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After 100 days: Paradigm shifts in the Philippine presidency

Whether you hate or love President Duterte after 100 days of his rule, for good or bad, he represents a paradigm shift in the Philippine presidency. And history tells us that shifts in the paradigms a society holds are crucial to its long-term growth, for it is these paradigms that determine how we think and act.

It was philosopher Thomas Kuhn, in his groundbreaking 1962 book about the history of science,  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, who crystallized and popularized the notion of paradigm shift. Kuhn, however, used the term in a strict sense as referring to epochal changes in civilization’s world-views.

For example, there was the shift in the 18th century (two centuries after Copernicus proposed the theory in 1543) to the now universally-held view that the earth orbits the sun, replacing the old tenet that all celestial bodies revolved around the earth. (Many think that civilization is now undergoing one of its most important paradigm shifts in centuries, from a universal belief in a Divine, All-powerful Being to a secular, scientific worldview.)

We use the term paradigm shift, however, in its looser, common usage, which my dictionary defines as “a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions.” Going by this definition, Duterte is the first President to attempt a shift not just in one paradigm but in several.

Whoever thought that a President could wear a casual shirt, the “polo shirt” Filipinos love to wear (with the oversized Polo or Lacoste logos), at official functions, even in such solemn rituals as reviewing the troops?
Even the “man of the masses,” President Magsaysay, wore short-sleeved dress shirts, and not the checkered shirts and Polo or golf shirts that have now become Duterte’s OOTD (outfit of the day). I suspect they may even be cheap rip-offs. A barong over a maong pair of jeans at state dinners?

After all, the barong has been the elite’s preferred outfit since the Spanish colonial era, which for the wearer was a neon sign announcing to everyone his high social status. The masses’ common outfit during those times was the camisa chino, the modern version of which is the “Polo” shirt Duterte loves to wear. The barong tagalog is the common public outfit of the elite and the middle-class, not the working class. Much more, of course, in the case of the suit, tellingly referred to by Filipinos as “Amerikana,” which translates to “American-style,” the outfit of the American colonizers.

Duterte’s preferred daily outfit symbolizes a paradigm shift: The Philippine President must constantly represent the masses, one they could very easily identify with, even just by the clothes he wears daily.

Masa image

President Estrada tried to project a similar masa image, but his designer jackets (his preferred daily wear), his daily all-night feasts over bottles of $500 Petrus wine with his drinking buddies, his lavish gifts to mistresses (with one gifted with a mansion), and his imported Lucky Strike cigarettes – all quickly demolished that image.

There are three very important paradigm shifts Duterte appears to be trying to effect, which because of the overwhelming support for him (76 percent of Filipinos support him, the latest poll show) could change Filipinos’ worldview — if he survives his term as popular as he is now, that is.

First, while he has not fully articulated it, nor has he announced a program to address it, Duterte has expressed antagonism toward oligarchs, whose hold over the country, political scientists and keen observers have long claimed, has been the root of Philippine underdevelopment, and the consequent poverty it has generated.

“I will destroy oligarchs,” the President told a crowd of soldiers at the Camp Lapu Lapu in Cebu City in early August. While it isn’t clear how he defines oligarchs, vis-a-vis the entire economic elite, he correctly hinted, in referring to magnate Roberto Ongpin, that an oligarch is one who uses the state, or the incumbent President, to unfairly expand his business empire: “I’ll give you an example, publicly: Ongpin, Roberto. Malakas kay [Ferdinand] Marcos noon, trade minister, I think. Malakas sa succession: [During] Ramos he was a hanger on and, kay Gloria [Arroyo], PNoy. Now he owns online [gambling],” he said.

If he pursues his anti-oligarchic view, it would be an earth-shaking change in the worldview of Filipinos, who think their poverty is their God-given fate or, for the educated, that they are merely unlucky. Even the intelligentsia’s paradigm is neoliberalism, that poverty will be eradicated in the course of economic development, as the wealth generated by the rich trickles down to the masses.

