Philippine fraternities or Greek letter societies are the local versions of similar organizations in the United States, in the universities and colleges of which fraternities (men-only organizations), sororities (societies that accept only women) and mixed-gender groups are recognized, except in those institutions where they are explicitly banned.

Transported to the Philippines during the US colonial period, these groups adapted quickly to the realities of a hierarchical, feudal society. Not only do their leaders hold such Medieval titles as Grand Archon or Grand Triskelion; fraternities and similar organizations survive to this day on the assumption that belonging to them is a mark of distinction. Membership in such societies is premised on, and made attractive by, their doors’ supposedly being open only to a select few. Exclusivity is the presumed advantage of fraternity or sorority membership.

Some Greek letter organizations, particularly honor societies, recruit only students with a record of exceptional academic performance. Others recruit those recognized for their leadership, athletic achievement, or popularity. One not only belongs; one also belongs to an organization with a select membership. Membership in a fraternity, whether under- or above-ground, puts the student in the company of the school elite.

But it is when the student graduates that membership in a Greek letter society becomes truly meaningful. In feudal Philippines, where who one knows is a qualification superior to one’s knowledge and skills, it opens doors not only to the better jobs, but also to greater opportunities for advancement. Because of fraternity ties, a new graduate can overnight find himself in a job he would otherwise have to work years for, and be first in line for advancement besides.

For the social climbing or ambitious student to get into such august company, the majority of fraternities enforce their claims to exclusivity through harsh initiation rites, on the presumption that the organization’s being open only to those applicants who can survive verbal as well as physical abuse endows the organization with some sort of distinction.

Legislators periodically resurrect a proposal to ban fraternities. It was prompted this year by the lethal consequence of the practice of these organizations of hazing new members, otherwise known as “neophytes” in Philippine usage.

But banning fraternities altogether—a “quick fix” if ever there is one—would be unconstitutional, a fact about which its proponents in Congress are oddly unaware. Besides clashing with the right of any citizen to join an association of his or her choice, singling out a type of organization would also be discriminatory, and what’s even worse, can establish a precedent that would justify a ban on other organizations, undermining the right to join organizations of one’s choice. Because a ban would include penalties for violations of its provisions, it could also make such a law a bill of attainder, or a law that punishes without trial similar to the defunct Anti-Subversion Law (RA 1700).
Schools can of course ban fraternities and the like, that prerogative being theirs to exercise if they so wish. But as the entire country has recently seen, a school ban doesn’t guarantee that fraternities won’t be organized in secret or will disappear. Neither has the Anti-Hazing Law (RA 8049) stopped violent initiations.

The ban on fraternities in De La Salle University didn’t stop the Tau Gamma Phi from establishing an underground chapter in that school, and could arguably have made membership in what amounts to a secret society glamorous and challenging. Meanwhile, the Anti-Hazing Law has forced fraternities to move their hazing rites outside the schools and into private homes and other places beyond the reach of school authorities.

It seems self-serving when individuals who’re members of fraternities (such as Senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara, who like his father former senator Edgardo J. Angara is a member of the University of the Philippines’ Sigma Rho fraternity) oppose the banning of fraternities. But the reality is that Greek letter societies are better recognized so they can be monitored, and their activities, such as initiation rites, controlled by the school involved.

Hazing—the dictionary meaning of which is “to persecute or torture somebody in a subordinate position”—is an initiation rite that has taken deep roots in the practice of Philippine fraternities and other organizations including the police and military academies. New members or recruits are initiated by forcing them to do embarrassing, humiliating or dangerous acts, or subjecting them to verbal and physical abuse, the most common form being paddling.

Hazing has led to neophyte injuries and even deaths, the death of De La Salle-College of St. Benilde student Guillo Cesar Servando being only the most recent incident of its kind. Two San Beda College students died of hazing injuries in February and August, 2012, as did a student of the University of Makati in 2011. Hazing injuries and deaths have been recorded in other Manila-based universities as well as in the Visayas. University of the Philippines fraternities have also been implicated in hazing deaths.

Despite injuries and deaths, Greek letter societies and similar organizations have no shortage of applicants, and are thus likely to continue to exist because they not only meet the need to belong inherent in every human being; they’re also among the more reliable means through which the ambitious student establishes the contacts that in this feudal society are so crucial to future advancement in the professions, business and government.

Contrary to claims that membership in Greek letter societies is the refuge of the immature, it is actually based on a hard-nosed understanding of how Philippine society works. Until that perception changes as a result of changes in feudal Philippines, the fraternities and hazing violence are likely to persist.

In the meantime, if only to demonstrate that the impunity murderers, thieves, torturers and plunderers enjoy in this country doesn’t apply to them, the Neanderthals who killed Servando and severely injured three others should get the long prison terms they deserve, while the Anti-Hazing Law (RA8049) is reviewed and its flaws corrected.

First published in BusinessWorld.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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