On Sunday, a Rodrigo Duterte impersonator known by the name Cresencio Extreme along with the world’s most widely known Kim Jong-un impersonator, Howard X made a joint appearance at a Hong Kong church frequented by OFWs (overseas Filipino workers). Later, the impersonators walked through a crowded shopping mall together before sharing a meal at the Filipino fast food chain Jollibee. The entire stunt was harmless fun but the political overtones were actually highly interesting at an objective level.
While Howard X along with a Donald Trump impersonator became internet hits after the pair were photographed walking about in Singapore during last year’s actual summit between the US President and DPRK Chairman, during the Duterte/Kim walkabout in Hong Kong, it was the man impersonating The Philippine President who got all the attention and was subsequently mobbed by visibly overjoyed Filipinos who could not wait to get a selfie with a man doing his best to look like Rodrigo Duterte.
At first, it may have well been assumed that the man in question was in fact President Duterte, as in the past, Duterte has been known to visit shopping malls both in The Philippines and in places with a sizeable OFW population, including Hong Kong. During such outings, the real Duterte is always willing to meet with admirers and pose for photos. Yet even after it became obvious that it was clearly a man pretending to be Duterte (“Kim Jong-un” walking about without his infamously large security contingent gave that away rather quickly), this did not stop real life Duterte admirers in their quest to get their photos taken with what is ostensibly the next best thing.
This begs the question, if a man accurately impersonating Duterte’s predecessor Noynoy Aquino had taken to the streets of Hong Kong, would scores of OFWs have mobbed such a man in order to get a selfie? The best way to find out is to try, but given that Duterte remains a beloved figure whilst Aquino’s brand of politics has widely fallen out of favour in The Philippines, it would be a safe assumption to state that Duterte has attained celebrity status beyond his office and that crucially, he has done so without trying. This means that unlike some who cultivate their own prefabricated imagine, Duterte’s authentic personality is one that is hard to forget and for millions of Filipinos both in The Philippines and overseas, Duterte’s personality is one that inspires both joy and enthusiasm.
But Duterte’s popularity and his memorable personal characteristics are doing more than just winning hearts and minds among Filipinos. Duterte, by just being Duterte is actually good for the holistic image of The Philippines among non-Filipinos.
Unless a nation is inherently wealthy or militarily powerful it is important for a nation’s leaders to grab the attention of the wider global public. In a developing nation, the personal charisma, notoriety, flamboyance or public mischief making of a head of state or government could mean the difference between investment coming in to his or her nation or investment going elsewhere. This is true in respect of sovereign investments but it is even more true in respect of courting private sector investors who tend to be bombarded with similar proposals from multiple nations throughout the world.
Enter Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a man beloved by the vast majority of Filipinos for his reformist policies and a man widely known to those otherwise oblivious to the history, culture and political realities of The Philippines due to his clampdown on narco-terrorism and his famously foul mouth. Duterte’s speeches are often filled with double entendre, jokes and harsh criticisms of opponents. While much of what Duterte says is misconstrued by the liberal mainstream media of The Philippines, many such speeches of Duterte which address specific local issues are also picked up by a variety of international media outlets that otherwise would not run stories about domestic Philippine issues or even about Philippine foreign policy.
The reason behind this phenomenon is because Duterte’s manner of speech gets the world’s attention and as a developing country in need of foreign investment, attention is exactly what The Philippines needs. While Duterte is not a businessman by training, his straightforward manner of speaking is similar to that which some of the most successful businessmen use in private discussions. Anyone who has ever had a private meeting with a successful no-nonsense businessman realises that such men speak more like Donald Trump at his most rhetorically unleashed than like an elderly priest speaking about the power of prayer.
Thus, while some find Duterte’s penchant for swearing whilst making both key political points and goading his increasingly hysterical opposition somewhat disconcerting, the results for The Philippines are ultimately positive on many levels.
The reality is that owing less to his policies than to his style, more non-Filipinos are talking about The Philippines than at any time since the downfall of President Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Furthermore, it is likely that non-Filipinos under the age of 30 are more familiar with the name Duterte than with the names Aquino or Marcos. In other words, Duterte’s infamous jokes and frequent use of expletive language are putting The Philippines on the map in the minds of many who would have never considered a vacation in The Philippines, doing business with or investing in The Philippines.
Even at an unconscious level, people are becoming more aware of The Philippines as a result of Duterte’s name and photograph appearing in newspapers, websites and on television screens across the world. While Singapore’s wealthy economy does not require such “outspoken” leadership, The Philippines requires a well known leader in order to achieve its desired status of becoming a prominent long term sustainable investment destination in the highly competitive south east Asian region.
In this sense, even those who dislike Duterte’s sense of humour should thank him as he is able to do for The Philippines more by telling an “offensive” joke than that which many countries are able to achieve by sinking millions into global public relations campaigns designed to attract attention to one’s country.
As Oscar Wilde said “there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about”. If the opposite were true Monica Lewinsky would not be getting paid good money to give lectures in the United States on her infamous past experiences. The same could be said about Bill Clinton who has made millions since leaving office two years after formally being impeached by the US Congress over issues relating to his relationship with Miss. Lewinsky.
In this sense, Duterte is not only an important world leader but his mouth is a supremely effective public relations tool that has not cost the Filipino tax payer not a single peso. While other countries have to work to make headline news, Duterte is promoting The Philippines in some of the most unexpected but nevertheless highly effective ways.