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Speak Of The Week: President Rodrigo Duterte

Speak Of The Week: President Rodrigo Duterte

 “Speak of the Week” is our new feature on the Speakers’ Spotlight blog, which spotlights what we feel were the most impactful words spoken, from anywhere in the world, over the previous seven days.

This week, there were two contenders for the column: the disparaging remarks about US President Barack Obama made by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, or the hustle-and-bustle of “back to school” (which took over the lives of so many parents, caregivers, and kids this week), which led us to think about the inspiration that can come from education, as famously epitomized by Robin Williams as teacher John Keating in The Dead Poet’s Society (watch a clip here).

Quite a few members of our team understandably leaned toward The Dead Poet’s Society, as rarely has someone brought words to life as brilliantly as Williams does over and over again in this inspiring film. As our group spoke further, however, it was hard to disagree that while President Duterte’s words were anything but inspiring, they were nevertheless strong enough to have caused President Obama to cancel his planned bilateral meeting with Duterte at the G20 conference in Hangzhou, China, earlier this week.

What was it, exactly, that caused Obama’s cancellation? During a press scrum, Duterte threatened to curse out Obama if, during their then-upcoming meeting, Obama raised the issue of extrajudicial killings by Philippine authorities in their recent, sweeping crackdown on drug trafficking (it is estimated that since Duterte took office ten weeks ago, the death-toll related to anti-drug policing under his watch is 2,927, with many bystanders as young as four years old caught in the crossfire).

Speaking to the reporters, Duterte, who just took office in June, said that the Philippines is a “sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony.” Adding, “I do not have any master except the Filipino people, nobody but nobody. You must be respectful. Do not just throw questions. ‘Putang ina,’ I will swear at you in that forum.” (Putang ina is the Tagalog phrase for “son of a bitch” or “son of a whore”.)

Obama’s abrupt cancelation after hearing of the remarks caused the Philippine government to back-peddle, issuing two statements expressing regret for Duterte’s comments (Duterte’s own explanation for the remarks – that they were not directed at Obama personally) has been largely dismissed as insincere–not least in part because he has used similar words when discussing the United Nations and Pope Francis before.

At the close of the G20 summit, Obama himself took a balanced approach to the situation, calling Duterte a “colourful guy” who has used “colorful statements” in the past. Nevertheless, the situation shows that words have consequences that often impact far more than just the person using them. In this case, Duterte’s comments damaged not just his own reputation on the world stage, but also put the relationship between the Philippines and the world’s greatest super-power at risk.

While it might be said that when it comes to Obama himself “sticks and stones can break his bones, but words can never hurt him,” the same might not be said for those under Duterte’s command.