PH’s Duterte vs SG’s Lee: A world of contrasts

When asked about South Korea’s remarkable success in containing a large-scale epidemic without any large-scale lockdown, that country’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, proudly emphasized: “The basic principle is openness, transparency, and fully keeping the public informed. And I think this is paying off.”

Far from demanding uncritical support for the government in tough times, she underscored the importance of a vigilant and critical thinking citizenry in ensuring maximum government accountability and effectiveness: “And I have to say our public is very demanding and expects the highest standards from government services. And I think this is the key.”Though South Korea failed the preventative phase, it succeeded in flattening the curve through mass testing and cutting-edge public information campaigns without locking down any major city.


South Korea’s governance has always fascinated me, considering the fact that the country transitioned to democracy not too long after we toppled our own dictatorship. Since then, the Asian country hasn’t only sustained remarkable technological advancement, it has also transformed itself into one of the freest and most innovative nations on earth. The country’s current president, Moon Jae-in, is a former human rights lawyer, one among a large number of former activists, including Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, who have come to dominate South Korea’s political landscape in recent years.

Instead of emulating the Korean model, however, President Duterte’s cronies have often cited Singapore as their paradigmatic point of reference. After all, our current president is more known (or rather notorious) for allegations of crimes against humanity than being a champion of human rights a la South Korea’s leading statesmen.


As Alan Peter Cayetano confidently boasted during Mr. Duterte’s early months: “The Philippines is becoming more like Singapore in terms of being able to walk the streets at any time at night.” Never mind that few of my Singaporean colleagues in the academe, media, and beyond who are accustomed to rule “of” law find anything familiar in the wanton violence that has gripped Manila’s streets in recent years.

Toward the end of last week, Mr. Duterte and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave their respective speeches on the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic. The speeches were both a reflection as well as a metaphor for the mind-boggling differences not only in style, but also in substance of leadership, between the two leaders.

Though speaking in three languages, and sincerely adopting the sociolingual nuances of each community, Lee kept his national address succinct, lucid, and compassionate. There were smiles, avuncular hand gestures, and countless moments of human connection. The son of the legendary Lee Kuan Yew called for national unity in the face of a common threat, carefully explaining, based on latest scientific data, the need for policy changes and new restrictions on the domestic economy.

“It will be a long fight. But if any country can see this through, it is Singapore,” he said. “We have the resources. We have the determination. We are united. By helping one another through this, we will prevail, and emerge stronger.”

For months, Singapore has avoided a large-scale lockdown, thanks to extremely proactive preventative measures, including the imposition of strict travel restrictions on passengers from China throughout January. As epidemiologists such as Benjamin Cowling and Wey Wen Lim explain, this went hand in hand with state-of-the-art contact tracing as well as the rapid establishment of quarantine centers to prevent large-scale intra-community transmission.

As for the Duterte administration, not only did it resist imposing strict travel restrictions early on, but the President himself projected a dismissive attitude toward the crisis way into mid-March: “I’ve been told to—masyado naman takot itong corona na ito… Naniwala pala kayo. Sus,” he declared.

In his latest national address, we still heard far less about science and data, the President instead hurling personal insults against the country’s leading human rights lawyer, Chel Diokno.


In fairness, Mr. Duterte stood by Vice President Leni Robredo amid preposterous criticisms against her valiant efforts to help frontliners. Still, his leadership so far has been nowhere near what we see in Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, or Vietnam.

As the political scientist Samuel Huntington observed, often what’s more important than the “type” of government are the “degrees” of competence in leadership and governance displayed by leaders.

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TAGS: Coronavirus Pandemic, COVID-19, Horizons, Lee Hsien Loong, Richard Heydarian, Rodrigo Duterte
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