Donald Trump’s election has the Philippine president singing a different tune

Rodrigo Duterte Philippines singing karaoke
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte singing karaoke during a state visit in Malaysia, November 11, 2016. Philippines Office of Presidential Communication/YouTube

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been in office for just a few months, but he has made clear his opinion of the current US president, calling Obama a “son of a bitch” ahead of a regional summit in September.

Duterte expressed regret, and the two leaders met on the sidelines of that event.

But the US-Philippine relationship has continued to be strained by Duterte’s rhetoric and his hostility to the longstanding political and military relationship between the two countries.

Duterte, however, seems keen on the US president-elect.

On Wednesday, speaking during a visit to Malaysia, Duterte said, “I would like to congratulate President Trump,” before declaring amid cheers, “Long live, Mr. Trump! We both curse at the slightest of reasons. We are alike.”

“We are both making curses,” Duterte said. “Even with trivial matters we curse. I was supposed to stop because Trump is there. I don’t want to quarrel anymore, because Trump has won.”

Duterte’s two-day trip to Malaysia had something of a festive air. 

Duterte sung a karaoke rendition of Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” and performed a karaoke duet with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, belting out “Sha-La-La-La-La,” a hit from the 1970s by Danish rockers The Walkers.

Public singing is something of past time in the Philippines, and karaoke machines are common features in Filipino homes. According to The New York Times, Duterte was sometimes seen in the karaoke bars of Davao City, the southern Philippine city where he was mayor for much of the last 30 years, where he was known to belt out Frank Sinatra songs while packing a .38 pistol.

The official statement released by Duterte’s office was more measured than his comments in Malaysia, but it still expressed more warmth than many of Duterte’s comments about the US in the past.

“The United States’ presidential elections is a testament to the enduring traditions of its democratic system and the American way of life,” the statement, issued by the Presidential Communications Office, read.

“The two-party system gives American voters freedom of choice based on party platforms, not just on personalities,” it went on, adding:

“President Duterte wishes President-elect Trump success in the next four years as Chief Executive and commander-in chief of the U.S. military, and looks forward to working with the incoming administration for enhanced Philippines-US relations anchored on mutual respect, mutual benefit and shared commitment to democratic ideals and the rule of law.”

Many have noted the similarities in the personalities and pronouncements of Duterte and Trump, and Trump has drawn comparisons to the Philippine leader throughout his campaign.

Despite Duterte’s enthusiasm about Trump’s election, the mood among Philippine policymakers has been mixed.

Duterte’s advisers, like their counterparts elsewhere in the world, looked at the looming Trump presidency with more uncertainty.

“Candidates and presidents are two different people. So we will … have to wait and see what policies a Trump presidency will implement” Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said this week, according to ABS-CBN News.

The Philippines, where an English-speaking labour force is available for lower wages than those demanded in the US, has grown in appeal for US companies and been the recipient of many outsourced jobs in recent years.

Trump’s promises to return to the US jobs that have gone abroad has stirred concern in the Philippines, as have his promises to crackdown on immigration, which could affect the flow of remittances.

In the face of that Trump-inspired uncertainty, however, some in the Philippines have heralded Duterte’s turn to China.

“We have a safety net … [Duterte] foresaw that there’s this likelihood of Trump becoming president, so he decided to pivot to China,” Ernesto Pernia, the director general of the Philippine National Economic and Development Authority, said, according to ABS-CBN News. “Instead of depending on the US to a great extent, we are now diversifying our friends.”

Others are less confident in the Philippines’ economic position between the Asian and American giants.

Joey Salceda, a member of the Philippine House of Representatives and an economist, told ABS-CBN News that the US economy still outstrips the Chinese economy, and Manila would have no choice but to deal with Washington.

“The protectionism applies does not only to the trade, but it also applies to the flow of new ideas and new technology,” Salceda said. “So it’s very negative for the world, very negative for the Philippines.”

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