The Straits Times says

Realising hopes for Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's domestic agenda is as large as the issues his nation faces. The most dramatic item on his list is the killing of known drug lords and criminals, a process that has begun already. Extra-judicial killings, however, are always problematic, not least because they could target the innocent along with the guilty. Undeterred, the new leader intends to send out a clear message that criminals will find it difficult now to depend on networks of fear, the complicity of corrupt officials, or legal loopholes to extend their misrule. Filipinos, who have had enough of crime, would cheer on their new leader.

In similar vein, they would applaud President Duterte's determination to reorganise a bureaucracy. In its worst form, it has become a law unto itself, impervious to the needs and pleas of the very people who pay civil service wages. As a man of the people who got to know bureaucratic obfuscation and obstinacy first-hand - as the activist Mayor of Davao - he knows just how difficult it is to reform a system from within. Yet, the alternative is violent change from without, a prospect that he cannot countenance as the constitutional leader of the entire Filipino people.

Herein lies the importance of President Duterte's outreach to communists across the nation and to Muslim separatists in the south. Both consider the existing political framework insufficient to accommodate their grievances. Mr Duterte's offer of friendship to these groups is a sign of hope after the failure of numerous administrations. He will have to show that it is possible to address ideological and religious insurgencies if the political framework can be made capacious enough without giving away the non-negotiable core of national sovereignty. Establishing a federal system of governance, high on his agenda, might not address every centrifugal demand. Yet, the devolution of power to the regions is one way of empowering people so that local energies and aspirations are not dissipated as these make their way through the labyrinths of the Malacanang bureaucracy in distant Manila. Reinforcing the transport infrastructure and improving the provision of long-distance trains would contribute concretely to social and national integration.

The new President's focus on agriculture and education is an enduring need in a developing country. His predecessors, too, tried to promote substantial change in these areas. What works to his advantage is that he inherits a buoyant economy that gives him the resources with which to finance systemic change. He would wish to keep liberalising the economy judiciously so that the private sector could contribute to the social remaking of the Philippines. Guns and butter might call the shots now, but President Duterte must look beyond these concerns in order to reap benefits from being effectively connected with the region.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 09, 2016, with the headline 'Realising hopes for Philippines'. Print Edition | Subscribe