Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 14 September 2016


No single event in the last week has dominated Philippine discussion more than the spat that arose out of the media report on President Rodrigo Duterte’s outburst a day before his trip to the ASEAN summit in Laos.

The incident. When asked about an anticipated meeting between US President Barack Obama and him in which the topic of “human rights” was mentioned as a likely issue of interest, President Duterte could have ignored the hypothetical question.

He, however, chose to answer it. Using his direct style of talk with the usual “p*ina” expletive” laced in, he addressed the local audience, explaining his position on human rights.

But this talk was before the press and TV. In this age of instant communication, when the US president, in relation to an important topic was mentioned by name, there is likelihood of the news going viral immediately.

Soon, across Asia in Hangzhow, China where the G-20 had just concluded its session and before a press conference, President Obama was asked about the news report from Manila.

Obama diplomatically parried the question by referring to the “colorful” language of the new Philippine president, but he refused to be engaged in public. However, he decided to cancel a scheduled and well-planned meeting with President Duterte until such time when a “productive” meeting could take place.

Lost in translation and in transmission. In the realm of speech, when spoken words are put into a different language, or between spoken and even their written version, proper translation is important.

The raw language spoken in vernacular, such as the p*ina expletive, can translate in many ways: as a cuss word meant to embellish and emphasize, as a directed curse at someone in particular, as a sign of frustration. The tone of delivery matters a lot too.

In the normal Duterte discourse, it is of the first kind, that is, for emphasis of a point. In plain language, he did not say, son of a whore to Obama, as the world got to hear or read in press reports of the translation. In fact, son-of-a-whore (which was used in the press report) is worse than son-of-a-bitch, bitch being associated with dogs and therefore, less dramatic than whore.

The world got it wrong in translation and in transmission! The video clip itself, especially the one CNN used to fill the world with TV news did not show the supposedly offending quotes. “Pictures and videos don’t lie, but they could omit proper context.”

Such mis-translation and mis-transmission could have dangerous consequences when the stakes are high. In dishonest use, such outcomes could arise from deliberate spin or manipulation.

Could a leader learn new tricks? Of course, if, to begin with, the president were more careful with his words, no such things need happen!

Could the president learn a new art, that of tact and diplomacy, or that of silence when called for?

Tact is careful not to embarrass, upset or offend, sometimes implying restraint or using a less direct approach to a delicate topic.  Diplomacy is tact, but it suggests more deliberate effort to attain an end to resolve problems and differences.

Many of us want our president to succeed in his task. His success is the success of the nation. For my part, I want this president to succeed for it seems he is capable of undertaking the major reforms we need so we could become a more productive nation.

In the short time he has assumed office, his efforts at delivering the promises he made regarding battling corruption and ridding the country of drug criminals have resonated well. Moreover, at no time have major economic reforms been more directly discussed and put toward the immediate agenda of action.

Damage control is costly. Two months into the presidency, major incidents have already happened which required damage control. Damage control takes the time of Cabinet officials and other affected officials from their most productive work by rebuilding bridges and explaining what had been intended.

The incidents requiring major damage control may lead to a reputation of notoriety rather than of celebrity. They invite a continual bad international press that could be very costly to the president’s reputation in the long run. Reputational decay could heavily be used to discount any successful achievements that he might accomplish for the world to see.

The case of the relations with the United States is one of primary concern. When President Obama postponed the meeting with President Duterte, many sides of the long standing relations with that country took some hit.

More than with any other country, our relations with the United States cover a wide range of issues: investments, trade, economic, immigration, defense and military and economic aid. Our relations, guided by national interest, could shift, but they need not suffer from hurt feelings.

A cordial meeting of minds between two presidents could have started the ball rolling on any issues that awaited their attention. The plain fact was that a useful first acquaintance between the presidents failed to materialize when the occasion was already ready.

Impact on the economy. For the moment, I do not see any of these developments alarming to the economic development effort. As long as the government pursues the economic reforms and the economy is being managed well, the prospects for a better economic future are at work.

There may be some short-run fallout. When the particular chambers of commerce voice their concerns about the impact on the foreign investment climate, they might simply be concerned particular worries expressed by some of their members.

The recent decline of the stock market might be partly affected by these sentiments. However, the stock market is responding to more important economic and market signals happening in the world economy. For one, investors are worried by the impending program the US central bank might do with respect to raising interest rates in the near future.