No Philippine President has ever dared to express disdain against oligarchs, not even to claim their existence. One presidential candidate had even confidently announced that he planned to get Manuel Pangilinan — who was really merely an Indonesian oligarch’s manager — as his vice presidential running mate.

America’s brown brothers

Second, Duterte is changing the view of most Filipinos that we are America’s little brown brothers, that the US is not only a staunch ally, but that our prosperity depends on its patronage. Even the elite has embraced that myth that we have a special relationship with the US, which will always care about us since we share their American values, and that we were their only colony and protégé in the world.

The corollary of such a view is a deep antagonism toward communism, so much so that China and the Russian Federation — the two countries that are or were under communist rule are suspect, even feared, by most Filipinos. Yet these countries are or will be the world’s economic and military superpowers in this century, with which the country must have ties as strong as it has with the US.

To do this, Duterte even said in a speech, “Go to hell, Obama.” The last time a state leader spewed out such venom at a US president was in 2006, when in his address at the United Nations General Assembly, Venezuelan socialist President Hugo Chavez called President George W. Bush “the devil,” who talked “as if he owned the world.” Despite a coup, massive labor strikes and a recall referendum, Chavez had a third term, which he didn’t complete, dying of a heart attack in 2013.

Duterte declares he prefers developing closer ties with China and Russia, than with the US. With about 3 million Filipino immigrants to the US, about 500,000 having filed applications to become US citizens, with the elite having studied in the US and sending routinely their children to US colleges, that paradigm shift Duterte trying to effect is as radical as can be.

Third, Duterte is changing the view of most Filipinos that communist insurgents are godless anti-democracy people intending to capture political power, which they will just monopolize. Instead, Duterte’s paradigm is that communists are pro-poor patriots devoting their lives to uplift the people’s welfare.

Duterte has done what had been unimaginable. He appointed communists to head two government departments – that for social welfare and development, and agrarian reform, with another Marxist-Leninist as labor department undersecretary. It could even be three departments if reports are true that education secretary Leonor Magtolis-Briones and her husband Carlos were cadres of the pro-Soviet Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas, and had emerged from the underground after Marcos struck a peace deal with the Partido in 1976, and gave all its members amnesty.

Peace deal

Duterte has rushed to reach a peace-deal with the communists — which would even allow them to retain their arms — even bringing to Norway for the negotiations the Communist Party’s top imprisoned leaders, such as its chairman Benito Tiamzon, to make sure that any settlement is backed by the insurgents’ real leaders.

Duterte’s paradigm shift to an anti-oligarchy and anti-US view, and one sympathetic to the communists, obviously risks his hold on power. No President ever has had such a worldview, much less articulate it in public.
When he actually moves to implement these views, the oligarchs and the US obviously will fight back, and they have all the resources to do so.

It is Duterte’s fourth paradigm shift that has created fierce opposition against him, which oligarchs and the US will exploit to bring him down.

He is trying to shift Western civilization’s paradigm on human life — that each and every life is sacred, with no state having the right to take it—to one in which lives may, and even must be sacrificed, even with no judicial proceedings, for the good of the majority of society.

Under this view, the lives of illegal-drug criminals, those suspected to be such, and even those who make up the illegal-drug community, i.e., addicts, can be rightfully snuffed out so that the majority of Filipinos, their children and their children’s children, would be free of this scourge that has been one of the main factors for horrific crimes, such as the rape and murder of children.

I don’t embrace this worldview. Modern civilization’s morality evolved not out of religious dogmas but in the gradual embrace of the seemingly illogical belief that an individual’s life must be cherished, and cannot be sacrificed for the group, which had been a tenet of humanity’s past eras.*

I am, to be honest, in a quagmire whether or not Duterte’s different paradigm on an individual’s life, as the Yellow Cult has been arguing, requires a moral stance of opposing his rule, since I fully embrace the other three paradigm shifts he is trying to effect.

*See Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc (2015),