The Straits Times says

Pitfalls of governance by bluster

No one envies Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte the tough task he has vaulted himself into. On the outcomes of his efforts ride the hopes of a people sickened by lawlessness and an alarming spread of drugs among the young. Davao City, his home base, is significantly less crime-infested than most other parts of the country.

But restoring the rule of law is coming at a high cost since he took charge in June - about 2,400 deaths, not all by official death squads. Over half a million drug suspects, mostly users, have surrendered to police. Some jails are holding five times more prisoners than their sanctioned strength.

Mr Duterte has gone further by declaring a "state of national emergency on account of lawless violence" in the wake of an explosion in Davao City that killed 14 people. The emergency, which covers all of the Philippines, is open-ended and seems to give law enforcers unbridled powers to do "what they really need to do". Mr Duterte is still in his honeymoon period with voters, but the mood might change in a land with a proud history of opposing dictatorship. There are fears already that Manila is sliding towards martial law. His decision to grant strongman Ferdinand Marcos a hero's burial only fuels such suspicions.

The region would hope that Mr Duterte's forceful methods are not just fuelled by rage that can run foul of sound principles of governance and accepted norms of diplomacy. That could undermine his well-meaning domestic agenda and the country's strategic goals. His habit of cursing might hold folksy charm for his followers but could lead to consequences when foreign leaders are the target. Responding to a question about American pressure on him to curb extra-legal methods, he struck out needlessly at United States President Barack Obama. An abject apology followed later as Manila would be poorly off without committed US security support. Shooting from the lip is entirely his choice but shooting himself in the foot as a result could affect his nation too.

Similarly, a rash approach towards making strategic decisions can have an unsettling effect. The emergency proclamation, for example, has spread alarm about the security situation. And his recent overtures to Beijing have created doubt about his commitment to a united Asean approach towards security in the South China Sea. Making deals on the side is a sure way to unravel the group's hard-won solidarity.

There is a difference between getting things done with guns blazing and becoming a loose cannon. That was one message served up by financial markets when investors fled from the Manila exchange and headed for Jakarta and Mumbai. Mr Duterte inherited a strong economy from his predecessor, Mr Benigno Aquino III. With a youthful population, his focus must equally be on stoking growth and finding jobs for the young.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2016, with the headline 'Pitfalls of governance by bluster'. Print Edition | Subscribe