Dubai: As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his final State of the Nation Address (Sona) on Monday, Filipinos in the UAE also aired their views on how the populist leader, with a penchant for skewed humour and strong-arm rule, has fared in the last five years.
It was the sixth and last Sona for Duterte, who is barred from seeking re-election next year. Without a doubt, he remained popular among Filipinos, particularly those outside the country or the so-called OFWs (overseas Filipino workers). But there were also criticisms on how he handled the COVID-19 pandemic, his bloody war on drugs, stand on issues surrounding Philippine territories in the West Philippine Sea, programmes for the OFWs and his latest pronouncement to run as vice-president in the next national elections.
‘Much could have been done’
For Atty Barney Almazar, finance expert and director at the corporate-commercial department of Gulf Law, “much could have been done and faster by Pres Duterte for the OFWs”. Almazar said Duterte’s promise to create a separate government line agency for OFWs or the Department of Filipinos Overseas has yet to be realised. “Now, more than ever, OFWs who are stranded in foreign lands need assistance that could have been addressed by the department had it been prioritised,” Almazar asserted.
He added: “Another thing that could have been done is the abolition of exit pass or the overseas employment certificate (OEC). Silvestre Bello III Lab, the Philippine Labour Secretary, has acknowledged that graduates are competent and so, requiring them to pass a professional exam will be a superfluous. And yet, our OFWs who are mostly graduates and professionals are required to get an exit pass to work abroad.
“There is also the OFW ID program, which, way back in 2017, was said to be the best gift of the president to the OFWs. But what happened to it? From the beginning, it was very clear that the people behind it did not really know the needs of those they had to serve. If it was truly of such high importance that they justified the curtailment of the constitutional right to travel, how come its implementation was suspended until now?”, continued Almazar, who offers monthly free legal aid at the Philippine Embassy in Abu Dhabi and Philippine Consulate in Dubai.
‘Positive things Duterte has done’
Ronald Awa, 56, who has been living in Dubai for 27 years, also assessed the hits and misses of the Duterte administration. Awa told Gulf News: “Duterte’s love for all OFWs and families back home is nonstop. He cares so much and he is working to eradicate the drug menace and problems in the country. He is sincere in curbing corruption in the government.
“He fulfilled his promises, but not all Filipinos still understand his style of leadership. He handled the pandemic well, but the lack of funds made it more difficult to solve the problems. He also resorted to trial-and-error style of solving the pandemic (which resulted to inconsistencies in government policies),” added Awa, who considers himself as neither a diehard Duterte supporter nor a critic.
For Filipino community volunteer and entrepreneur Fevie Laurilla, 41, “Duterte did a very good job despite all the challenges to his war on drugs, issues in the West Philippine Sea, inherent corruption in the government and the current pandemic. We Filipinos are very fortunate to have a strong president in these trying times. But despite all his efforts, he admittedly fell short on most of his promises — like ending the war on drugs, which he began since Day One of his presidency,” Laurilla added.
Lyne Catedrilla, a Filipino nanny who has been working in Dubai for more than 15 years, also said: “Since Duterte came to power, we have seen a decline in illegal drugs in the Philippines. But there is a more pressing issue and that is solving the COVID-19 pandemic. Duterte said the health and safety protocol that were in place have proved to be effective in slowing down the spread of the virus, but the best solution is still vaccination and the government has to fastrack the inoculation programme.”
The pandemic and Duterte’s response
Before stepping down next year, the drug war — which Duterte said still has a ‘long way to go’ despite the controversial crackdown that has killed thousands of people — the continuing pandemic and the possibility that his daughter will succeed him next year were the other key concerns of Filipino expatriate Bryan Cabugsa. Cabugsa, who is also a Migrante-UAE coordinator, said: “OFWs have been suffering a lot since the pandemic broke out. Many of us were retrenched from work, others received wage cuts and were subjected to ‘no-work, no-pay’ rule. The pandemic and Duterte’s response to it further exposed the grave inequalities in our country. The vaccination programme was inadequate and many Filipinos lost their sources of livelihood because of extended lockdowns.”
Cabugsa also criticised the “small and delayed financial assistance” extended by the Philippine government to OFWs during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, for Ahmad Jumar Taurac, 31, another important issue that Duterte has failed to address during his term is the rehabilitation of war-torn Marawi, a city in southern Philippines — once a centre of Islamic grandeur and tradition — that was razed to the ground after the Daesh-inspired Maute group laid siege to the city during Ramadan in 2017.
Taura, who is from Marawi, commented: “It’s really heart-breaking — many people are still wondering when they can return to their homeland? Some have been given assistance, but others are left to fend for themselves despite the billions of pesos poured into the city rehabilitation programme.”
Duterte’s last Sona?
Film director Patrick Fronda, a UAE resident for 13 years, has a more biting assessment of President Duterte and has also raised an alarm over the president’s agenda to have another Duterte in Malacanang.
Fronda told Gulf News: “I hope and I pray that this will be Duterte’s final year in office because our Constitution is very clear that a president only has a six-year term. But because there are political rumours that his daughter, Sara, will run for the highest position next year, I doubt if he will ever retire from public office. Maybe, Duterte wants to seek criminal immunity because of the possibility that he will be indicted by the International Criminal Court for the human rights abuses and bloody war on drugs,” Fronda said.
He continued: “Overall, Duterte’s five years in office have never been good. Corruption in the government has remained unabated. There were also many abuses like the shutdown of media giant ABS-CBN; and his handling of the COVID pandemic was very poor. Many Filipinos, including the OFWS, have been suffering from continuing lockdown.”
Art Los Banos, a public relations professional, added: “President Duterte’s admission that the drug problem and corruption are still widespread and cannot be contained will become critical issues in next year’s presidential candidates. If a purported strongman like Duterte is unable to address the situation then how can any candidate assure voters that he or she will be more effective in combating the drug menace and corruption within the government apparatus, including the police and military organisations?”.
Change is needed
Dr Rex Bacarra, campus academic head and director for administrative services at Southville-RAK, the first Filipino college in the UAE, noted: “I have always looked at President Duterte as necessary for transition — from a society beset with corruption and oligarchy to a nation that is determined to change. He should be replaced by someone who can give clarity and create an environment of physical and emotional safety for Filipinos.”
Bacarra, who voted for Duterte, added: “I always considered Duterte’s leadership as strategically transitional — one that shocks and jolts into making us realise that change is possible. Governments do not depend on one person, but the succession of leaders with the right intentions.
"In that context, I can say President Duterte fared well. There were unfulfilled promises, true, but it is not about what he accomplished, but what he has shown us, that it is possible to have the willpower and nerve to fight; to aspire and hammer on for a change. For me, this was Duterte’s role, and now it is time for him to now let go.”