Speaking before the personnel of the Bureau of Customs last week, President Duterte imparted one clear message: “Live simply.”
Those two words sum up a whole lot. It condenses the ethic of public service as well as the President’s own private philosophy. It may not be a fancy dissertation on bureaucratic reforms, but it goes to the heart of the matter. If public servants lived simply, refused to be ostentatious, they will never be vulnerable to acts of corruption.
Rodrigo Duterte is clearly a man of the old school. His message harks back to the time when public servants were a proud lot, held in high esteem by the community they served. They led their lives with dignity and not with luxury. They worked hard and served their people well. They were humble but respected. The civil service was a passion, not a means for aggrandizement.
Mr. Duterte lives as he preaches. Until events larger than himself intervened, he was quite content building a career as a prosecutor. Before 1986, he recounted once, all he aspired for was to be elevated a magistrate at the Sandiganbayan. His work was his passion. The pay was meager but the satisfaction large.
But the Edsa Revolution intervened. After his mother turned down Cory Aquino’s offer for her to be officer in charge of Davao City, she offered her son to be vice mayor instead. The rest is familiar history. In the succeeding elections, he ran for mayor and won. He has never lost an election since. His constituents loved the leadership he delivered. Now he is President of the Republic.
Through all these, his manner of dress, his language, his habits, his overpowering common sense and his irresistible common touch hardly changed. By remaining himself, he caused change. His hard-nosed approach to problems of governance, his irrepressible language and his utter casualness earned him the love of his people.
His needs are pretty paltry. He obviously hates dressing up, famously refusing to reconcile with closed collars. He will survive, as he always did, on common fare: the comfort food that 99 percent of Filipinos enjoy. He is the ultimate unadorned political leader, drawing joy from the company of common folk. He is lifted by the opportunity to serve others and help the powerless. He is never comfortable with the stilted language of speeches prepared for the presidential podium, and regularly discards them in favor of impromptu banter.
His predecessors loved the President’s Social Fund, a discretionary purse useful for buying favors and financing allies. When Pagcor turned in P2 billion for the President’s Social Fund, Mr. Duterte instinctively had the money divided up evenly between the Department of Health and the Department of Social Welfare and Development. The funds were to be used to purchase medicines for indigents and relief for those ravaged by calamity and to rehabilitate drug dependents.
He cringed visibly at all the accolades delivered along with another paper’s award for Man of the Year. The ceremonies were held in Davao last week. All his life he never solicited praise. He draws fulfillment only from the thought that he had somehow been of help to those who needed it.
Once, describing his 72-year trek through life, he paraphrased a poet: One step at a time, and that, well placed made him reach the grandest height… One stroke at a time, his good deeds slowly came to light… One seed at a time and his forest grew… One drop at a time and his rivers flowed into the boundless sea… where he now navigates the nation’s ship through the tempers of the storms and the tides.
Rodrigo Duterte does not ask for much and does not need much more. The thought that consumes him is that the nation he is sworn to serve will be a better place when he leaves than when he found it. That brings to his leadership a certain single-mindedness and a large dose of courage.
He is not in office to wheel and deal with entrenched interests or to trade horses with those who feel entitled. He is a common man who genuinely feels for the disadvantaged. That is his moral compass.