This essay of mine was first published in my May 19, 2016 “Will Soon Flourish” column in “The Philippine Star”, or less than a week after the May 9 Philippine presidential election which former Davao City Mayor Rody R. Duterte won decisively. Let me share this column and my strong belief that the courageous, nationalistic, politically astute, selfless and iron-willed Duterte is similar in many ways to Singapore’s late strongman and founding father Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Of course, the Philippines and Singapore are not exactly alike in many ways, but both leaders have some striking and quite inspiring similarities. I have enumerated just some of these similarities in this essay.
I think I was one of the first to write in Philippine media two weeks ago that certain pundits in the West tend to oversimplify things by describing our President-elect Rodrigo “Digong” Roa Duterte as the “Donald Trump of the Philippines” and they are dead wrong! Duterte is not a racist like Trump, he is also not elitist in lifestyle or mindset like Trump. Duterte is more street smart, humble and has much better sense of humor than Donald Trump!
In fact, I see more similarities between Davao City Mayor Duterte and the late statesman Lee Kuan Yew who used an iron fist to modernize and cleanse Singapore into one of Asia’s wealthiest and safest countries.
Here are some inspiring similarities between the two leaders:
1. No smoking and curfew for minors similar to no chewing gum and no smoking. I applaud the announcement of Duterte’s spokesman Peter T. Laviña on May 11 that the new president plans to impose a nationwide curfew by 10 p.m. on minors unaccompanied by adults (this will hopefully stop irresponsible adults from exploiting kids to sell sampaguita flowers or begging in the streets at midnight!). This reminds me that Duterte’s Davao has strict anti-smoking and anti-littering campaigns similar to those by the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew whose anti-smoking, anti-littering and even anti-chewing gum rules uphold order and reinforce a sense of national discipline in Singapore.
2. Decisive anti-crime policies. I see striking similarities in Davao Mayor Duterte’s policy on the certainty of decisive punishments versus crooks with the successful anti-crime policies of the late Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, both also raised firestorms of human rights complaints from certain quarters in the West. Duterte’s anti-crime policies transformed Davao from “murder capital of the Philippines” into the fifth safest city in the world.
People may have forgotten, but the late Lee Kuan Yew often uttered tough words like these: “If you are a troublemaker… it’s our job to… destroy you. Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.”
3. Both are lawyers by education. Although the late Lee Kuan Yew was extraordinary for intellectual brilliance in an almost incomparable way, Duterte and Lee have similar backgrounds in legal education and as lawyers, both upheld the law as tough leaders.
Duterte & Lee Kuan Yew studied law and both became tough lawyers before entering politics.
4. Simple lifestyle. Unlike most of our politicians who are scions of landed or political oligarchies used to the “datu” lifestyle of luxury cars and mansions, Rody Duterte has a simple lifestyle and lives in a simple house. Duterte is more similar to Singapore’s no-nonsense, simple-living Lee Kuan Yew and China’s late reformist leader Deng Xiaoping. Even Duterte’s children use only a pick–up and van.
Unlike leaders who are surrounded by sycophants and eunuchs who only whisper good news, Duterte as mayor of Davao usually drove a taxi to check on the lives and safety of his constituents.
Duterte’s executive assistant Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go told journalists that under his administration, public officials will have to use modest cars instead of luxury vehicles. Go said that Duterte used a pickup as Davao mayor while his other local government officials use multipurpose vehicles like Toyota Avanza, Isuzu Crosswind, or Mitsubishi Adventure. Bong Go explained the mayor wants leadership by example, that public office does not mean indulging in luxury creature comforts.
5. A socialist is not a communist! Among the dastardly insidious lies hurled against Duterte during the campaign period by desperate critics include the ludicrious charge that he’s either a communist or a fascist dictator like Hitler — he is neither! In the same way, it would be unfair to accuse Singapore’s late Lee Kuan Yew as a communist, just because he was socialist or tend to be left-leaning in ideology or social convictions. I personally am a capitalist as an entrepreneur, but I am also a socialist at heart!
In April at a rally in San Pedro City, Laguna, Duterte said: “Ako, sosyalista. Hindi ako komunista. Kaming mga sosyalista, para kami sa tao (I am a socialist, not a communist. We socialists are for the people).” In that same speech, Duterte said his economic plans include expanding the middle class by giving more credit to small businesses, he also pledged more focus on basic social services.
Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore was business-friendly like Hong Kong is, but unlike pure capitalistic laissez-faire Hong Kong, the socialist Lee Kuan Yew ensured all citizens get to own their homes, that they enjoyed the best pension and medical plans.
6. A leader who loves reading books is generally a good leader. Like Singapore’s genius leader Lee Kuan Yew and many other good leaders in world history, Duterte loves reading books. Based on my research, Duterte enjoys reading espionage novels by bestselling writers Robert Ludlum and Sidney Sheldon. He also likes books on history (most especifically on Mindanao history), biographies of world leaders (like Napoleon Bonaparte and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew), economics, food security, politics, etc.
7. Similar to Lee Kuan Yew’s balanced and independent foreign policy, friend to all? Duterte is similar to Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew with strong electoral mandate, strategic vision and supreme self-confidence, so he can similarly uphold a balanced and independent foreign policy for the Philippines which shall not be subservient to any foreign power, neither pro-USA or pro-China but staunchly pro-Philippines; we should be friend and trading partner to all, foe of no country.
Singapore leaders from Lee Kuan Yew to now PM Lee Hsien Loong have been allies of all USA presidents, close friends of all China presidents, also Russia, the Middle East, etc. For Lee, the world is not a zero-sum game, but a win-win situation for the national interests of his country economically, strategically, diplomatically.
8. Strong character but sentimental too. Despite the larger-than-life public image of both Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Davao’s Rodrigo Duterte as strongmen rulers, both have on rare occasions shown their vulnerable, sensitive and emotional sides — Lee when talking about his beloved wife, and Duterte when visiting his late mom’s tomb.
Journalist Paul Jansen wrote that in April 2003 at the height of Asia’s SARS epidemic at a press conference where Lee Kuan Yew revealed his wife Madam Kwa Geok Choo almost became sick with it due to her hospital visit for her frozen shoulder and the radiographer who assisted her turned out to be a SARS victim, Lee suddenly stopped talking, his eyes teared and he looked down at his hands. Later on Lee Kuan Yew wiped his face and resumed talking. It was unforgettable for the media.
At 3 a.m. on May 10, hours after voting closed and when his victory was already unassailable, Duterte visited his parents’ tomb and openly cried. He sought their help to govern the Philippines, he had just overcome this gruelling election campaign with many vicious and often unfair attacks against him.
I also believe Rody Duterte wept as his filial homage, offering his hard-fought victory as tribute to his parents, most especially to his strict and loving mother the late teacher, activist and philanthropist nicknamed Soledad “Nanay Soleng” Roa Duterte.
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For those who wish to read my “Philippine Star” column, here is the link: http://www.philstar.com/sunday-life/2016/05/15/1583159/why-i-believe-rody-duterte-can-be-lee-kuan-yew-philippines