OPINION: Divided over a debut

Manolo Quezon — The Explainer

Posted at Dec 18 2017 07:38 PM | Updated as of Dec 19 2017 11:06 PM

The presidential seal was adopted by President Manuel Roxas in 1947. The design was by the artist Galo Ocampo, who also designed the coat of arms of the Republic.

Actually, the presidential seal is composed of the coat of arms of the President of the Philippines, surrounded by the legend “Seal of the President of the Philippines” (“Sagisag ng Pangulo ng Pilipinas”). The blue circle is the shield; on the shield is a red triangle (representing liberty, equality, and fraternity, the ideals of the French and Philippine revolutions and our republic), on which is a sealion and three stars.

Image courtesy of the Presidential Museum and Library

The sealion is a lion with a sea creature’s tail. It was adopted as part of the coat of arms of the city of Manila during the reign of Philip II. Manila’s coat of arms was an adaptation of the arms of the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Leon. To show we were ultramar, or a new settlement overseas, the Lion of Leon became a sealion.

The sealion became the symbol both of Manila and of the governors-general; therefore, a symbol of the supreme authority in the islands. Combined with the red triangle representing valor and the three stars representing Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, the triangle then represents the President of the Philippines as supreme authority and successor of past rulers.

The triangle is on the Philippine sun, as adopted for our flag, with the eight rays representing the provinces placed under martial law at the onset of the revolution against Spain.

During the administration of President Elpidio Quirino, the American presidential seal, after which our own was patterned, was modified to include a ring of stars representing the states of the union. Quirino modified the presidential seal to include a ring of stars, representing the provinces of the Philippines, then 52.

Because of poor terminology in the official document specifying the seal, and ignorance of heraldry on the part of officials, the stars were represented as white stars, although the Executive Order specified they would be gold. This was because people were more familiar with the American design.

During President Estrada’s term, the presidential seal was further modified to reflect the great increase in the number of provinces since 1952. Now, we have 79. To correct the errors that are possible due to sloppy terminology, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo signed Executive Order 310, correcting the lapses in terminology and representations that have crept in over the years. 

The result is a superior rendering of the presidential coat of arms and seal.

Now, the presidential flag and seal have become a hot topic because of a photo shoot in Malacañan Palace, involving one of the president's grandchildren ahead of her debut. A lot of the debate has focused on Executive Order No. 310, issued by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in April, 2004. A lot of commenters including media, have focused on the words that the flag and seal "are exclusively meant for the use of the President," as well as the list of purposes for which reproduction of the flag and seal are permitted. The argument is, the executive order does not permit the seal being used in a photo of the president's granddaughter.

Having prepared the Executive Order when I was once upon a time Presidential Assistant for Historical Affairs, let me clarify what that executive order intended to solve. They were three things. The first was the confusion I mentioned to you earlier, about how the presidential seal was portrayed. The second, perhaps more important point, was how the seal was being used by all sorts of government officials and even by members of the public, for influence-peddling. A particularly rampant abuse was in the form of stickers meant to intimidate the police; another was in calling cards, meant to suggest strong connections to the presidency.The third thing was to restore the proper distinction between the presidential and vice-presidential seals, which had become confused over time. When we were looking at how this problem was solved in other countries, we looked at the specific example of the United States, and so the executive order was patterned on US regulations.

But the whole controversy, let me suggest, is about two things that have nothing to do with Executive Order No. 310. The first is a question of taste. Let me explain. In Malacañan Palace, there are several rooms where the presidential seal is prominently on display. The most obvious is in the Rizal Ceremonial Hall, where officials take their oaths. The other places include the Presidential Study, the official office of the president, the Aguinaldo State Dining Room, Heroes Hall, and in a couple of other rooms. They are permanent parts of the official furniture, so to speak. So, anyone who is in the Palace can—and many, many people do—pose by the seal and no one stops them. You can even do a little dance if you like, and it's not illegal, though some may find it improper—meaning, it's a question of taste. And the thing about taste is it's subjective. Refreshing informality for some is horrifying disrespect to others, but who is to judge?

Society, that's who. Whether fairly or not, public life involves public judgement. And what was once attractive to the powerful may no longer excite admiration from the public. 

In the olden days, the rigodon de honor was an essential part of official events. Since the 1960s, however, it has increasingly been relegated to the past. In the past forty years, you can only count two instances when a rigodon was held in the presidential palace. There was the Marcos inaugural in 1981, and an Independence Day Reception late in the term of President Arroyo. Eighty to fifty years ago, no one would have batted an eyelash if a president's daughter held a debut, which is the formal presentation of an eligible daughter to society, to signify she is available on the marriage market. But again, time has increasingly relegated debuts to being a throwback to the past. 

Even in the United Kingdom, with its monarchy and peerage, the tradition of having prominent families present their daughters at court, was abolished by Queen Elizabeth II in 1958, and at the time it was considered a radical embrace of the modern age. To be sure, debuts are still held, here and abroad, but no longer with official connections. 

But if you do want to get into questions of the law, then perhaps the place to look is not in executive order, but the supreme law, the Constitution. says, in Article XI, Section 1:

"Public office is a public trust. Public officials and employees must at all times serve the people with utmost responsibility, integrity, loyalty and efficiency, act with patriotism and justice, and lead modest lives."

And there is Republic Act 6713, Section 4 of which says,

"Officials and employees and their families shall lead modest lives appropriate to their positions and income. They shall not indulge in extravagant or ostentatious display of wealth in any form."

Both these commands --from 1987 and 1989, respectively-- were aimed at ensuring that the displays of extravagance during the Marcos dictatorship, would no longer be tolerated.

Presidents yesterday, today, and tomorrow will sooner or later have their personal standards subjected to the judgment of the public. President Estrada was attacked for his wining and dining; President Arroyo had a dinner in New York and was severely criticized. President Aquino bought a sportscar and had to stop driving it, and then sell it, after the public erupted in anger. Every year, during the State of the Nation Address, half of the public oohs and ahs over the gowns of legislators or their spouses, while the other half erupts in anger over what it considers ostentatious display. Now, the president's grandkids are a hot topic. It's not surprising, then, that we seem divided over debuts. 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.