The perils of oversimplification
President Duterte’s victory in 2016 was a result of the nation’s grievances against President Aquino. Although the economy improved and our institutions became stronger under Aquino’s leadership, there remained a lingering sentiment of resentment towards President Aquino himself. Many felt he moved too slow. Some thought he was debilitated by bureaucratic processes. Others thought he lacked political will. Character-wise, many found him detached and lacking the attributes the masses could relate to.
Enter Mayor Duterte who presented himself as a man of the masses, complete with all the coarse characteristics of a small town thug. He masterfully recognized the people’s grievances against Aquino and presented himself as the alternative. He portrayed himself as a man of action – one who would not be stymied by bureaucratic formalities. Being Aquino’s anti-thesis catapulted him to a 15-million victory.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Duterte mesmerized the crowd with extravagant promises that brought them to a state of euphoria. He promised to end the drug trade, end criminality, end corruption, end social injustice, end political dynasties, end political turncoatism and end the insurgency – all within six months! He also vowed to do all he could to defend Philippine sovereignty against China’s encroachment.
He reiterated his flamboyant promises yet again during his first State of the Nation Address. All those hungry for change were spellbound. At this point, President Duterte could do no wrong and his popularity soared.
Slowly, however, reality set in and the President’s narrative began to change. In his 2018 SONA, he admitted that the drug war could not be won within six months – not even in one year. In his 2019 SONA, he admitted that he could not solve corruption either. In the SONA delivered last June, he admitted that he underestimated the depth and breadth of both the drug problem and of corruption. He said both were so entrenched in the system that no one could fix them.
The fairy tale that President Duterte sold to the public turned out to be a mirage – an illusion. When it was time to deliver, he either reneged on his promises, made a joke of them or ignored them. In reality, the joke was on us, gullible Filipinos who believed the Duterte narrative. Five years into the administration and the drug trade is thriving, corruption is back with the cold-bloodedness of Satan himself, social injustice is pervasive and political dynasties are more entrenched than ever. As for China’s territorial grab, well, they are allowed to have their way in the West Philippine Sea while Malacañang watches passively without pushback.
I am not sure if President Duterte feels embarrassed about falling flat on his promises. But it begs the question – why make such extravagant promises if the probability of keeping them is less than fair?
It comes down to two factors – his penchant for oversimplifying problems and his proclivity to overestimating his capabilities.
Based on what we have observed of him, the President’s thinking process is linear and simplistic, with an inclination for reducing complex problems into simple equations of cause-and-effect. He oversimplified the drug problem by assuming that the circumstances that were true in Davao when he was mayor are also true for the entire country. That if shock and awe tactics were enough to quell drug distribution in Davao, it should work for the entire country too.
Similarly, he overestimated his capabilities. In the feudal set-up of Davao, guns, goons and gold never fail to solve problems, especially those that relate to criminality. This is not the case on the national level where geographic, diplomatic, constitutional and human rights obstacles stand in the way of bamboozling people into submission.
The same oversimplification was committed in addressing the core problem of the country, poverty. It will be recalled that Mr. Duterte peddled the idea that if only we solve the problems of illegal drugs and criminality, the economy would boom, investors would come in droves, poverty will be eliminated and all of us will be more affluent.
What he failed to consider is that peace and order is only a small part of the equation. There are more important issues that must be addressed to improve the economy, not the least of which is ease in doing business, sanctity of contracts, a non-political legal system, supply chain linkages, labor capacitation, etc.
This oversimplification was a fatal mistake. While precious administrative time and hundreds of billions of pesos were squandered into policing the public, education was neglected, resources for social services were reduced, economic competitiveness took the back seat, efforts to attract foreign investors were benign and our manufacturing industries contracted.
Even the pandemic was oversimplified into a peace and order issue. Unlike more sophisticated governments that utilized science-based methods to quell the contagion, Mr. Duterte decided to impose the world’s longest and most restrictive lockdown. It was a militaristic solution for a health care problem. Not only did the lockdown fail to tame infection, it consigned the economy to five quarters of sharp economic contractions. The Philippines now has the distinction of being the most economically devastated country in Asia with thousands of corporations consigned to bankruptcy. This exemplifies how oversimplification carries dire consequences.
The last five years have taught us not to be gullible towards politicians who make extravagant promises. We should never believe anyone who offers quick-fix solutions to complex problems. There is no short cut to building a strong economy, to forming enduring institutions, to capacitating our youth, to lessening poverty and to strengthening our democracy.
The formula for effective governance has not changed for centuries. It calls for realistic goal setting, data-based strategy formulation, methodical executions of plans, transparency and agility to pivot, when necessary.
Good intentions, popularity and bravura are simply not enough to be an effective leader. Thus, our next president must have more to offer than the best of us. He/she must have a keen understanding of economics, social development principles, foreign policy, technological trends and the law. He/she must posses an analytical mind capable of comprehending complex issues and formulating long-term strategies. Most of all, he/she must respect our democratic processes, our institutions and the rule of law.
Let us remember these hard lessons as we move forward.
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