PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte uttering an insulting curse or challenge to someone (usually America, or some component thereof) who has annoyed him happens so often now that those of us who are here on a daily basis hardly pause for it any more, but the inflammatory rhetoric is evidently still making political and business observers elsewhere quite nervous. That should be a matter of concern to the President and his supporters.
Earlier this week, Duterte sneered that businesses (particularly American ones) that are being made uncomfortable by his comments and his bloody anti-drug campaign—which has claimed about 3,700 lives so far— should “pack up and leave,” after US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russell said the president’s statements were causing worries in the business community.
Duterte gives the impression that he believes—or wants the public to believe—that the Americans are simply being spoilsports about his foreign policy, which, despite starting off under a cloud of uncertainty and some apparent huge blunders, is turning out to be shrewdly Asia-centric.
It is not just the Americans who are expressing concerns, however. Harald Fries, the ambassador-designate of Sweden (the embassy will officially reopen on November 8), in a meeting with Times editors a few days ago also pointed out that the Philippines’ image abroad was being harmed by what foreigners were hearing from Duterte.
That assessment was significant because of its source; the incoming ambassador is an unabashed advocate for the Philippines, having married a Manila native and having spent significant amounts of time in the country as both a diplomat and a private citizen over the past three decades.
Among his first official duties upon formally taking his post will be to host Sweden’s trade minister and a large business delegation. And he is representing Sweden, which is probably the world’s second-most neutral country after Switzerland that gets along with everyone. An observation that “the Philippines’ reputation is being hurt,” from that kind of source—one with no ax to grind with anyone—is alarming.
Words matter, because there is a big filter that exists between the Philippines and the rest of the world in terms of the information available from which to form opinions. Even for those of us here who find the rhetoric tastelessly unnecessary and provocative, we can see that not much of it is reflected in actual action; with the exception of the brutal anti-drug campaign, much of what the Duterte administration has accomplished so far has been positive. For those outside the country who do not have the benefit of proximity, however, the statements of the president—which, after all, represent official national policy —are often the only available cue.
The president’s defenders, of course, would probably say that it is up to those would-be critics from elsewhere to study the current circumstances of the country more closely to learn what we here already know, but that is not the way the world works; Rodrigo Duterte is the president of this country, not all of them—expecting the rest
of the world to bend to Pinoy standards of interpretation is arrogant and futile.
While Duterte’s loose tongue seems to create almost universal uncertainty, to his credit, not all of that is necessarily negative. On Friday, I interviewed Professor Paddy Miller of Spain’s IESE Business School, and he shared an interesting perspective he has found among many foreign businessmen.
Miller, whose specialty is innovation management (a profile of him and his ground-breaking insights on innovation is forthcoming), suggested that many outside observers are more intrigued than worried by Duterte.
“Duterte does come across as being business-friendly, but he comes across as being about 50 years out of his time,” Miller said. “He’s a strongman in the same sort of way as Korea’s Park, or Lee in Singapore. But that’s a model that has worked in Asia, and so it probably attracts interest because of that.”
While that may indeed be true, the only obvious outcome of it is that Duterte now has a much bigger global audience; what he says will now carry more weight than ever, and while he and his vast army of public supporters may find his more outlandish statements charming, it is very likely many more in the more conventional outside world will not.