Between a strongman and a strong state

At the recent inauguration of a production facility for solar panels in Santo Tomas, Batangas, President Duterte once again deviated from his prepared speech to talk about his favorite topics — the war on drugs and the extent of corruption in the country. There he recalled his election promise that he would finish the drug problem in three to six months, and admitted that the problem is so big that it is likely to persist beyond his term.

“I admit that I committed a mistake in my estimation. You know why? My environment, my paradigm, my template for law and order was Davao. When I became president, I didn’t realize that everyone was corrupt; top police generals were into drugs….  I thought I was still in Davao. In Davao, everyone was afraid to commit mistakes.  I did not realize the extent.”

This is an interesting admission by the President. It tells a lot about his simplistic approach to governance — one molded by his experience as a local strongman accustomed to solving problems by the brute force of his intimidating personality. Fear has been his abiding tool to secure compliance with his orders and wishes. From time to time, he has had to show that he means business by deploying the full weight of his coercive power against a chosen target in complete view of the public. In the course of this “sampling” ritual, someone gets publicly humiliated, or stripped of his office or business, or lands in jail, or is made to disappear under mysterious circumstances.

In Davao City where he was mayor for many years, this was usually enough to terrorize his enemies, silence his critics, and earn the eternal admiration of his awestruck constituents. This leadership template usually works well in traditional politics and in the area of peace and order. But it has limited value in effecting changes in other domains like the economy, education, health and housing, and the environment. The complexity of these areas is magnified even more at the nation-state level.

Mr. Duterte’s myopic approach to governance may have shaped not just the conduct of his antidrug war, but all aspects of government policy.

No strongman can rely exclusively on the sheer force of his persona to manage this complexity. One needs a comprehensive vision of what he wants to accomplish, and a set of functioning institutions to help him lead and serve his people. Mr. Duterte has neither.

That’s the big difference with Singapore, a country that Filipinos like to hold up as a mirror of what the Philippines could be under a willful leader. Lee Kuan Yew was not an ordinary strongman who defined his role purely in terms of maintaining law and order in a multiracial society.  Three clear objectives kept him oriented as he demanded discipline and social harmony from his people.  In Lee’s own words, these were: “making the country the safest place to live and work in, treating every citizen equally, and ensuring continuing success for every generation of Singaporeans.” (Lee Kuan Yew, “One man’s view of the world,” 2013)

Singaporeans learned to live with tough limitations on their freedoms and civil rights in return for security, equal treatment, and guarantees of continued support for everyone who strove for personal advancement and contributed to the nation’s progress. Lee Kuan Yew would surely have failed if all that he cared about was enforcing law and order in a society riven by racial conflict. More than this, he was determined to show that the iron hand of the law applied to everyone, rich and poor alike, regardless of whether they were Chinese, Malay, or Indian. He made sure there were no exemptions, no privileged groups, no sacred cows.

By the same token, the regime he founded made sure that the harshness of the law was balanced by a state benevolence which not only ensured the fulfillment of basic needs but also made available to every citizen the resources and opportunity to succeed in life. The emphasis on equal treatment necessitated the development of modern institutions that could stand up to the claims of race, family status, and class.

This is what a strong state in the true sense is about.  Autonomous and operationally closed, it resists the bidding of any dominant ethnic community, or of a powerful family or group of families, or of an economic bloc, or religious congregation, or a foreign power. In contrast, a weak state is weak precisely because it is unable to enforce its laws and assert its interests when dealing with powerful families and oligarchical interests. Indeed, a weak state may sometimes receive a boost from a charismatic strongman. But, unless this energy is institutionalized and converted into legitimate governmental power, this will not have any revitalizing effect. Indeed, it may only expose the deep class biases of government and confirm the skepticism of citizens toward their politicians.

In this regard, two things are worth noting that may quickly erode the political capital that resides in President Duterte’s strongman image: first, the fact that the war on drugs has mainly targeted poor drug users and peddlers in the country’s most depressed communities, and second, the fact that the Duterte regime as a whole has not made any credible attempt to balance the brutality of its antidrug campaign with an inclusive and well-conceived program to improve the living conditions of the poor so as to give them a valid reason to hope that their children’s lives will be better.

The first shows Mr. Duterte to be no more than a callous and murderous henchman of the traditional ruling classes. The second exposes his avowal of socialist leanings as nothing but an empty boast.