, and take center stage, beyond self and sector.
Fifth, the national consultative council, cannot be too large (and risk not deciding on anything) nor too small (and risk not being representative enough). In the Malaysian National Consultative Council of the late 1980s of which this writer was a member, there were 150 persons chosen representing about 25 million Malaysians. The Philippines has 100 million people, and proportionately that could mean 600 Filipino consultative members! It may take 600 consultative members many years to collectively agree on anything as complex as transforming the Philippines into a more just society! More important than sheer numbers is that the various sectors of Philippine society ought to be proportionately represented in the national consultation. Women should expect representation near 50 per cent. Minority communities should expect up to 15 per cent membership to correctly represent their demographic numbers in the national population. Rural farm workers, the urban poor, youth etc. all need fair, not just token, representation. The council cannot be dominated by politicians and captains of industry. Yes, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) should be represented, but not as the 50 per cent partner of a two-only negotiation in Norway, but in a number which is fair to their true position or influence in the Philippine scheme of things. And always remember, national consensus is not a vote with 50 plus one winning. It is 100 per cent, or as near unanimous as possible agreement, by all who will agree that while they did not all get what they individually wanted, but they got that package of reforms which they could all live with, and support, that which they had consensually agreed on.
In the absence of any competing document which analyses the complexity of Philippine society in terms of its political, economic and social structures, CASER could, and perhaps should!, provide a starting point for discussion and deliberation in a Philippine National Consultative Council. CASER’s generally stated objectives of economic and social justice for all, a new and more nationalist development strategy, the inclusion of those marginalised ethnic communities, including Indigenous Peoples and the Bangsa Moro, and the large number, yet voiceless, rural and urban poor, are surely objectives all Filipinos of good-will, irrespective of class or ethnicity, can accept.
CASER becomes problematic when it goes beyond its statement of lofty objectives, and spells out the operational details to achieve these objectives, many of these which other Filipinos may well reject as detrimental in the extreme to their respective positions and interests, and crossing red lines drawn in the sand. A national consultative council is precisely the forum to deliberate on strategies, and detailed action plans, and to modify or replace those placed on the table alongside others such that in the ensuing dialectic, eventually there will emerge a range of proposals that all can agree on.
This writer suggests that the Philippines look at the six decades of Malaysian experience in successive national re-structuring efforts to achieve greater economic, social, and political justice using the mechanism of the National Consultative Council. When the consultation process comes to a national consensus, this consensus and its recommendations can then be brought forward to the Legislatures, and to the Courts if need be, and ultimately to the Executive to concretize and put into place the action plans to effect the long strategies (extending beyond the constitutionally-mandated single six-year presidential term) which will transform Philippine society from that which it is today, to a better tomorrow that all Filipinos envisage, and so set in motion the long-haul to build on the ground, in the years and decades ahead, this Philippines of Tomorrow.
Richard F. Dorall,
University of Malaya (1972-2007),
Member of the Malaysian National Consultative Council (1989-1990)