By David Haldane
Nov. 21, 2019
The moment was both painful and revealing.
About a year earlier, my wife and I had purchased a 2012 Toyota Fortuner from her cousin in Butuan City. Now, finally, the completed title documents had arrived, and those sparkling wheels were legally ours. Excitedly, I ripped open the envelope, unfolded the first page and gazed with anticipated pride at the spot where our names should have been. Then gasped in surprise, noticing immediately that only one name was there, and it certainly wasn’t mine. This, despite my deliberate instructions to those handling the paperwork (a list not including, I’m happy to say, my sweet and generous wife) that the car be put in both our names.
The instructions had been deliberate for a reason. As most of you probably know, unlike cars, foreigners are not allowed to own land in the Philippines. If you’re married to a Philippine citizen, of course, you do get a slight reprieve; your name can appear on the title, but only as kind of an afterthought. As in “property of so-and-so” (the citizen), “married to so-and-so…” (the dumb foreigner.)
I’ve heard various stories regarding the precise legal implications of this, including that the property is split 50-50, that the split is really 60-40 in favor of the Filipino and that “she can’t sell the property without your permission.”
Whatever the truth, I have carefully cultivated the habit of being very kind to my Filipino wife so that she’ll never have even the hint of an excuse to put me out on the street after sinking the bulk of my life savings into the house and lot that we (excuse me, she) now own.
The situation regarding cars, as I said, is different; as far as I know, anyone here can own a set of wheels, including even little ‘ole me. So, it was kind of a matter of token pride that the title of our second most valuable possession – namely the Forerunner – bear both her name and mine. The fact that, somewhere along the line, that request wasn’t considered important enough to heed was, as I said, both painful and revealing. What it revealed was the mindset of some Filipinos regarding foreigners; that, though generally respected, they are, in the final analysis, only visitors. And that not owning land can sometimes be translated into, well, not owning anything at all.
Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the reasoning behind the laws excluding foreigners from a piece of this earthly pie. For centuries, after all, these islands were “owned” by colonialists from across the sea who’d simply seized them from their rightful indigenous owners. So, it’s not surprising that one of the first orders of business after the Philippines finally gained its independence was to make sure that the country remained in native hands.
Now, however, that may be changing. Last week the House of Representatives’ committee on constitutional amendments convened for a day-long hearing at Cagayan de Oro’s University of Science and Technology of the Southern Philippines. Its purpose; to gather public input on various proposed changes to the country’s charter, including the lifting of restrictions on direct foreign ownership of land to encourage foreign investment.
Let me state right up front that I am in no position to comment on the wisdom of such a move or whether it will, as hoped, create more jobs, income and economic development for Filipinos. What I can tell you, though, is that it will certainly ease the minds of many expats who, like me, have married beautiful local girls with whom they now live on parcels paid for by the sweat of their brows.
That said, let me also offer a bit of reassurance; any change in the law will in no way affect the treatment of my wife. More specifically, I promise – whoever ends up owning our lot – to remain on my best behavior. Because, well, heck, you just never know.
David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.