Gary Domingo: ‘One should not dismiss President Duterte as a crackpot’

New Zealand and the Philippines suffer from “Cinderella syndrome”, says Gary Domingo, Philippines Ambassador to New Zealand.

Philippines Ambassador to New Zealand Jesus (Gary) Domingo is one of the more vocal Asian ambassadors based in Wellington, and is particularly active on Twitter and Facebook. In this interview, he shares his views on the New Zealand-Philippines relationship, the global perception of Duterte and New Zealand’s export education system.

What are some preconceived notions that New Zealanders have of the Philippines and Filipinos?

There’s a split-level perception. At the institutional level, lousy. On the ground, pretty good.

Both New Zealand and the Philippines suffer from “Cinderella syndrome”. Cinderella is overshadowed by her step-sisters.

As an example from this side, there was an [ASEAN-focussed] event recently. All the ASEAN embassies and high commissions were requested to chip in for that event. Okay. Looking at the programme, was there anything focussing on the Philippines, aside from just in passing? No. 

Then they got our flag wrong. They displayed all the other ASEAN flags correctly except for the flag of the Philippines. It took them an hour to fix it. [Editor’s note: The flag was hung upside-down, which would normally indicate the country is in a state of war.]

That’s what I mean by Cinderella syndrome. When you talk about Southeast Asia or ASEAN, the New Zealand establishment, meaning government and business, will look first at our step-sisters. But will they talk in such fora about our advantage – our 50,000 Filipinos here, the largest among ASEAN nationalities by far? No, they won’t.

On the ground level, the perception by New Zealanders is positive if their encounters are driven by daily interactions – if they have Filipino workmates, neighbours, schoolmates, or their children have schoolmates.

If it’s driven by media, it will be negative. But on the balance perception is still positive because our people are in sectors that are well-received, such as dairy, construction, nursing, care and IT. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised issues of values at the ASEAN Summit. What were your thoughts on that?

It’s quite an adventure for foreign leaders with respect to how they engage President Rodrigo Duterte on human rights. 

It’s a tightrope. Leaders’ constituencies would expect them to address extrajudicial killings. In the West, there’s an expectation that you can engage just like that.

You want to talk about human rights? Guantanamo, or rabbit-proof fence ... How are African-Americans doing in the US? Who are you to talk about human rights with us? 

But with credit to New Zealand, Kiwis deeply appreciate the cultural things behind the scenes. There’s a way to engage our president on human rights. If you discuss it, you should expect a long lecture. But he’s not necessarily angry; it’s a justification.

That is what happened with Prime Minister Ardern. She didn’t address it directly, but it still came up. It was, ‘Oh, in New Zealand, we do this’. It resulted in a long exposition on why we are doing what we are doing. So it ate up a lot of time. Other issues suffered. 

“What Duterte represents is a deep-seated feeling of the Philippines being taken for a ride by traditional partners. It may be expressed colourfully or unconventionally  but one should not dismiss Duterte as a crackpot.”

You have been a vocal critic of New Zealand’s export education system. What are the biggest issues?

New Zealand has some of the finest universities in the world. We’re very grateful for the many scholarships given to Filipinos to attend New Zealand universities.

But the decisions made a few years ago around the marketing of the New Zealand private tertiary education providers (PTEs) were utterly perverse. 

Any school can call itself “New Zealand school of this-or-that”, giving the impression they are government institutions.

The real sin is the sales pitch these education advisors give in our home countries – most egregiously in India, then the Philippines – where they’ve used the slogan “Study, Work, Live”. Filipinos and Indians, because of difficulties finding good jobs overseas, are encouraged to buy the package that this is a way towards long-term work and migration.

Is the Philippine government trying to take any action?

That’s what we’re trying to do. A lot of these recruiters operate in the provinces in the Philippines. What they are preying on is the desperation of people who want to leave the country. Many people know the recruiters could be flaky, but they’re willing to take the risk. It doesn’t help also when there are study fairs which the New Zealand government participates in. Enforcement must be stepped up on both sides. I’ve been doing my best to warn Filipinos on Facebook. People take notice.

How is the Philippine government approaching the current regional environment?

The current government is looking to repair relations with China and diversify relationships. Some see this as anti-Americanism. It’s not about that, but about having a balance – with the United States, China, Russia, the European Union, Australia.

We take exception to the commentary on the Philippines’ war on drugs. President Duterte has his reactions – lately one headline was: “Okay Canada, if you’re going to be critical about human rights, we won’t buy your helicopters anymore. You’re not the only ones selling helicopters.”

What Duterte represents is a deep-seated feeling of the Philippines being taken for a ride by traditional partners. It may be expressed colourfully or unconventionally – but one should not dismiss Duterte as a crackpot.

If you look at social media, there’s a lot of genuine grassroots support for him. It’s misleading to compare Duterte to Trump. What may be more accurate is to compare him to Putin. To say Duterte is idiosyncratic, or a whacko, is a mistake.

How are people in the Philippines viewing the issues around the Korean peninsula? How is it different from in New Zealand?

Our immediate concern is the tens of thousands of Filipinos in South Korea. So it’s an operation question. At what point do we start evacuating?

We are also host to one of the world’s largest Korean diaspora.

The South China Sea/West Philippines Sea, though, is of more immediate concern.

Interview by Rebecca Townsend on 23 February. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

– Asia Media Centre

Since the interview, Ambassador Gary Domingo has spoken to New Zealand and Australian media about reports of the exclusion of a Filipina woman at the opening of Krispy Kreme in Hamilton. He also publicly thanked an Australian victim of Father Denis McAlinden after she agreed to be identified.