Grassroots & Governance

In Jolo a few days ago, a tired-looking Rodrigo Duterte lauded Lapu-Lapu whom he said was actually a Tausug who had migrated to Cebu as the first Filipino to fight an invader. Just a few minutes later, I came upon part of a TV coverage of a kempt Duterte speaking at a conference of the Filipino Chinese Chamber of Commerce. In that speech two years ago, our President actually and quite literally stated his wish that the country which he leads could become “a province of China.” Just like Fujian, he said. This had the Chinese ambassador who was in the audience smiling from ear to ear. Of course, Malacañang later claimed, as usual, that the President was only joking.

Our President added in his Filipino Chinese Chamber talk that China’s President Xi Jin Ping had assured him that they would never build military facilities in the South China Sea; and Xi Jin Ping, he added, was “a man of his word.” That was only two years ago. Now our Defense Department has installed a fledgling naval outpost on Fuga Island in Cagayan province which, if turned into a military base by China, would seriously endanger our national security.

How can our President be joking about a country which has actually invaded our marine territories and converted some of our islets including all of our Scarborough Shoal into military bases?

This is not funny at all. The West Philippine Sea is rich in marine resources; and now our own fishermen are not allowed access to our own waters. When one of their primitive wooden boats was rammed by a steel-hulled Chinese-owned vessel, our fishermen were abandoned struggling for life in the sea. Fortunately for them, some Vietnamese fishermen rescued them. Our government did not even demand an apology from China.

There is much potential for oil and gas reserves in our West Philippine Sea which if tapped and developed could turn our struggling country into a booming economy. Our President does not seem concerned enough to fight for these. He has not even declared support for the heroic triumvirate of former Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario and retired Supreme Court Justices Antonio Carpio and Conchita Carpio Morales who continue to persevere in their advocacy of our territorial rights over the West Philippine Sea.

And now, in his latest State of the Nation Address, President Duterte has shrugged his shoulders and admitted that he is helpless (“inutil”) against such a powerful nation that has already taken possession of the territory. Remember his campaign promise to ride a Jetski to the Scarboroughs and to plant our flag thereon? These are marine territories that the UN Arbitral Council has technically declared and ruled to be ours by nullifying China’s claim of a “Nine-Dash Line.” The largest share of the territories claimed by China under the Nine-Dash line belongs to our country. Our neighbors Vietnam and Indonesia have strongly asserted their rights against attempts by China to encroach upon their shares.

The West Philippine Sea issue is not the only case of mixed signals by our leader. One of his latest public concerns is “fighting corruption.” He says he will not tolerate a whiff of it. And yet, there have been cases of conflicts of interest among many of his senior level appointees which have been exposed; and these officials are still in office. Former Justice Secretary Jose Calida, who is now Solicitor General, has been criticized for having service contracts with government agencies which he may have to investigate as SolGen. He has kept his job. Health Secretary Francisco Duque was reported to have contracts with the Department of Health and/or PhilHealth for Doctors Pharmaceuticals, a drug manufacturing firm owned by him. Duque is still in office. Does his company still have the lease contracts? What exactly comprises a “whiff of corruption”?

Early in his term, President Duterte publicly swore to “kill” drug lords, including his kumpadre Peter Lim whom he specifically named. Where is Peter Lim today?

President Duterte talks as if he values “word of honor.” Does he know what it means?

In his Jolo speech the other day, Duterte referred to the Quran respectfully as he reminded his audience that he is part Moro. He has once in a while deferred to “God.” And yet, he has on more than one occasion sworn against a “stupid God.”

I am afraid that among his worst legacies, Duterte’s lack of a “word of honor” will influence the already poorly informed Filipino voter, who has been cited by a European-based social research agency as among the least informed among all countries about public issues. If his example becomes the “new normal” among our elected leaders, we are truly going downhill. This country is truly “going to the dogs,” as my son, who works in New York, says to me.

Alas. What kind of leaders can we expect to have in our future if Word of Honor is no longer important? And what will happen to the character and culture of our descendants if this value no longer exists? What else do we stand to lose if we continue to have leaders whose word cannot be trusted?


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.