Singapore got a close-up look at the flint-edged new President of the Philippines last week when he paid a two-day visit to the island. The famously free-spoken Mr Rodrigo Duterte stuck to his recent script on several issues. These included an unflinching commitment to pursuing the deadly war on drugs that he has unleashed since taking office; his defiant rejection of any criticism of his methods; and his well-known disdain for the United States. The thousands of his countrymen who went to the Singapore Expo to see their leader in the flesh and to hear from him directly were testimony to his enduring allure to Filipinos who hope to see their nation rid of corruption and drugs.
Singapore-Philippine ties stretch back to preindependence days. Filipino leader Jose Rizal made four trips here between 1882 and 1896. Singapore is the fourth-largest trading partner of the Philippines, ranking behind the US, China and Japan. It is also a significant investor there; indeed, its companies are poised to move beyond Metro Manila to cities such as Davao and Cebu. As Mr Duterte sets about rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, companies such as Singtel and SIA Engineering should be able to contribute to the effort. The city-state also is host to about 180,000 Filipinos who are represented in sectors as diverse as banking, advertising, nursing and domestic help.
While two nations do not need to agree on everything, there is much ground for the two to work on together. As fellow founding nations of Asean, a priority for them is to ensure a successful 50th anniversary celebration of the group in Manila next year. Given the tensions rising in South-east Asia and North-east Asia as big powers jockey for influence, the East Asia Summit, held alongside Asean's annual gathering of leaders, will be an opportunity for the group to re-emphasise its central role in the region's security architecture.
Mr Duterte has been elected for a six-year term. South-east Asia and the wider world, principally treaty ally the United States, will have to adjust to a Philippines under his leadership that is poised to shed some of its old strategic moorings. However, a degree of continuity, too, could be expected even as the country seeks a new balance in its relations with key Asia-Pacific powers.
It would be in Manila's interests to preserve Asean centrality because, ultimately, it is the association which multiplies the diplomatic clout of each of its members in their dealings with the great powers. Also, opportunities beckon in the area of the Philippines' bilateral relations with the US. President-elect Donald Trump is a different man from President Barack Obama. A new administration offers an opportunity for Manila to reset its testy ties with Washington. This is critical as the Philippines is an essential part of the South-east Asian security landscape.