Column: Does Duterte know how to listen?

Published on October 11, 2016.

Last April, ex-President Fidel Ramos told me and a few others, with a twinkle in his eye, that he was voting Ro-Ro: not Roxas-Robredo, but Rodrigo Duterte and Leni Robredo. It was about time we had a president from Mindanao, he said. He also said he felt partly responsible for the Duterte candidacy because he had encouraged it as far back as the early 1990s, when he was president.

This is a debt of gratitude Mr. Duterte recognizes. The very first words he said at his inaugural address were in honor of his benefactor: “President Fidel Ramos, sir, salamat po sa tulong mo (thank you for your help) making me President.”

On the 100th day of his presidency, Mr. Duterte received a startling gift from Ramos: a strongly worded column in the Manila Bulletin, summing up the first 100 days as “Team Philippines losing badly.”

Ramos wrote: “In the overall assessment by this writer, we find our Team Philippines losing in the first 100 days of Du30’s administration—and losing badly. This is a huge disappointment and let-down to many of us.” He traced the source of disappointment to missed opportunities: “if [only] he had hit the ground running instead of being stuck in unending controversies about extrajudicial killings of drug suspects and in his ability at using cuss-words and insults instead of civilized language.”

He clarified that he thought there was “still enough time” to correct course, and defined his role as one of a constructive critic. “Ours is not to heap more brickbats on P. Du30—because he has had more than enough already—but to help enable him to transform (thru his own efforts) from a mere provincial official to a capable international player at the head of 101,000,000 multicultured Filipinos.”

In particular, Ramos criticized the administration (which he serves in an unofficial capacity as special envoy to China) on two counts: the President’s “Hitler quip,” which ran counter to the country’s “rich history and tradition of hosting refugees from all around the world,” including Jews fleeing Nazi control; and “the mix of ‘off-and-on’ statements” on PH-US relations. This was “equally discombobulating,” he said.

The most famous West Point graduate from the Philippines listed conflicting signals from the administration, ending with the President’s decision to halt all military exercises with US forces by the end of the year. “So, what gives?? Are we throwing away decades of military partnership, tactical proficiency, compatible weaponry, predictable logistics, and soldier-to-soldier camaraderie just like that?? On P. Du30’s say-so???”

That last question stings, because it is a former president describing the incumbent’s repeated expressions of policy change as mere “say-so.” From experience, Ramos knows the limits of the presidency better than Mr. Duterte does. He may also be signaling the resistance of the most pro-American institution in the country, the Armed Forces, to the administration’s unexpected and underprepared pivot to China.

Will the President listen? We don’t know. The former archbishop of Davao, Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Capalla, thinks that Mr. Duterte’s seeming inability to take advice or criticism is precisely the problem. “We have to listen twice as much as we speak,” he told MindaNews. But with the President, “it’s the reverse … That’s why we are in trouble.”

Capalla said: “I am worried about him as a friend. I think he has a problem and we need to help him. He is in the course of self-destruction, without even knowing that he is ruining himself.” He added: “If he can only listen … listen to other people.”

Last week, I heard an ambassador summarize an overview of the national situation through a plaintive question: Is there anyone the President listens to?

* * *

Speaking as one member of the Inquirer family: What a thrill it has been to read and receive the generous and overwhelmingly positive feedback regarding the reinvention of the Inquirer media platforms. A lot of thought and work went into what we in the Inquirer called OMG, or Oplan Mario Garcia, after the famous media designer who led the transformation. We note the negative response, too, and commit to doing even better in the future.

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