Former Davao City Mayor turned presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte continues to baffle critics and political rivals alike. Despite lacing his miting de avance speech with expletives, bragging about his womanising, cursing Pope Francis, and, again, vowing to kill suspected criminals, Duterte continues to attract a growing following. What is the source of his seeming immunity to public indignation and the moralising admnonishments of the Philippines’ powerful political and religious establishments?
Renowned intellectual and risk management guru Nassim Nicholas Taleb has long espoused the concept of the “antifragile” – people and systems that “gain from disorder”. He goes further to define the concept, saying that “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” An example of an antifragile system is our immune system. The more our immune systems are exposed to pathogens (viruses and bacteria that cause diseases), the stronger it becomes.
A fragile system on the other hand may create the illusion of stability. But this stability is held together by tightly-woven interdependencies between elements within such systems which makes it prone to catastrophic failure if one of those key elements goes astray. For example, an approach to avoiding disease and infection that relies on keeping yourself medicated with a cocktail of antibiotics and cocooning yourself in an artificial environment sustained by airconditioners with surfaces and implements kept clean with antiseptic solutions is unsustainable. Failure of even just one of these artificial measures can spell serious trouble for your atrophied natural immune system.
Stepping up to a more macro level, think of how a dictatorship such as the one overseen by the late former President Ferdinand Marcos was held together by a tight alliance of mutual back-scratching cronies and oligarchs. Though the Marcos regime was sustained as the Philippines’ “normal” state of affairs for two decades, it rapidly unravelled within three years of the assassination of Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr in 1983 then all came crashing down in 1986 when just two key Marcos henchmen — then General Fidel Ramos and then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile — defected.
Today is no different to the Marcos years, except that the unholy alliance amongst the Philippines’ supposedly rival political groups and clans is held together by a less visible glue — money. Indeed, the pork barrel scam that erupted in 2012 following the impeachment of former Chief Justice Renato Corona revealed how politicians of different camps colluded to the tune of tens of millions of pesos in public funds dangled before them by President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III. This too proved to be a fragile stability which quickly shattered political alliances when the money supply dried up as increased public scrutiny bore down on the budget appropriation process as a result of the scandal.
Now, several senators are in jail and many others are scrambling to one-up and slander one another in the all-too-familiar public relations contests that typically characterise lead-ups to national elections. Indeed, no less than President BS Aquino is likely to be fearful of the prospect of being thrown into jail himself if he fails to install a trusted ally in Malacanang after 2016! Not only is President BS Aquino culpable for the porky use of funds illegally-appropriated thanks to Budget Secretary Butch Abad’s creative accounting expertise, he is also the mastermind behind a treasonous deal made with the terrorist Moro Islamic Liberation Front to carve out a chunk of Mindanao into an “autonomous” Bangsamoro “nation”.
It is onto the backdrop of these shenanigans of the Philippines’ traditional political establishment of crooked oligarchs and clansmen that Rodrigo Duterte walks in. Duterte has (perhaps shrewdly, if he had planned it this way) styled himself the Antifragile Presidential Candidate. Because Duterte embraces both good and bad publicity and lays it all on the table before the public, warts and all that is good and bad about his character, he grows stronger as more controversy surrounds him. He is the antithesis of the pretentious ‘pagmamalinis’ hypocrisy of traditional politicians in that he wears all the ugliness of what he stands for in public for all to see.
This is what makes Duterte impervious to the traditional political mudslinging of Philippine election campaigns. Being himself muddied enough by his own track record of unapologetic in-your-face misogyny, xenophobic drumbeating, contempt for due process, and the all-around buffoonery in the way he conducts himself (all of which he’s packaged into his campaign platform), any further mud slinged at him by rivals and critics merely adds to the mystique of his character. It’s like how in the movie The Empire Strikes Back, Princess Leia tells Han Solo about the times he actually comes across as charming… “Occasionally, maybe… when you aren’t acting like a scoundrel,” on which Han Solo quizzically reflects, “Scoundrel? … Scoundrel?” Then with a smile confirms to the Princess, “I like the sound of that.”