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How do you deal with a president like Rodrigo Duterte?

MANILA • Mr Rodrigo Duterte is not always a man of his word. He has said so himself: "If it's preposterous, don't believe me." This makes the Philippines' 16th president a tough nut to crack, especially for people who make a living out of weaving together words, like journalists.

With his ask-me-anything, expletives-laden news conferences, he is a wellspring of quotable quotes and click bait. But it can also be exasperating to sort through the muck and try to figure out when he's being serious or just being theatrical.

Many of the incendiary remarks he made in the past were explained away a day later as "just a joke" or were "taken out of context". Reporters would report an outrageous remark one day, and Mr Duterte's media handlers would later say, "No, that's not what he actually meant."

He said he had Stage 4 cancer and was dying. That was a joke. He said he would deliver a five-minute speech during his inauguration on June 30. Also a joke.

Just last week, he said journalists were being killed probably because they were corrupt. That was not a joke, but his spokesman Salvador Panelo was quick to say Mr Duterte was "misunderstood". He was just stating a fact, not saying reporters who take bribes then attack anyway deserve to die.

So, how do you solve a problem like Mr Duterte? Well, you can't.


In Davao, Mr Duterte is revered with Pharaoh-like devotion. What is more important, the Davaoenos insist, is that he brought peace and prosperity to Davao, and he will do the same for the whole of the Philippines. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Ever heard the expression, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks"? The man is 71 years old, and for the last 30 years he has seen the world revolve around him.

In his southern home city of Davao, he is revered with Pharaoh-like devotion. He may call everyone, including the Pope and the United Nations, sons of bitches, or joke that he should have got first dibs at raping an Australian missionary, or wolf-whistle a married, female reporter on national TV.

Yet, Davaoenos will forgive him or make up excuses for him.

"That's just the way he is," is a common refrain among his believers. What is more important, they insist, is that he brought peace and prosperity to Davao, and he will do the same for the whole of the Philippines. Just you wait and see.

That kind of reinforcement feeds a huge ego, and the last thing a huge ego responds to is criticism.

That was on full display when, told there was a call to boycott his news conferences because he purportedly said corrupt journalists were legitimate murder targets, he blurted: "You idiots! Do not threaten me. I said I'm ready to lose the presidency, my honour or my life… I do not care if no one is covering me."

He added, "Boycott me? I will boycott you!" and then went on to say he would no longer be holding news conferences, and that all statements from him would be coursed through a government-run TV station.

(It didn't matter that the boycott call came from a foreign media organisation, and most Filipino journalists promptly rejected it as ill-advised.)

His aides say he just needs a little room. Mr Duterte can seem petulant, but he just needs "leeway", some "understanding", because he's in his element when he's playing the role of the well-meaning ruffian.

He is a "watch what I do, not what I say" kind of guy, and he should be regarded in that vein, they insist.

By that measure, he has done fairly well so far.

He has assembled a crack team of economic managers from veteran Cabinet ministers and experts from academia.

With just a few words with the Chinese ambassador, he has managed to stop China from harassing Filipinos fishing near a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

Mr Boo Chanco, a newspaper columnist, said the best way for journalists to handle Mr Duterte would be to ignore the hysterics and just report on the boring and mundane.

"He is enjoying himself shocking the socks off the folks in Manila," said Mr Chanco. Journalists should deny him that pleasure, and instead "pick on what's substantive", he said.

Mr Duterte did promise to be a different man after he is sworn into office on June 30.

There will be a "metamorphosis in the mind", he said.

He said he will begin conducting himself with the dignity that the office of the president demands, although he insists on operating in his own time zone - he, like Russia's Vladimir Putin, prefers to start work early in the afternoon and end the day past midnight - and running the country from Davao, 970km south of the capital Manila.

A semblance of order, after the current pub-like atmosphere surrounding him? We shall see.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2016, with the headline 'How do you deal with a president like Duterte?'. Print Edition | Subscribe