“I do not care if I burn in hell for as long as the people I serve live in paradise.”
This is basically what Davao City Mayor Rody Duterte believes is the meaning and essence of leadership.
In an interview with a group of young students from the University of the Philippines Cebu who flew to Davao City last year, Duterte was confronted with the question: “How do you define a leader and what kind of a leader are you?”
There was a short pause, after which Duterte delivered his treatise on leadership, a view which departs from the conventional perspective of a Filipino political leader who travels in a convoy of vehicles, who projects a morally upright image, who is concerned with what people may think about him and his views on certain issues, and for whom the audience rises whenever he enters the room.
“A leader is not a messiah. He is the guy who does the work nobody else would like to do,” said Duterte, who bows before his audience and who has publicly declared that he does not want people to rise whenever he enters the room or delivers a speech.
“I consider myself a garbage man. I take care of the dregs of society. I make sure that my city is safe and clean and my people are comfortable,” he said.
This view on Philippine political leadership is a radical departure from the image of a Filipino traditional politician. This is the image of a leader which Filipinos are now slowly showing preference for, as shown by the popularity of Duterte and the seeming acceptance by the people of his unconventional character.
Duterte cusses in public and even during his weekly television program, making the “bleep” part of the regular sound bites of his “Gikan sa masa, Para sa masa program” which airs on ABS-CBN Southern Mindanao every Sunday.
He openly talks about his love life, sometimes even his sex life, threatens criminals with serious consequences if they operate in his city and has been linked to several extra-judicial killings prompting a Time magazine writer to call him “The Punisher.”
Duterte’s character portrayal as a leader is the complete opposite of the image of a leader in mold of Moses who led his people to the Promised Land by leading the journey and who projects the image of a holy man.
He is not the typical Filipino politician who likes to project a “cutie” image and who sometimes even wears a light make-up to hide scars and acne in his face.
He does not walk in front of his people carrying a flag and shouting the battlecry. Duterte walks among his people and literally makes a nightly round of his community like a shepherd would do to his flock to protect them from predators.
Duterte, before a near fatal motorcycle fall which injured his spine, rode his big bike at night, drove a taxicab to get a feel of the city first hand, led raids on a drug dens, personally shot and killed a prisoner who held hostage and raped a nun in the Davao City Jail years back, entered a rebel camp to negotiate for the release of soldiers and policemen captured by the New People’s Army and even attended to such personal problems as a family break-up.
This is the kind of leader who allowed his own pick-up vehicle to be used by passengers stranded in flash floods and too a taxicab to go home, a tough guy who has vowed to personally aid children who are suffering from cancer and who cried at the sight of the devastation and the stench of death in Tacloban City after Typhoon Yolanda.
In 2002, he hosted a boxing event which featured Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao and he invited Muslim and communist rebels to watch the fight for free.
“Davao City is Zona Libre for everybody who comes in peace. But you are not allowed to carry firearms in the City unless you are a policeman or an army soldier. Even Nur Misuari at the height of his popularity and power acceded to this rule,” Duterte said.
His conciliatory and accommodating gesture towards the “enemies of the state” has generated criticisms that Duterte supports the New People’s Army and the Muslim rebels.
“There are enemies who should not be killed otherwise we will have nobody to talk to about the prospects of peace,” he once said following criticisms on his statement that Misuari, the MNLF leader who was accused of leading a deadly siege in Zamboanga City, must be consulted on the peace process in the Southern Philippines.
“You kill Misuari? Who do you talk to in the Western part of the Bangsamoro? The Abu Sayyaf?,” Duterte asked in response to the criticisms.
Duterte seems unperturbed by what people outside of his city would think about him.
Following a newspaper report which said that American officials are bothered by alleged extra-judicial killings involving drug lords in the City of Davao, Duterte retorted: “I am not the Mayor of New York. I am not answerable to the Americans. I am answerable to my people in Davao City.”
But whether you like him or hate him, there is no argument that the Duterte brand of political leadership works in a city which used to be one of the most violent places in the whole country, where communist assassins turned the Agdao District into a killing fields earning the name “Nicaragdao,” comparing it to Nicaragua during the bloody days of the Sandinistas.
Davao City has been ranked as the 4th Safest City in the World which stands out as the only city in the Philippines with a fully-operational 911 Emergency Response Unit.
It is so progressive that today negotiations are afoot for the construction of a light-rail transit system linking its barangays north and south, a project to be fully financed by the city government.
This is the Duterte paradigm on leadership which would merit serious study by political and social scientists.
Is this the image of a political leader that Filipinos are identifying themselves with?
The Duterte leadership phenomenon could yet mark a period in the country’s political history when Filipinos, fed up with the corruption and criminality threatening society, go through a shift in their leadership preference, embracing an unconventional and controversial leader who has no record of corruption and who gets the job of protecting his people done.
This is leadership in the style of Rodrigo Roa Duterte, The Punisher, The Garbage Man and The Comforter, circa 2014.
(Note: This article was first posted in this page last year. I edited and updated it before reposting it here because of its relevance today as Duterte has agreed to run for President. Photo downloaded from pinoytalks website shows a motorcycle-riding Duterte.)
By Manny Piñol