As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visits Malaysia today, Malaysians will have a chance to observe at close quarters as he continues to both fascinate and mystify Filipinos and foreigners alike in the short few months he has been in office.
The Philippines can appear to casual observers as a rather chaotic place and its new president — through both words and deeds thus far — can look like he is a disciple
of the management theory about thriving on chaos.
Almost true to form, Duterte welcomed to the presidential palace last week Nur Misuari, the former governor of Muslim Mindanao turned fugitive, in hiding the past few years for much violent rabble-rousing, the most recent of which left some 200 dead and thousands displaced in Zamboanga City.
Misuari missed no chance in immediately letting rip an outrageous swipe against Malaysia for being behind the spate of kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf group, a charge since dismissed outright by Malaysian officials and the Philippine military.
The timing of the Duterte-Misuari meeting may be unfortunate, coming as it did on the eve of the presidential visit to Malaysia, where the progress of the Mindanao peace process and other threats to regional peace will top the agenda.
But, Duterte should get the benefit of any Malaysian doubt. He had wanted to personally meet Misuari for some time and back-channel negotiations might only now be bearing fruit.
Duterte’s peace bona-fides on the surface appear sound. He is starting out by offering, statesman-like, olive branches to the country’s many peace antagonists, be they communist or Muslim rebels.
The only group Duterte has publicly stated he will give no quarter is the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping menace stalking his country, Malaysia and Indonesia. Taking this group on may require that Duterte keep his powder dry, especially as it operates in the same lawless turf that is Misuari’s traditional but splintered stronghold in the Sulu archipelago.
But, let Misuari be under no illusion that what Duterte offers is but a temporary personal respite to be used or abused (as seems the former’s wont till now) at his own peril.
Malaysia appears to be the last leg of Duterte’s initial regional swing. Apart from China and Japan, he has already visited Brunei and Indonesia, the other two nations in the Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines — East Asean Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) that seeks to bind his native Mindanao economically closer with Sabah and Sarawak, among others.
Some of Duterte’s key economic advisers today are the same ones who served under former president Fidel Ramos whose brainchild BIMP-EAGA is. The first Philippine president from Mindanao should provide fresh impetus to BIMP-EAGA’s revival.
Economic matters should be the twin pillar to regional peace and security issues that will highlight Duterte’s bilateral discussions with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak. In the words of outgoing Philippine ambassador to Malaysia Jose Eduardo Malaya, both countries enjoy a healthy two-way flow of trade and investments. Bilateral merchandise trade totalled US$4.64 billion (RM19.5 billion) last year, noted the envoy, with exports to Malaysia at US$1.2 billion and imports from Malaysia at US$3.44 billion.
As the Philippines under Duterte embarks on a frenzy of key infrastructure projects, including airports, seaports and highways, there will be opportunities for Malaysian companies — some of which are already active in the country — to participate, particularly through both solicited and unsolicited proposals under public-private partnerships.
The Malaysian private sector has occasionally been somewhat confused and even stymied by the political and business culture in the Philippines to participate much more meaningfully there. Many Malaysians, business ones included, quietly applaud Duterte’s controversial, take-no-prisoner approach to matters of internal law and order, believing that the political will to tackle such matters has been sorely lacking before.
As close neighbours separated only by common and often troubled seas, Malaysia and the Philippines have their fates intimately intertwined. They need to have each other’s back much more than it has been till now.
Insofar as the Philippines under Duterte look within the neighbourhood rather than much further afield for more realistic and effective answers to its own peculiar problems as well as those common to both countries, Malaysia and the Philippines may be embarking on a new era in bilateral relations.
As Ambassador Malaya somewhat poignantly concludes: “I am happy to receive President Duterte before I wind up my stint in Kuala Lumpur. It is extraordinary and personally fulfilling for an ambassador to have welcomed and assisted two presidents during his tour of duty.”
John Teo views developments in the nation, region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak