Mahathir and Duterte: a world of contrasts
I always attend meetings. It’s my duty,” said Malaysia’s 93-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a survivor of elective coronary bypass surgery, amid the “nap-gate” affair in Singapore. President Duterte, 20 years his junior, apparently was too tired to attend more than half of the scheduled meetings during the opening day of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit last week.
Malacañang was quick to defend the President’s no-show by saying he was too tired from work earlier and needed “power naps.” Never mind that power naps are supposed to be under an hour before slow-wave sleep (SWS) kicks in, and that the Philippines occupies a crucial role as the Asean-China coordinator.
In an almost irritated tone, Mr. Duterte was quick to shut down any criticism by stating, “What’s wrong with my nap?” He sought to justify his absence from the Asean leaders’ informal breakfast meeting with Australia by half-quipping, “What will they feed us if it’s informal? Kangaroo?”
Back in March, he was the only Asean leader to skip the Asean-Australia Special Summit in Sydney, because he was supposedly too tired to travel, only to have multiple foreign visits right after.
Soon, the whole thing became the joke of the town. Days later, even Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who was hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit, chimed in, repeatedly asking the Filipino leader whether he had “a good sleep” and “a good rest.”
Mr. Duterte apparently said, “yeah” — but still skipped the Apec gala meeting later. To be fair, much shouldn’t be made out of no-shows alone. After all, US President Donald Trump didn’t even bother to attend the Asean and Apec summits.
Moreover, Mr. Duterte is in his older years and has been grappling with many ailments. If he is truly unwell, it’s more than justified that he skips long, arduous travels.
Scratch below the surface, however, and one realizes that this isn’t about “power naps” alone. And perhaps here, at a more fundamental level, lies the difference not only between the two “strongmen” of Asia, but also the Philippines and Malaysia.
In one country, a strong-willed, workaholic leader constantly pushes the boundaries of personal and national ambition, even as he inches closer to a century of life on earth. In another, too many people are happy to make excuses, no matter how incredulous and fantastical, for a leader’s inadequacies, even when what’s in question is the lack of basic professionalism.
As Mahathir made it clear, the highest office in the land is not a personal possession, but instead an institution that comes with basic duties.
In one country, a tough-talking leader stands up to both Eastern and Western superpowers for the national interest of his country. In another, the leader is more than happy to embrace China out of irritation with Western criticism, even if the former is a direct rival in maritime and territorial disputes.
Anyone with basic familiarity with the Malaysian leader knows that he spent much of his early years in office standing up to the West in order to protect the sovereignty of smaller nations. He was more than happy to snub American presidents such as Reagan and get into eloquent verbal spats with Australian prime ministers.
Today, he is doing exactly the same thing, except vis-à-vis a new regional hegemon. During his visit to Beijing in August, Mahathir bluntly told his Chinese hosts that he is worried about “new imperialism” from the East.
Since his return to office earlier this year, Mahathir has pushed for cancellation and/or renegotiation of large-scale infrastructure deals with China, including the $10bn Melaka Gateway, the $20bn East Coast Rail Link, and the $2.5bn natural gas pipeline led by a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corp.
As one of Mahathir’s advisers told me earlier this year, the Malaysian leader wants to make it clear that “we are not a Chinese lackey,” and will push for “transparent and mutually beneficial” deals that will create quality employment and growth for Malaysians.
Now, contrast that with the policy and rhetoric of Mahathir’s counterpart in Manila. Now you know why Malaysia is where it is compared to the Philippines.
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