Everyday we’re treated to new announcements directly from Philippine president-elect Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte himself, unfiltered and sans spokesperson: the “hypocritical Church”, “immediate” burial for the late Ferdinand Marcos, support for medical marijuana, family planning and K-12, living in Davao instead of Manila, and many more. Each pronouncement liberally peppered with cuss words, jokes, and spoken in the creole of the south—the mix of Bisaya, Tagalog, English.
All of it unedited, improvisational, erratic, informal, yet no less commanding like a patriarch at the head of the table regaling his family with endless stories. He infuriates and compels, attracts and repels, drawing you into an imaginary circle of intimacy only to subject you to his intimidating presence.
The contrast with outgoing President Benigno “PNoy” Aquino III (and Mar Roxas) could not be more striking. The last administration observed highly developed protocols, and the president studiously stayed behind a wall of spokespersons.
PNoy’s disciplined and decorous discourse was his trademark, but in times of crisis, his downfall. His Filipino, like his English, was elegant but ponderous to the point of being pedantic so that his attempts at humour usually fell flat.
He was “decente” and easily legible to the upper reaches of society and the international community. But he was utterly without street creed and so widely perceived—fairly or unfairly—to be bereft of empathy.
His distance was also the guarantee of his consistency: what you saw was what you got. So in an odd sort of way, PNoy’s seeming inaccessibility underwrote his claims to transparency: things were objective, you can see it on the website, nothing was hidden.
With Duterte, it is too soon to tell. But the sense one gets is that his seeming approachability and much vaunted “authenticity” (which is open to interpretation) is as much an asset as a drawback.
Disdaining the trappings of power—he said that he doesn’t want an inauguration hoopla and will take his oath in his office, won’t live in the Palace, and perhaps live in Davao rather than Manila—he’s studiously cultivating the image of a simple probinsyano.
Yet, there’s nothing simple about provincial ways. They have their own complex operations designed to shield themselves from outside intrusion. To be provincial does not mean to be “humble” or “unassuming”, in Digong’s case. It means being expelled from school yet getting the valedictorian to work for you. It means claiming the right of the oppressed and exacting your revenge: molested by an American Jesuit and condemned by the bishops. Digong can now position himself as the aggrieved victim calling out the abuses of the Church.
Provincialism thus has its advantages. By privileging local rules and methods of power, it tends to hold itself apart from national and international standards.
Human rights? Imperial impositions! Feminist demands? Bayaran lang yan! (That’s for hire) Congress? An inconvenience at best, an obstacle to local autonomy at worse! Death squads? You must mean effective instruments of justice and peace! Misogyny? It’s just the way we joke around here, and you wouldn’t get it.
To privilege, the provincial as a base of power is thus a way of setting yourself up in a state of exception. Sovereign in your own way, the usual rules don’t apply to you because in your province, you are king with the right to decide on who will live and who will die. Different conditions, different rules.
Of course, there are also similarities: both have chosen kabarkada and kaklase for their Cabinet appointments, for example. But throughout this transition period, what we have seen so far is a dramatic contrast in rhetorical styles—storytelling for Digong, carefully worded press releases and speeches from PNoy.
And by looking at their respective ways of speaking, we also get a sense of their distinct styles of governing. For Digong, the local is the national, the provincial is the world; for PNoy, the local is subsumed by the national, and the national is connected to a larger world.
At least on those two levels of speaking and governing, we are seeing some change. Whether it will be for the better or the worse is difficult to say for now.
Vicente L. Rafael teaches history at the University of Washington in Seattle and has written several works on the political and cultural history of the Philippines. He is the author of “Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language amid Wars of Translation”.
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