President Rodrigo Duterte seems to be the President we needed in the 1950’s.
The World Wars have just ended and the financial and political cost of maintaining colonies, whether American or British, became a less feasible project — at least in Southeast Asia. (In reality, the axis of Anglo-American imperialism shifted closer to the borders of Europe, particularly the Middle East.)
Nationalism became the norm in South to East Asia. India declared their independence from Britain in 1947, the People’s Republic of China was born in 1949. Countries ravaged by World War II, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, likewise asserted their independence and the imperial powers that brought them war were all too eager to just give it. And lastly, the United Nations was still in its nascent stages, with the terms of engagement still being written on how exactly one participates in a community of nations. The accounting of historical atrocities have to be made to arrive at some agreement to come together and unite.
Taking the internal view, these former colonies were impaired by colonial infrastructure — projects that served the interests of the imperialists with little regard for the organic economies, networks, and communities of the local populace. Industries were either underdeveloped or non-existent, and cultural norms were supplanted by foreign novels, habits, film, and even food.
The exit of the imperialists left gaping holes in institutions that local state-building had to fill. And here is where and when we could have used a strongman like Duterte, a head of state that is an unapologetic nationalist and ruler of a sovereign people. Even Lee Kuan Yew had to start with caning his people and instituting discipline in a way that is uniquely Confucian, and then ultimately, Singaporean.
At times, I find that Duterte is misunderstood not just for the regional and linguistic peripheries that he comes from. He is also a man out of his time, a post-Colonial strongman in a country 60 years removed from its colonial past. In a way, we deserve him; the promises of independence and sovereignty remain unfulfilled. But in another way, this makes his prospect of governing us anachronistic at best. All the more then that we must reach out to our history, and that the President be clear about the vision of the country he seeks to build.