When Donald Trump decided to repudiate the Iran nuclear deal, the world groaned in agony. Well, President Duterte has done a Trump by unilaterally abrogating the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and there have been loud local and international groans as well. The narrative that Mr. Duterte and Trump are disruptive political innovations in their respective countries has continued since they came onto their countries’ presidential positions. In the Philippines, true Duterte believers have exalted him as a disruptive political innovation in a recently published book.
“Disruption” happens when a new supplier undercuts established suppliers of products and services who have ceased to become attentive and responsive to the needs of most customers because they have focused attention to the needs of their most demanding and profitable customers. Disruptive innovations undercut established products by being cheaper, simpler, and easier to use. Disruptive political innovations, on the other hand, disrupt the established political order.
But disruptive political innovators like Mr. Duterte are often stymied by the nature of the product they promise — good governance. Easy to get elected to high political office, but nearly impossible to deliver good performance under existing frustrating social conditions. Good governance requires designing and installing effective, responsive, accountable systems, not a silver bullet directed at cherry-picked acoustic enemies while ignoring the root causes of the wicked problems. And these disruptive political innovations quickly transition from the dramatic solutions to wicked problems themselves.
Faced with the failed promises of Mr. Duterte on the homestretch, Filipinos have created their own social innovations to survive his leadership. The paltry assistance from government and foreign donors during the Taal eruption has induced innovations in self-help and mutual help, from home-made face masks to evacuation homestay arrangements. The Duterte helplessness to abate traffic congestion has found relief in the people’s response to the Uber-Grab-Angkas business models. Crime and corruption, including drugs and extrajudicial killings, have made CCTVs a mainstay in civilizing and taming urban street life, featured daily in television news. “Ukay-ukay” has been a sustainable way of keeping families well-clothed. Instant noodles have enabled construction workers and poor students to buy food with their meager pay or allowance.
While Trump is also theatrical in criticizing his enemies, Mr. Duterte appears to need to slap somebody or something in the face every now and then. He tried to do this with Taal Volcano, but Taal turned silent, apparently browbeaten into premature submission by presidential threats. Then Mr. Duterte also sought to slap COVID-19, and unluckily so far, he has not had a face-to-face confrontation with it.
It is different for the other targets of Mr. Duterte’s wrath. Fernando Zobel de Ayala of Manila Water, Manuel V. Pangilinan of Maynilad, and Eugenio Lopez III of ABS-CBN are not rhetorical opponents. They are all “slappable,” and Mr. Duterte has made good his threats, advancing to legal action against them.
But the biggest slap in the face has been reserved by Mr. Duterte for the US government. Apparently, despite the absurd justification for this action, slapping the US government has given many a Filipino some vicarious satisfaction for the many real or perceived hurts received in the hands of Uncle Sam.
The most interesting disruptive innovation to issue from the abrogation of the VFA may have to come from the Philippine defense community. What is the replacement of Americans made available through the VFA? Can the Philippine defense establishment contract American defense contractors to which Uncle Sam outsources many of its military services in the Philippines anyway? Or would Chinese and Russian contractors give us more value for money? Is this perhaps a good way to spend much of the intelligence funds that have been concentrated by this administration in selected agencies and offices?
Or maybe retired Filipino officers can put up private corporations that can now provide essential and critical services to the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. This is exactly how the Australian defense forces have reduced the number of officers and men in uniform in the defense sector as early as the 1990s, by relying on retired officers to provide logistical, maintenance, mess, information communication technology, and other support services. The point is, one does not have to be a soldier to overhaul a tank, or manage a military parts supply depot.
But the biggest need for disruptive political innovation is our electoral and political party systems that have structured and influenced the determination of the people’s voice, with disastrous consequences so far. If a Duterte-like disruption occurs again in May 2022, without a countervailing political systemic response, that looks more like a continuing disaster, not an innovation.
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