Understanding Duterte

Everyone I meet these days, when they learn that I have served as Mayor Rody Duterte’s chief of staff for seven years (first in 1997-1998, then in 2004-2010), ask me what sort of person he really is. And my answer is always the same: “He is what he shows you he is, contradictions and all.”

But non-Davaoeños seem to want a more detailed explanation. They want to know the man behind the public persona. They assume there is a difference between the public Duterte and the private Duterte. But that’s the thing. There isn’t. What you see is the real deal. He is so comfortable with who he is and sees no point in hiding anything or embellishing his public image in a way that could be more acceptable to bourgeois society.

Like Davao’s durian fruit, Duterte is an acquired taste. He is not someone you fall in love with at first sight. He can even be repulsive or offensive at first impression. He is someone who grows on you after knowing him and spending time with him for a significant period of time. You do not immediately understand his actions the first time he does them. You only get to appreciate them in hindsight.

Duterte does not always know the right words to say and that is why he often needs an interpreter, an explainer. But he needs only to be explained to those who are used to the traditional, linear thinking which looks at the world in an orderly, sequential manner. On the other hand, non-linear thinkers usually have no problems understanding Duterte. And that is why a lot of artists and creative people get him.

He communicates best when he tells a story and his stories are usually long with a lot of digression. He might appear to be rambling on without a point but if you listen closely, you will get it and you will even get a glimpse of how his mind works. He can tell a story countless times but there will always be a new twist or a new insight that will be revealed that wasn’t there the previous time.

Duterte is actually easy to figure out because his general principles are clear. He is all about equality, justice and fairness. Some of us may disagree with some of his methods in achieving that but everything he does is motivated by those principles. So if you want to know how he would handle certain things, look at it from the perspective of what would promote equality, be more just, and what is fair to everyone.

He is also a very impatient man. So people who work for him and with him must understand this about him early on. Everything will be urgent and must be dealt with right away. Do not wait for a memo. Just do it already. That is why it is important that you know your job and what you are supposed to do from the get go. He will not give you a welcome orientation and a set of dos and don’ts. If you are doing a good job, he will just let you be. But expect to hear from him, very loudly, if I may add, if you are not doing well.

Duterte is like Yoda. For him, it is “Do or do not. There is no try.” So if you want to be a part of his team, you better be good at solving problems and finding ways to get things done. Preferably without bothering him with every little thing or whining about how hard it is.

Character is more important to Duterte than skill. And that is why he subjects people around him to random tests without them knowing that they are being tested. He wants to see how people would react and handle things given a particular situation. It is not unusual  for him to start a rumor just to find out who he can trust and who he cannot. It is like that game “pass the message” but with a twist. He will also try to tempt you with all sorts of things just to see what your weaknesses are. Don’t worry, he will not judge you. He will only use that information in deciding where you can best be useful to him and his mission.

There will always be factions and divisions in any organization. This does not faze Duterte.  In fact, he uses that to his advantage. For him, he sees rivalries as opportunities to learn more about each person’s character and motives. It helps him craft more effective strategies and tactics to accomplish his mission.

Of course, he is not always right and he does make mistakes. And he is humble enough to admit them and rectify these mistakes. Because he is very self-aware, he knows his strengths and limitations. So he is not shy in asking for help from people who are smarter and better than him.

But whatever it is he does or does not do, you can always be assured that his heart is in the right place. He really loves the people and he has a generous spirit.

As a leader of Davao City for more than two decades now, Duterte is generally understood by the people of Davao. The relationship is like an old married couple’s where they finish each other’s sentences and share a lot of inside jokes. The trust has been built and established. That relationship is even stronger now after it has been tested by a grueling campaign that placed Duterte and Davaoeños under tough national scrutiny.

The rest of the Philippines is still getting to know Duterte and playing catch up. It is still in the initial stage of a relationship that many powerful forces are already against from the very beginning.  And that is why every little thing Duterte does is being analyzed and criticized. I do not remember such frenzy over other incoming presidents. They usually give these presidents (even those accused of cheating in the elections) the benefit of the doubt and they let them enjoy a brief honeymoon period.

I do not want to think Duterte is being subjected to such ridiculous standards compared to his predecessors simply because he is from a “remote and dusty” city in Mindanao. I hope it is not because he is “not like them,” therefore he must work harder and prove himself more to be accepted to the elite and prestigious circle of presidents.

To those who are so quick to react and judge, here’s some unsolicited advice. Duterte won the election. Those who did not vote for PNoy gave him a chance and suffered through his “noynoying” for six years. They also did not understand Noynoy but respected his position as the duly elected leader of this country and waited for the next elections (even if they so wanted to impeach him). Don’t you think it’s fair that we give Duterte the same respect?

First appeared on Mindanao Times, May 26, 2016