It was my second time to personally see and listen to President Rodrigo Roa Duterte speak when he addressed the directors and officers of the Philippine Charitable Association on its 140th anniversary, held at the Manila Hotel on Wednesday last week. The first time was in 2016 when I, together with the directors and other officers of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce, took my oath as the legal counsel of PCC before the President.
I noticed stark differences and strong similarities in these two unconnected occasions. The first time I heard him speak, the President was only a few months into his office. As he is wont to do, he did not read a prepared speech but spoke extemporaneously, cracking jokes and spewing colorful language which made his well-heeled audience burst into laughter every so often. Back then, he seemed boyish, mirthful and energetic. His audience, on the other hand, was somewhat reserved although they laughed as the moment called for it. I sensed hopefulness in them but uncertainty too.
In contrast, when I saw the President for the second time last week, after a year in office, he was several notches more serious. And yes, in fact, he look tired, lacking in sleep, and weary. But, when he started addressing the big crowd of Chinese and Chinese-Filipino businessmen, as well as, Filipino elites, he was in his usual energetic and passionate self once again. He set aside his prepared speech and went on to say that he had just come from Clark Air Base to receive the arms and ammunition donated by China to help the Armed Forces in its war against terrorists.
This time, his speech was more emotionally charged than the first time I heard him speak. He expressed a wish that he could already end martial law in Mindanao. The death toll, he said, was breaking his heart. Every mother who lost a son and every wife who lost a husband pained him, he said. His heart broke, too, for the civilians caught in the war, especially the women and children. He added that although the tragedy was beyond his control as the ISIS-linked Maute terrorists were a bunch of bandits with no conscience and felt no compunction about killing, he shared the guilt for the loss of lives because the situation and his duty to the greater population of Filipinos pushed his hand into declaring martial law.
Although he looked and sounded serious and sad for the most part, the President still managed to crack jokes and break into occasional rough talk as he explained that it was the intention of the Islamic State to establish a Caliphate in Southeast Asia, with a base in the Philippines. He has not been making public appearances much, he said, because he was going from camp to camp to boost the morale of the soldiers. The audience could not miss sensing his compassion for the fallen men in uniform and their families; we felt his earnest desire to end the war and bring back Marawi to how it was.
Because of this, the audience responded with equal passion by clapping enthusiastically many times during the President’s speech, especially when he lashed out at the people and circumstances causing the country’s sufferings. The crowd cheered even more loudly when he said he was set to fly that same evening to Davao to meet the remains of fallen soldiers, skipping dinner with the celebrating hosts.
In both these occasions I witnessed, the crowd applauded, clapped hands vigorously, and laughed as the President made jokes and hurled colorful words at the objects of his disgust. But more than the clapping and cheering for the President, the crowd at the Philippine Charitable Association’s anniversary last week talked about him long after he had left. They said that we, Filipinos, are lucky to have a President as strong and as good-hearted as Duterte at this time when threats to the country’s security and the rate of crime are rising.
Some went on to say that if we still had Benigno Aquino III as president when the Maute terrorists attacked Marawi, perhaps the entire Mindanao, or worse, the rest of the country, would now be under the terrorists’ control. They also remembered and talked about how former President Aquino preferred to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a car manufacturing company rather than meet the remains of the fallen SAF 44 who died needlessly—all because of poorly planned operations personally overseen by the former president.
This country has never before seen a President who did not care about protocols and defied the so-called appropriate behavior. He has broken all norms by behaving and speaking in an unconventional manner. Yet, by all standards, he remains popular, loved and admired. The international media has judged him poorly yet, 78 percent of the Filipino people continue to approve of his leadership. For decades to come—long after President Duterte has completed his term of office as President—social and political scientists will be studying him and the phenomenon he created.
To my mind, the explanation is simple. The Filipino people have gotten tired of polished and proper but non-performing political leaders. They have also gotten tired of pretentiously well-mannered but corrupt politicians. They want a decisive, strong-willed leader whose heart is in the right place, one who is simple, human and real.