To be Maximum Leader requires demonstrations of stamina. The President’s second State of the Nation Address was a performance echoing Fidel Castro and Sukarno in their heyday: extemporaneous, combative, multi-hour speeches became proof that they were the masters of all they surveyed. The Sona had been preceded by repeated demonstrations of the new pecking order, applying to both enemies and uppity friends alike, either for forgetting their proper place as subordinates, or for their independence: Ongpin, Laviña, Sueno, Floirendo, Wongchuking, de Lima, to name just a few, have thus all paid the price for incurring the President’s ire.
But if his list of conquests is long, it can be longer. And if he has had to accommodate his coalition in the past, he shows little inclination to be burdened by their needs in the future. So in Monday’s address he announced his new Order of Battle: Congress, had it done more listening and less applauding, would have noticed the President praise Gina Lopez right before he launched a blistering attack on mining that seemed specifically aimed at Manuel Pangilinan, without naming him, which then turned into an attack on the remaining media organizations he perceives as unsuitably — and thus treasonously — unimpressed with his administration: Rappler and ABS-CBN. And, lest anyone think that the United States has regained leverage due to the Battle of Marawi, he scored an easy win by demanding the return of the Balangiga bells, while categorizing the West in general, and the European Union, the International Criminal Court, and human rights organizations in particular, as rapist-coddling, hypocritical Onanists (to put it mildly). Communists and Lumads, he announced, now have him as foe, not friend.
In olden days this is probably how rajahs boasted during feasts. Reuben Canoy in his history of Mindanao pointed out that unlike Tagalogs or Visayans, where leadership was chosen on the basis of “age, wisdom or magical powers,” leadership in Mindanao was selected on the basis of “bravery and skill as warriors;” succession to the throne was based on prowess rather than lineage, with conflicting claims settled either through combat or decision by elders.
The historian Mina Roces, for her part, suggests the way to understand our politics lies in understanding our culture’s affinity for “malakas,” contempt for “mahina,” and the way one’s status as “malakas” or “mahina” is demonstrated — through “palakasan:” “Malakas implies special status, blatantly stressing the inequalities in the social structure between those in power and those out of power. But malakas status is not dependent on social or economic class (although one could argue it represents the current political class, a position far from being static, as family alliances constantly move in and out of political office). Since the criterion for malakas status is solely political power, a wealthy person can lose out to a relatively poor but more influential family alliance. A group of squatters in a Manila slum area may be malakas because they have close ties with the mayor and therefore feel no threat of eviction. The person who owns the land illegally occupied by the squatters, though wealthy, has no hope of retrieving his or her land or of evicting the squatters as long as these squatters maintain their malakas status vis-a-vis the mayor …” This is in contrast with the importance the West places on objectivity, impersonal, professional institutions and even Christian empathy.
The demonstration of chiefdom didn’t end when the President concluded his address. That was only the opening in what proved to be a three-part drama. The second part was his going out into the streets. Not since 1939 has a president personally confronted militants in a public place. The usual practice is for the Left to be summoned to the Palace to be courted, or administered a dressing-down, or both. So when the President proceeded from the Session Hall of the House of Representatives to give as good as he got from militants gathered in the streets, he was tapping into a kind of subconscious political memory that stretches back not just to the Commonwealth, but to prehispanic times.
The third part was the press conference he held, in which he repeated the main theme of the day. It was not, as his unfortunate communications people had hoped (they received presidential mockery of the director and speechwriter for their troubles), “a comfortable life for all.” Instead, the theme was, “Don’t tread on me.”