Opinion: Kanto Boy Politics, the China Pivot and the Fil-Am

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of this publication.

Philippine President Duterte meets Chinese President Xi Jinping (Source: AP)

Philippine President Duterte meets Chinese President Xi Jinping (Source: AP)

Those who remember the days of the short reign of President Joseph Estrada were mused (or alternately, aghast) by the way he personalized the office. He was accused of turning Malacañang into a tambayan (hangout) for his drinking buddies and business partners, governing like a teenager (long nights of carousing and late afternoon wake-ups), viewing policy like a middle-school assignment and associating presidential pomp with Hollywood-type hoopla.

This personalization of political office is the hallmark of local Philippine politics. It arises from the fact that a mayor presides over a limited political space, the mode of governance concerned less with formal regulations and procedures but more with informal negotiations and mutual accommodation between friends and relatives. Even political opponents could be relatives and acquaintances. Often the mayor kneels on the same church pew as a rival and both can stand on the platform reserved for guests during fiestas.

Most Filipinos viewed “Erap” that way – an affable, impish kabarkada (buddy). This, of course, shocked the urbane elites of the nation, who were accustomed to “high culture,” the rule of law and professional politics. The “middle classes” followed suit, their lust for becoming part of the alta sociedad stoking their opportunism. These “respectable” classes joined with the Church (another stickler for formalist hierarchies and moralistic sermons), the military (another institution that adheres to ranking, and a sense of mission to defend the nation), the Left (democratic centralist) to overthrow Estrada.

When he delivered his pro-China, anti-United States speech during his state visit to the People’s Republic, Duterte was displaying his thuggish best to an appreciative audience.

The local kanto (street corner), however, has personalities other than the Erap-type, the most conspicuous of these being the thug. President Rodrigo Duterte is such a character. He is affable like Erap, sometimes even funnier; but for the most part, he relates to the other denizens of the street corner and the neighborhood at large through fists, threats and public humiliation. Where the Erap-type is subtle about his sexual life, this often in deference to his mistresses’ wish for privacy, the Digong-type talks openly about his libido; where the Erap-type can often sit and drink Petrus or a Yamazaki 50-year-old with enemies, the Digong-type would have no part in any conversation with people he does not like, especially when the latter has insulted him.

When he delivered his pro-China, anti-United States speech during his state visit to the People’s Republic, Duterte was displaying his thuggish best to an appreciative audience. He was bellicose (“Let me declare our separation from the United States here!”) and audacious (“Let’s join [two autocratic regimes] in an alliance against everyone else!). He reminded me of the kanto thug strutting around half-naked, his fists closed and ready for the scuffle, his fiery eyes telegraphing the message that he’s ready to beat opponents to a pulp.

Unfortunately, Duterte was no longer displaying his fearsome disposition just to the neighborhood. A wider arena lay in front of him – 101 million Filipinos and other governments and international entities that determine the economic fates of nations. And in this world, acting out one’s asta (threatening pose) like a kanto boy is not enough. The subtlety of the Erap-type is far more effective, especially since the autocrats of China want to look more civilized and honorable in their conduct of international politics.

Duterte’s China speech is probably the first major mistake that he has made since he assumed the presidency over a hundred days ago. He could go on and on cursing the Americans in front of a national audience or claim with a degree of conceit that he could preside over the killing of millions of drug addicts like a Dachau warden, but he cannot do a repeat of this bravado in a setting that is not under his control and in front of an international audience.

The swift negative reaction of governments, international businesses, but most important of all, of Filipinos (strongly pro-American and anti-Chinese) in-country and abroad stunned Duterte and his followers. It brought home the fact that the world beyond the street corner is a complicated one; it exposed how little of his nation’s history the local thug Duterte actually knows.

Filipino Americans have all the right to be concerned about where the home country is heading under its second kanto boy president. This unease is made worse because many of those with dual citizenship voted for him, believing he could bring permanent peace in a perennially unstable country (of course, conveniently turning a blind eye to the instabilities of their host nation in the era of Trump and the Tea Party). Instead, Digong has turned into this Frankenstein monster that prefers the barrel of the gun in doing away with a blighted sector of society; a would-be socialist entertaining the idea of joining hands with autocrats-masquerading-as-socialists to derail American constitutional democracy. The apprehension of many who voted for him is now mixed with guilt.

What to do? The easiest way out, of course, is to write editorials, maybe even pressure one’s representatives to push for legislation to make Duterte behave. Alternatively, one can just ignore what is happening back home. Unfortunately, these are initiatives that have little political impact in the Philippines. They could further stoke nationalist sentiments, but also boost Filipinos’ confidence that they do not need hand-me-downs anymore from their former countrymen and women. The economy has been doing well.

What should Filipino Americans do now? Perhaps a more effective way of responding is to turn to each other and devote time studying not just the history of the home country, but also, and more importantly, the very many local histories that underpin that national story. As the saying goes, knowledge is power, and Duterte himself has shown how familiarity with Philippine history, no matter how small and slightly off base, can put him ahead of everyone else.

The Communists have a saying for this – “One needs to take two steps backward to move one step forward.” Fil-Ams, especially confused Duterte supporters, may very well take this advice into consideration. For unless one understands the nature of kanto politics in the Philippines and sees not only its strength but also its weaknesses, one's frustration with Digong will only increase to the point of wishing for God to intervene to end the life of this Pinoy Devil, much like what an American immigration attorney wildly prayed for in the past weeks.

Patricio Abinales

Patricio Abinales

Patricio Abinales grew up in Mindanao, studied Davao politics for his dissertation and has been tagged by a writer-friend as a fraught, moderate Duterterologist.

More articles from Patricio Abinales