As Jaime Victor “Jet” Ledda, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) assistant secretary for the Office of Consular Affairs, succinctly puts it, “A passport allows you to travel and to visit another country. If you read the passport, there is a declaration—from one government to the receiving government—that reads that the person is who he says he is: A Filipino citizen. It also requests from the receiving government everything necessary to allow that citizen entry into their country.”
Besides this function, however, is a deeper significance that is carried by the passport, and no less than former Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo said it best in the book Pasaporte, A Journey of a Hundred Years by Dulce Festin-Baybay: “If the story of the Filipino people were to be told in one word or depicted by one thing, it would be the passport. A passport bears the identity of its owner and records the tale of his journey. In the same vein, the history of the Philippine passport mirrors the development of Filipino identity and tracks the nation’s passage through the ages.”
As DFA celebrates its 115th founding anniversary as an institution this year, The Sunday Times Magazine traces the history of one of its most vital documents—that, which for over a hundred years, continues to define the Filipino identity.
Precursors of the passport
Before the Philippines was colonized by the Spaniards in 1521, Filipinos traveled freely within the country’s islands, as well as to neighboring Asian nations to trade goods.
According to Assistant Secretary Ledda, it was through the country’s colonizers that the “precursors” of the Philippine passport were introduced to its people.
It was the Spaniards who brought the first concepts of travel documents to the Philippines when they colonized the nation from the 15th to 19th century. The very document was called the “chapa,” or a writ of safety to go from one place to another, which Filipinos used from the 1500s to 1600s. Chapa, however, is Chinese word which means “license to travel” or “do commerce.”
To become official, the chapas issued then bore the seal of the King of Spain. A letter requesting for the name/s of the persons entering a particular territory is written on this document.
By the 18th century, stricter laws were enforced among traveling Filipinos even if they would only do so within the country. They had to request for a certificate from the cabeza, or town chief, which also requires signature of the local priest. The document then goes all the way up to the gobernadorcillo, who finally issues a pasaporte interior for travel to other provinces or islands, or a pasaporte exterior to travel to other countries.
When the Philippines was freed from the 300-year rule of Spain on June 12, 1898, the first Filipino president, Emilio Aguinaldo founded the Department of the Foreign Affairs and appointed Apolinario Mabini as its very first secretary. For a short while, the department was able to issue so-called “Freedom Passport.”
But by December of the same year, the Treaty of Paris was signed and the country came under the rule of the United States of America. During this occupation, Filipinos were also given a travel certificate bearing the seal of United States
It was only in the 1930s that the passports in booklet form were introduced in the Philippines. Still an American colony, the passport had the words “A citizen of the Philippine islands owing allegiance to the United States” written on it.
In 1935, Philippine Commonwealth President Manuel Roxas was issued a passport booklet. In the same year, the country started to prepared for independence to be given by the United States come 1946.
However, World War II erupted and the Philippines, yet again fell into the hands of another rule—this time, under Japan. In the three years that Japan occupied the country, memorable milestones in the Philippine passport history was recorded.
Under the Japanese, passports were issued in Filipino signed by then President Claro M. Recto. Passport number “I” was issued to the first Philippine Ambassador to Japan, Jose Vargas.
When the World War II ended, and the Philippines fully gained its independence, one of the major changes seen was an increase in overseas travel. And it was during this time that the DFA began to develop the country’s own passport system under the department’s Office of the Consular Affairs.
Martial Law and other milestones
As passports throughout the world started conforming to uniform standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) so did the Philippine passport.
During the 1970s, the country began issuing different kinds of travel documents including regular passports for tourists and civilians; official passports for government employees; and diplomatic passports for diplomats, consuls and high government officials on missions. To this day, these three passports continue to be the Philippines’ official travel documents.
One of the passport’s earliest security features took the form of perforated numbers on every page, which replaced handwritten numbers on the first page. It was also during this time that the passport was resized similar to that of the United States. This particular suggestion came from Ambassador Luis Ascalon, then assistant secretary of OCA. Ascalon chaired the country’s delegation to the ICAO 1980 Convention in Montreal, Canada, where he saw that the Philippine’s passport was one of the biggest in the world.
As the country came under Martial Law from the 1970s to the 1980s, Ledda recalled how then President Ferdinand Marcos banned Filipinos from traveling abroad. Only those sent by government to other nations were issued travel documents.
Nevertheless, the Philippine passport in those days stood out from the work of the “scripters” whose calligraphic hands would manually inscribe a person’s name and details on the booklet. “When the green passports were manually scripted, we used to hire people to do this beautiful calligraphy,” Ledda added.
Regarded as the best scripters of their time were Venancio Tan, Edgar Gonzales, Mauro Cabral and Rudy Robles.
Another milestone for the Philippine passport history in this period was a partnership with the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) in 1982, which supplied and printed the country’s passports. Ledda explained, “Booklets continue to be sourced the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas for three decades now, and our partnership remains strong as ever.”
ePassport for the modern Pinoy
At the turn of the new century, every Filipino was given the right to travel through the enactment of the Republic Act 8239, or The Philippine Passport Act of 1996.
