‘Imperial Manila’

/ 02:00 AM December 28, 2015

What exactly do people mean when they speak of “Imperial Manila”? How can we look past this phrase and get to the heart of the matter? In this essay I examine the dimensions of this perceived imperialism and offer some suggestions on how we can rid ourselves of this stumbling block to national unity.

The first dimension is political: the perception that Manila has disproportionate control of our country’s governance. From the colonial rule of Spain and America and, eventually, an independent Republic of the Philippines, “Imperial Manila” has served as a metonym for a national government whose presence and concern have not always been felt in many parts of the country. Critics say that the government is not representative of the entire nation: Only two senators hail from Mindanao, and only three from the Visayas. From this point of view, Manila remains “imperial,” and the consequences of this imperialism are policies that benefit Manila.


The second dimension is economic: the perception that, as Inquirer columnist Winnie Monsod put it, “Metro Manilans are the favored offspring” insofar as wealth distribution and economic programs are concerned. Recent talk about subsidies to the MRT has fueled this view, and each region has its own grievance: Palaweños lament that they are not getting their fair share of the Malampaya Fund, and

Cebuanos decry the lack of infrastructure projects in Cebu during the Aquino administration.


The third dimension is cultural: the perception that Manila is at the center of Philippine society. That Manila is the home of mass media outfits means that it gets more attention in news and TV shows. Even in textbook accounts of our history, the events that have unfolded in Manila and nearby provinces are central to the narrative, and we have not given due attention to heroism and struggles elsewhere. Taken together, this creates a feeling of being marginalized among those who are living in the provinces. Rody Duterte voiced this when he once said to a Metro Manila audience: “You have always looked at Mindanao as a distant star. But we are Filipinos just like you.”

The fourth dimension is a perception of a linguistic imperialism, which dates back to the adoption of Tagalog—the native language of parts of Luzon—as the national language in 1937. Though Manuel Quezon justified it with the need to promote national unity, it can be argued that it has only stirred resentment among non-Tagalog speakers. Thus while many have hailed P-Noy’s use of Filipino instead of English, some have critiqued him for speaking thus in places like Cebu. This dilemma of striving for a national language—shared by various countries from Spain to Indonesia—complicates the already-thorny issue of what role English should play in our society.

As we have seen, “Imperial Manila” represents certain things: from the national government to the Tagalog language. But there is also the danger of conflating it with Manila itself—thus turning it into an idea that polarizes Manilans and the rest of the country. Those who feel strongly against an “Imperial Manila” should realize that many people living in Metro Manila actually share the feelings of neglect felt by the people from the provinces. Indeed, Imperial Manila represents political, economic and cultural power—and residents of Metro Manila are often as far from this imagined “center” as the rest of the country.

Moreover, looking at where the power resides in our country should also bring us to a conversation on who are victimized the most in this power structure. If Manila is “imperial,” where is the true periphery? I suspect the answer will take us to the  lumad, the landless farmers and the urban poor: not just of Davao and Cebu, but of Pasay and Tondo. While we engage in a discussion of “imperialism,” we should be mindful that Imperial Manila is but a symptom of the larger inequalities that have plagued our nation.

* * *

In today’s political discourse, federalism is being offered as the antidote to Imperial Manila. Rodrigo Duterte’s brand of federalism is particularly resonant, and the very prospect of having the first president from Mindanao has symbolic value in exorcising the idea of a Luzon-dominated leadership. Critics point out that federalism poses the risk of exacerbating regionalisms, perpetuating local dynasts and complicating an

already-chaotic bureaucracy, but supporters see it as the crucial move required for economic development to be spread throughout the country.


Regardless of one’s views on federalism, however, the very notion of Imperial Manila speaks of genuine clamor across the country for a more representative political system—and a more inclusive economy—and this is something that the next president should address. Importantly, people must feel this inclusiveness. Toward this end, there must be an acknowledgment that the perceived imperialism is also cultural, and thus must involve culture-bearers, such as mass media and the educational system.

Yet, even as we reject the idea of any city—or region—dominating the country, I hope we can all look at Manila itself with fondness. Home to Filipinos from all the regions of the country, this is the Manila of beautiful sunsets, of rich heritage and storied past: one that fought its way through earthquakes, fires, epidemics and wars, and one that needs to be restored, rehabilitated and revitalized. Imperial Manila represents a privileged few, but the real Manila belongs to all of us.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at

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TAGS: federalism, Imperial Manila, Tagalog
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