I’m endlessly fascinated by the new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
Is he the leader that the country needs or could he be a harbinger of further trouble for this large and complex nation?
This week I got to read two articles which provide some of his back story.
Back in the 1980s, Davao City was a largely lawless city on the largely lawless island of Mindanao, known to the wider world mostly for its Muslim and communist insurgencies.
But on this day, I’m sitting at a Krispy Kreme in the SM Mall, meeting with Vicente Lao, the chairman of the Mindanao Business Council. If Duterte had not been mayor of Davao, he says, this mall probably wouldn’t be here. And without Duterte, he continues, Davao wouldn’t be one of the safer cities in the country.
“He made it that way,” Lao says.
To understand what seems to validate Duterte’s seemingly maniacal thirst for blood in the pursuit of order, you’ve got to grapple with the world that shaped him when he entered public life in the 1980s, at the height of the anti-communist campaign. In Davao in the early 1980s, guerrillas tested urban warfare strategies on the city’s streets. They deployed “sparrows,” or assassins who gunned down policemen and criminals in broad daylight. Both in Davao and across Mindanao, the communists purged their ranks of suspected military informers, torturing and killing hundreds of innocent cadres.
Unless you saw the madness with your own eyes, it was hard to believe. On one trip to Davao, I found a city terrorized by bands of vigilantes, roaming the streets with guns or long knives, hunting for communists. The radio blared anti-communist tirades, the most incendiary of them from Jun Pala, a broadcaster who compared himself to Goebbels. Pala walked around Davao armed with a Magnum revolver and a hand grenade. On air, he threatened to behead rebel sympathizers and egged on the vigilantes as they gunned down or knifed suspected communists. One day, news photographers chanced upon a vigilante band that had beheaded a suspected guerrilla. The killers posed for pictures, and said they drank the blood from the sundered head.
In Davao, which has benefitted from both U.S. development aid and a brisk trade in agricultural produce with China, Duterte did not have to concern himself with foreign policy. In the presidential palace, however, things are more complicated. Casual presidential pronouncements take on the weight of official policy, whether Duterte means them to or not. It’s hard to tell whether the new president is reinventing the Philippines’s foreign policy, or merely thumping his chest.
Reading into all this background makes me wonder if parallels can be drawn to Singapore.
Looking back in history we see that Singapore’s government also took a famously hardline approach against criminals and stamping out corruption; Albeit without so much profanity and ‘death squads’.
Today the governments efforts have been vindicated as Singaporeans now enjoy unprecedented peace and prosperity. But that’s also because behind all the tough suppression of criminality there was also an equally important plan, for developing the country, being enacted behind the scenes.
It’s hard to draw any further comparisons between Singapore (a nation of 5.5 million with no natural resources) and the Philippines (a self sufficient nation of 100 million) so it’s anyone’s guess how the future will play out.
Right now all I can say is that it is rightfully hard to clean up such a large nation spread over so many cities, towns and hundreds of islands. The authors of the second article linked above, notes how much the Philippines economy is dependent on remittances coming from Filipinos who are working overseas, hence why Duterte shouldn’t be so quick to insult his allies overseas.
But if the president proves successful at reforming the nation and economic development starts picking up, this could actually be the beginning of a beautiful future for the country. Then, it might actually be the rest of the world who’ll be turning to the Philippines for employment instead of the other way round.