The law first and foremost states: “The people’s constitutional right to travel is inviolable. Accordingly, the government has the duty to issue passport or any travel document to any citizen of the Philippines, or individual who complies with requirement of this Act.”
Under the law, the DFA saw a tremendous boom in Filipinos applying for passports but with this development came different challenges as well. The creation of fraudulent passports, for example, became common practice since security features could easily be tampered.
To protect the credibility of the passports, DFA geared up for modernization.
As early as 1995, DFA under the leadership of then Secretary Roberto Romulo, saw the creation of Machine-Readable Ready Passports. It would be more than a decade that the Philippines’ e-passport system met the ICAO standards.
It was Roberto’s cousin, also a former DFA secretary, Alberto Romulo who officially heralded the DFA into the e-passport system in 2007. Come August 11, 2009, the first official ePassport was issued to then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
According to Ledda, the current ePassport has modern features which make its security “robust.” The most advanced component is the micro-chip. He explained, “The ePassport has a chip that’s contained in the back cover. This chip contains the information in the data page. It serves a third point of verifications for immigration, airport and police authorities.”
Then there is the laminated data page with holographic and ghost images. The holographic images when viewed with a magnifying glass show the data of the person including the name, birthdate and other pertinent details. The passport ID picture, meanwhile, also has a ghost image which cannot be tampered.
“With the e-passport, errors are now minimized. It’s not easy to make fraudulent copies anymore. Any attempt will easily be detected,” noted Ledda.
More importantly, with the ePassport, Filipinos no longer subject to thorough scrutiny at immigration.
“Before with the manually scripted passports, Filipinos were often asked to go in another line where they will not impede the flow of other passengers [in the airports],” Ledda elaborated. “So nakakahiya diba? But now with the e-passport, there’s greater trust. Now, in just one swipe, the data of the traveler will come out in the computer since the passport complies ICAO standards, which is applied uniformly throughout the world.”
The OCA chief declared, “We need to ensure the credibility of our passports. We need to ensure that our travelers and kababayans who have our passports find it more convenient and easier to travel.”
Succeeding in the implementation of the ePassport, the DFA was faced with issues on passport application itself.
Ledda recounted, “Before the application was on a first-come-first-serve basis. About three to five years ago, people lined up at the old [DFA] building as early as three or four in the morning so they would be first in line.”
Under the leadership of the current Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, who was appointed in 2012, changes were introduced, which have made passport applications easier and simpler for Filipinos.
“Now we have the appointment system where people can indicate the date, time and place of their application. The appointment system gives people the flexibility where and when to apply. All they need to do is visit www.passport.com.ph and follow the instructions there,” Ledda continued.
Another remarkable feat of the DFA is to decentralize its consular offices throughout the country to areas where Filipinos can conveniently go—the malls.
Ledda proudly shared, “Before, passport service was limited in one place—in Manila, and had we had few regional consular offices. Now we have 23 consular offices all in all, 12 of them conveniently located inside shopping malls.”
Asked how the partnership with the private sector began, the OCA chief replied, “When Secretary Albert del Rosario was thinking of ways to improve, he decided to speak with a group of mall developers. Partnerships to open [consular offices in malls]were forged with four groups namely SM, Robinsons, Ayala and Gaisano. It’s possible that we will have more.”
Nine provincial consular offices in malls can be found in Baguio City in Benguet, San Fernando and Angeles in Pampanga, Lipa City in Batangas, Lucena City in Quezon, Legaspi City in Albay, Cebu City in Cebu, Davao City in Davao, and General Santos City in South Cotabato; while three are in Metro Manila.
Ledda informed that more consular offices are soon to open in Alabang Town Center for southern NCR, as well as in key areas like Bacolod, Puerto Princesa, Iloilo, Dumaguete and Pangasinan.
Other improvements include the standardization of the application process throughout the country; providing applicants more choices with the help of accredited travel agents and delivery services; and cutting down the application process from nine steps to just five, namely appointment, processing, payment, encoding or data capturing and releasing.
With a better passport service, the DFA continues to achieve record-high numbers in passport applications. Last year, 2.5 million passports were issued, and according to Ledda, the figure is already up by 5 percent as of the first half of 2013. And basing from circulation, the total number of Filipinos owning a passport is more or less 12 million.
He credits this to the continuous economic growth which makes travel more affordable. “It is now part of people’s lifestyle to see new places and experience more things.”
With this, Ledda encourages every Filipino to apply for his passport. He ends, “We know that Filipinos have been traveling for all sorts of purposes: to live and work abroad, to study, for leisure, for business, for family reunions. So a Filipino needs a passport because it has become an integral part of his mobility.”
Pasaporte, A Journey of a Hundred Years by Dulce Festin-Baybay (Department of Foreign Affairs, 2010)