Banknotes and coins: The 'calling cards of the nation

Money talk brings about certain moods. We get sad and irritated when there's a lack of it, giddy when we receive crisp bills as "pamasko," proud with a glint in the eye when we have too much of it, and always frustrated when the bills have to be paid.

But during the Jose Rizal Lecture at the 2011 Philippine PEN (Poets and Playwrights, Essayists, and Novelists) Conference, historian and author Ambeth Ocampo made his audience smile without throwing cash at them, instead making them ponder about how our banknotes—the "common, everyday things" we fish out of wallets and pockets—speak about us Filipinos.

Ocampo, considered an "expert" on all things Rizal, called bills and coins "calling cards of a country."

"They tell a story, they're an official view of history," he said at the conference held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines last December 2. "But banknotes are such common, everyday objects that we don't notice them."

When we do, it's to criticize, he said, noting how the New Generation bills launched last year drew flak for "faulty" designs, particularly the "geographically wrong" map of the Philippines printed at the back of the 1,000-peso bill.

Ocampo, who was "the only outsider" on the Numismatic Committee of the Bangko Sentral of the Philippines (BSP) that recommended approval of the bills, offered in good humor: "You can blame me," which he withdrew by saying "I'm always consulted but I'm never really listened to."

And while he agreed with President Benigno Aquino III, who countered criticisms by noting that you wouldn't consult a thousand-peso bill for directions, the historian pointed out that these little matters—like lost islands that you won't notice in a map at first glance—show how unsure we are of ourselves, especially in our claim over territories like the Spratlys and Sabah.

"Just to show you how different we are from Indonesia: the back of their 100,000 bill has a map. When you look at [it], the map in their money has Papua New Guinea and Malaysia in it. They actually claim it. They're very secure about themselves and what they own.

In the Philippines, not only don't we know the exact number [of our islands], we also don't put disputed territories in it," he said, adding that what goes into the map is something that "should be discussed."

Faces of heroes

Ocampo also discussed the faces that defined our currencies, which he said reflected "what we tend to think of ourselves."

He shared the pitch he made when he was first told about the BSP coming up with the new generation currency: get rid of all its current "faces," replace them with "people who are younger—no more 19th century heroes."

"And I said, 'Why don't we put artists and writers?' The Central Bank, of course, said no. They refused to look at it," he said. "It would have been a way for people to learn about their artists and their writers."

Saying that they didn't have time with the buzz of the upcoming elections, the BSP retained all the faces in the notes—save for the inclusion of former President Cory Aquino in the 500-peso bill and the removal of Gloria Arroyo at the back of the 200-peso bill.

Ocampo, who was "the only outsider" on the Numismatic Committee of the Bangko Sentral of the Philippines (BSP) that recommended approval of the bills, offered in good humor: "You can blame me," which he withdrew by saying "I'm always consulted but I'm never really listened to."

And while he agreed with President Benigno Aquino III, who countered criticisms by noting that you wouldn't consult a thousand-peso bill for directions, the historian pointed out that these little matters—like lost islands that you won't notice in a map at first glance—show how unsure we are of ourselves, especially in our claim over territories like the Spratlys and Sabah.

"Just to show you how different we are from Indonesia: the back of their 100,000 bill has a map. When you look at [it], the map in their money has Papua New Guinea and Malaysia in it. They actually claim it. They're very secure about themselves and what they own.

In the Philippines, not only don't we know the exact number [of our islands], we also don't put disputed territories in it," he said, adding that what goes into the map is something that "should be discussed."

Faces of heroes

Ocampo also discussed the faces that defined our currencies, which he said reflected "what we tend to think of ourselves."

He shared the pitch he made when he was first told about the BSP coming up with the new generation currency: get rid of all its current "faces," replace them with "people who are younger—no more 19th century heroes."

"And I said, 'Why don't we put artists and writers?' The Central Bank, of course, said no. They refused to look at it," he said. "It would have been a way for people to learn about their artists and their writers."

Saying that they didn't have time with the buzz of the upcoming elections, the BSP retained all the faces in the notes—save for the inclusion of former President Cory Aquino in the 500-peso bill and the removal of Gloria Arroyo at the back of the 200-peso bill.

Regardless of whether Rizal's presence in the one-peso coin is a step down or a mode of remembrance, Ocampo noted the result of a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey conducted early this year, which showed that "as far as the people are concerned, Rizal is their National Hero."

Ocampo noted that Rizal led "by a huge margin" of more than 80 percent. His "contender," Bonifacio, was "a far third" with only 1.9 percent.

But he said Filipinos should stop making the National Hero title such a competition among the 19th century heroes.

"Rizal, Bonifacio, Aguinaldo—they are all national heroes. It's not about asking young people 'Rizal or Bonifacio,' but telling them, 'You have two heroes. You have Rizal and Bonifacio,'" he said.

Ocampo also zoomed in on the fact that sandwiched between these 19th century figures was pound-for-pound king and Sarangani Rep. Manny Pacquiao, who got 2.8 percent.

"When you look at the list of names, there's Erap (former President Joseph Estrada), FPJ (Action King and presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr.), Chiz Escudero... So you have to ask yourself, who names these heroes and why do the people consider them as such?" he added.

As his lecture came to a close, Ocampo expressed his hopes that "common things" like banknotes would "make us appreciate—or not appreciate—people."

"Later on, when you open your wallet, give it a second look and think not just about history. Ask, 'Do these bills embody what we think we are?' And maybe it should help us reflect on the nation that we want to be, the nation that we hope to be, and, more importantly, the nation that, often, we fail to be," he said. — KG/ELR,gmanewstv

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