MANILA -- During an almost two-hour virtual caravan held last January 19 with “UniTeam”— the alliance between presidential hopeful Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and running mate Sara Duterte-Carpio — a Sangguniang Kabataan official asked, “As president and vice president, how do you intend to use your respective offices as platforms to spring young people into action and become part of nation building? Drawing from your LGU experience, are there programs you want to scale up?”
While Marcos’ response centered around job generation for the youth, the current First Daughter and Mayor of Davao City sparked strong reactions throughout the nation when she announced her plans to push Congress to reinstate conscription for all Filipinos of legal age, male or female.
“Hindi po ROTC lang na isang subject, isang weekend, o isang buwan lang sa isang taon,” Duterte-Carpio said. “Dapat lahat kapag tumungtong ng 18 years old, you will be given a subsidy, you will be asked to serve the country.”
She cited similar programs in nations such as South Korea and Israel as possible references for her future plans. The former requires “all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 to 28” to serve for about twenty months, whereas the latter calls on “every Israeli citizen over the age of 18 who is Jewish, Druze, or Circassian to serve in the Israel Defense Forces… Once enlisted, men are expected to serve for a minimum of 32 months and women are expected to serve for a minimum of 24 months.”
Particularly in South Korea, exemptions from the program are few and far between, with factors including “having excessive tattoos, being overweight, underweight, having certain medical conditions, holding foreign citizenship and/or residency, being of non-Korean ethnicity, and studying in fields deemed of national importance” failing to suffice as valid excuses not to perform. Even “high-achieving pop culture stars, actors, or film-makers” like Descendants of the Sun’s Song Joong-ki, Train to Busan’s Gong Yoo, Moon Embracing the Sun’s Kim Soo-hyun, and members of the world-renowned band BTS, have found themselves bound by their duties.
However, according to defense analyst and journalist Manny Mogato, such a comparison between the Philippines, South Korea, and Israel is invalid. “Although the maritime dispute in the South China Sea is a constant reminder of a real external threat,” he says in his blog, “the Philippines, unlike Israel, is not surrounded by enemies wishing to erase it from the map. Neither does it face real aggression to unify two states at war like the tense situation on the Korean peninsula.”
While Duterte-Carpio’s goals for the program are likely in line with those stated by The Interpreter, particularly for it to serve as “an important force multiplier in periods of national emergency” and “as an important social equaliser, reinforcing an individual’s connection to the nation and society,” Mogato voiced his disagreement with the latter in our online interview, stating that “I don’t subscribe to the idea that doing military service will discipline… Filipinos. There are other ways to become patriotic,” the most “efficient and manageable” of which is to “[continue implementing] the ROTC [Reserve Officers' Training Corps ] in colleges.”
One of Mogato’s main concerns, as stated in his blog, is that “[mandatory military service] is impractical and a total waste of precious resources, which could be better spent on upgrading the outdated and obsolete military equipment… The annual budget needed to put up more garrisons and a huge pool of army trainers to handle the new recruits… could be much bigger than the annual defense budget every year.”
OPTIONAL OR MANDATORY?
Mogato contrasted this with the ROTC program, wherein you would “only train [the volunteers] during weekends. You do not need a camp. You do not need to give them uniforms.”
The Philippines’ ROTC has been optional since 2001, when University of Santo Tomas student and member of intelligence monitoring team Mark Welson Chua exposed the rumored corruption of the program in a school publication and was subsequently found murdered in the Pasig River. Since then, the signing of Republic Act 9163 in 2002 allowed college students to “choose between ROTC, Literacy Training Service, and Civil Welfare Training Service as part of their required National Service Training Program.”
Although he admitted that implementing a mandatory program would provide the nation with “a very big pool of… able-bodied volunteers” that would be able to serve “in case of emergencies and disasters,” Mogato took some time to reflect on how, “when there was still mandatory ROTC, many would skip it. In [the University of the Philippines], they would often protest against [it].”
If carried out, Duterte-Carpio’s plans will serve as a revival of her father’s frustrated desire to make the “duty to defend the identity and preservation of the Republic,” and by extension “instill patriotism” and “love of country among our youth,” less a voluntary honor and more an obligation— a desire that was met with heavy criticism when voiced in 2018.
Similarly, Duterte-Carpio’s recently-announced intentions were met with their fair share of backlash, both from fellow politicians and from the Filipino public.
The Save Our Schools Network deemed the plans “totally detached and debased from the basic need of the youth, which is education and proper jobs” and claimed that “the issue of patriotism is not simply learned by marching on the ground and carrying a rifle.”
“There is something to be said about how, instead of addressing the issues facing everyday Filipinos, Duterte seems hellbent on just adding to them. Proposing mandatory military service does nothing to address the surge in COVID-19 cases, rampant corruption in the health sector, and the crippling lack of social aid; in fact, such a proposal would only further divert crucial funding from these issues,” said Samahan ng Progresibong Kabataan.
“Public service, disaster preparedness, social welfare— none of these need military service. They need the exact opposite: demilitarisation,” declared Duterte-Carpio’s fellow vice presidential candidate Walden Bello.
However, not all were opposed to the idea. While Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana acknowledged the “anticipated objections of those not inclined to serve in the military” and that “training camps would need to be established all over the land, and manpower and funds must be allocated to accommodate the millions who will reach the age of 18 every year,” he was firm in his belief that “the product of the ROTC program is more than sufficient to meet our requirements for warm bodies in case of conflict and in times of calamities and disasters.”
Colonel Ramon Zagala, spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, voiced his support as well, claiming that “We welcome the proposal, as this is attuned to the times” and “aligned with our aspirations for the citizenry to contribute to nation building.”
(Editor's note: Meg Pio de Roda is a high school junior who enjoys using her passion for reading and writing to explore the fields of environmental science, history, and sociology.)