Orientalism and President Duterte

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ANTONIO P. CONTRERAS

DURING the gala dinner at the Asean summit, President Rodrigo Duterte broke into an unrehearsed and impromptu song number to oblige a request from visiting US President Donald Trump. His vociferous critics immediately labeled him a little brown monkey for doing what the leader of our former colonial master had asked him to do.

Days later, pro-Duterte blogger and a columnist of this paper, Sass Rogando Sasot, justified her confronting a BBC journalist as a form of resistance against a colonialist form of orientalism.

Orientalism is a theory propounded by Edward Said, a noted Palestinian post-colonial writer.

And while it may appear incongruous to the image of a singing Digong obliging the “command” of Trump, I would argue that Said’s orientalism has created a space upon which people like the President could thrive, not as propagators, but as disruptors of a mindset which Said has clearly criticized.


Said, as a post-colonial theorist, joined other noted scholars like Franz Fanon in problematizing and examining the impact of the remnants and legacies of the colonial experience when Western countries imposed their will and world view on other lands, peoples and cultures. The core construct of this critical examination is the deconstruction of the mindset where Western human agents and social constructs are considered to be inherently superior. As such, post-colonial theory sought to rectify the historical distortions, and recuperate the colonized peoples and cultures from their damaging effects that were seen on post-colonial identities of both the former colonized and the former colonizers.

Whereas Fanon focused on the deep wounds that were left by the colonial experience on colonized peoples, Said focused on indicting a particular mindset which the Western colonizers have inflicted not only on their colonies, but even on their own mindsets and worldviews.

Orientalism is a worldview that has sustained a mythology around which the entire colonization process subsisted. It entailed the installation of a particular worldview where the Western colonizers denigrated the colonized peoples and their cultures as an inferior “other.” Labeled as the “orient” to their “occident,” a dualism was entrenched to fix the identities of the former as everything that the latter was not. The orient is everything that the West finds uncomfortable or demeaning to its self-definition as a superior race. In the eyes of the orientalist, the colonized is the inferior “other” of the West.

Thus, orientalism subsisted on the idea of an inferior form of otherness, one that is sustained by how the non-West has been represented by Western media. These orientalist representations operate even during the post-colonial period when former colonies had already obtained their independence from their colonial masters, by seeking to sustain colonial domination through suggesting that Western values, beliefs and forms of culture need to be sustained to counter the inherently negative ‘traits’ of these so called inferior cultures.

The negative reaction of many European countries as well as the United States to the immigration issue can largely be attributed to this orientalist perspective. Fear, or even just mere discomfort, at the Muslim “other,” especially during the aftermath of 9/11, is a natural continuation of the stereotypes by the West, as propagated by Western media, about the Arab world as a strange, odd, bizarre and weirdly irrational place. It is painted as degenerate, lazy, weak, lustful and peopled by criminals and shady immoral characters. The oriental female is painted as promiscuous and immodest even as the men are stereotyped as inherently lazy and violent.

The discrimination which many immigrants from the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia, including the Philippines, suffer is a clear manifestation of how Western cultures have stereotyped and labeled the non-West as their inferior other.

It is logical for people from former colonies to resist these forms of objectification by demanding from the West the right to be treated as equals.

Yet another debilitating effect of colonization to the colonized, which Edward Said did not articulate, but was clearly described by Franz Fanon, is the creation of a mindset among the colonized that willingly accepted the stereotypes which the colonizers have imposed. Thus, there is now complicity by the non-West of the Western’s celebration of their orientalist perspective.

In the Philippines, this became deeply embedded in the colonial mentalities among Filipinos, where everything Western is seen as superior, even as we inflict on ourselves and our practices demeaning labels. And in our desire to be treated as equals by the West, we celebrate their virtues and demand that we be given a space in their world vies.

This is what the critics of President Duterte have been inflicting on him. He is being asked to behave according to Western templates as a head of state. He is being told to polish his speech and unfold his barong. His celebration of a very Filipino trait of obliging a visitor like Trump was demeaned as a form of servitude, even if it was simply a celebration of being us.

But President Duterte has created a new modality for resisting neo-colonialist, orientalist impositions. He doesn’t play by the rules. On matters of foreign policy, he spoke not in servitude, but in defiance. He negotiated from a position of strength. He never demanded equal treatment from the West using their rubrics and lenses. He never sought affirmation from them, knowing fully well that it would simply lead him into buying into the logic of the deeply embedded structures of Western biases.

President Duterte did not play to the orientalist world view of international diplomacy. He sang not to please Trump, but to show him our nature as a people. He defies orientalism by not seeking affirmation in a world that is structurally hostile to his natural as a President of the Filipinos.

And I would like to believe that he doesn’t even care if he gets interviewed by BBC or CNN. He doesn’t demand this kind of equal treatment that will only embed him further in Western mainstream media’s structured inequalities and biases.

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