Friends, Filipinos, Countrymen, Lend Me Your Ears

Those of us who were expecting flaming oratory during President Duterte’s first major speech were a bit disappointed for sure. For me, it was the disappointment of what might have been. Especially since there was no absence of moving lines and quotable quotes in the text of the speech. For example, “And the Filipino, disciplined, informed and involved, shall rise from rubbles of sorrow and pain.”

Duterte’s delivery was also very good in the first few minutes. It was Duterte the prosecutor. His voice was forceful and authoritative. His speaking cadence was even and measured for dramatic effect. Before it started to shudder and shake under the weight of Murphy’s Law, Duterte’s SONA indeed gave us a glimpse of a hitherto dismissed possibility–that Duterte actually has the capacity to move and inspire us with traditional oratory, if only he saw the merit in such cajoling, and if only he and his staff were willing to commit the time to rehearse.

The rest of the SONA was pretty much trademark Duterte. Making a nod to convention, he initially did some of the flowery, soft stuff, but soon tossed it aside as if in disdain, and went off script. In this regard, Duterte actually reminds me of the Fonz from the old tv show Happy Days (millenials look it up on YouTube). Fonzie is the gangster-image toughie with the heart of gold. He would have sneered at the script and done adlib too.

We all know Duterte is not one to stand on ceremony. Clearly, the man has the impatience of the executive. Instead of dwelling on the appetizers, he would just rather go straight to the main course. He does not care much for the frivolities or even conventions of his office. He has told people to stop calling him “Your excellency”, and instead call him “Rody”. Not even President Rody?

The man who eschews form over substance delivered substance in spades. It is as if the chef said, forget the appetizer, the soup, the anti-pasti. Here is meat, meat, meat! It was a veritable Brazilian Churrascaria. (For a complete list of substanive pronouncements look at the Presidential Communications Group’s FB page.) Even on a personal level, how can one not appreciate the extended validity of drivers licenses and passports? The promise of universal health insurance for all Filipinos? The lower corporate and income tax?

Still, my shallow self wonders at missed opportunities. The power of well-timed oratory cannot be dismissed. It is not, by far, the end all and be all of leadership, but there is no questioning the President, by virtue of his office, has an excellent pulpit by which to address and convince the people. He can rally people to patriotism, convince people to support his plans and agenda, and further increase his already high popularity.

None of the recent Philippine presidents were great orators. They all had lousy speaking voices that tended to put you to sleep. Pnoy had a great voice but he insisted on speaking in Tagalog, the dialect of so-called “imperial Manila”. Furthermore, in contrast to Duterte, his idea of a SONA was blaming the previous administration and lifting his own bench. Full of flourish but lacking in eloquence, Pnoy’s SONA was appetizer and dessert with no main course.

I tell you, after witnessing those first few minutes of the Duterte SONA, I do think we can be witness to a truly great SONA within these next five years. Possibly even the kind that will stand out in history and get quoted by future generations. All it takes is Duterte to buckle down and appreciate the occasion as a golden opportunity to remind the Filipino people that they can have it all.

Charles Englund

July 27, 2016

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Originally published at on July 27, 2016.

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