PRESIDENT Duterte’s pronouncements are full of unintended symbolisms. But there is a binding message. I am a different leader. I am an unorthodox President. Don’t expect me to be in the mold of previous Presidents.
I will bend the nation to my unconventional will.
About the same time he rejected the Paris Climate Accord so as not to tie up the country to terms and provisions that would hamper his dream of industrializing the country and putting manufacturing as an economic savior, Mr. Duterte announced the appointment of aging rocker Ramon “ RJ” Jacinto as his economic adviser. Mr. Jacinto might have spent much of his adult life as a rocker and a dilettante—or hawking guitars—but one factoid related to Mr. Duterte’s manufacturing dream was connected to Mr. Jacinto.
It was Mr. Jacinto’s father who actually built the Iligan Integrated Steel Mill, which he envisioned as the anchor of the country’s industrial foundry, that would then mass-produce all the steel infrastructure for the factories and assembly plants. The IISMI was to be the foundation of the country’s manufacturing dream. Before Jacinto’s dad had a run-in with Marcos and was forced to flee, the IISMI was well on its way to power the country into an industrial/manufacturing powerhouse. The mill site? Mindanao.
He seemed to tell RJ this: Come on man, stop strumming guitars and we will fulfill the dream of your father.
For all the merits of taking a stab at manufacturing, that proposition from Mr. Duterte still raises a lot of questions and issues on viability. China is “Factory to the World” and the efficiency and speed of its manufacturing sector enables it to dump products at the cheapest cost—woe to would-be competitors. There are scale and efficiency and competitiveness to China’s manufacturing and, right now, there is no country that can beat China in that area.
Can we start at this point and still be competitive? We don’t have steel mills, we have lost the “manufacturing” culture and all the basic industries—from steel to chemicals to textile—have all but evaporated.
Still, Mr. Duterte is unfazed and standing pat. And no leader in contemporary history—we have to stress this—has had the audacity to reject climate change accords to pursue the 60s dream of industrial greatness.
Globalization—defined as adhering to trade rules, adhering to the global consensus to fight climate change, adhering to the established rules of global conduct and civility, adhering to the security accords established by the western powers—has been turned upside down by Mr. Duterte’s unorthodox views on governance.
The lame reaction of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez to the rejection of the Paris Accord—she simply said that Mr. Duterte is doing it for the country’s good—reflected the hard shift of policymaking from the top that can make the thrust of national policies truly unpredictable. And can place Mr. Duterte’s top aides such as Lopez in tight spots.
The planned visit of State Secretary John Kerry to talk mutual defense, freedom of navigation rights, and security at the West Philippine Sea with Mr. Duterte is an unstated admission from the US leadership that Mr. Duterte is not the same old, same old leader who would toe the US line on global security and geopolitical issues without prodding from the US. This time it is different. The US realizes that. Knowing the unknown, which is what Mr. Duterte is from the standpoint of the US leadership, will be part of Kerry’s talks with the President.
The unorthodoxy of Mr. Duterte, while it is manifest to the outside world by his eschewing of some features of the established global order that our previous leaders had assiduously followed, and followed to the letter, also baffles and perplexes domestic policy watchers who have been used to Presidents with limited goals and predictable policies.
Mr. Duterte is different. While his war on drugs has been a combination of legit police operations and extrajudicial killings, his signing of an EO on the freedom of information (FOI) rights is a classic, classy step on openness and transparency. His nationalist and nativist pronouncements are followed by his policies on easing the rules of doing business and tough anti-corruption, anti-red tape policies.
One day, Mr. Duterte is speaking of his left-of-center inclinations. The next day, he will do things that would please the transparency and openness welcomed by investors and the multilateral institutions.
His Cabinet, while it felt short of the Trudeau-like split between men and women, is still a diverse lot. He drew from the Left, from his political lieutenants, from his kaklase, and from the billionaire-political class.
Indeed, as Mr. Duterte earlier told the nation, we will be in for a “rough ride” within the next six years.
There is, however, one certainty: Mr. Duterte is taking the nation to a path less taken.