RODRIGO DUTERTE set a record as President by making 19 foreign trips in his first year in office. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has made three so far in one month, with quite a bit of time before marking his 100th day in office.
Foreign trips and state visits constitute a significant aspect of the President's work. These are generally seen to gain good will from the international community, face-to-face meetings with other heads of state and government to deepen international partnerships, exchange in commerce and trade and other forms of development assistance.
Newly elected Philippine Presidents have traditionally visited neighboring countries, the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), before stepping out further on the global stage. Marcos' made two state visits; first to Indonesia from September 4 to 6, then he flew to Singapore for a two day stop until September 7. For a state visit, the host country extends to its guest the highest level of ceremonial honors and hospitality.
Before the end of September, September 18 to 24, Marcos was in New York on a working visit to attend the opening of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). On such occasions, all costs are borne by the Philippine government.
Reporters flew to foreign countries to report the President closely on all three tours: the ceremonials, the agreements signed, and other side activities. News accounts also noted how overseas Filipino workers' (OFWs) in these countries met him, either with hugs and smiles or with protests and chants.
News reports also quoted from the President's speeches before, during, and after the said visits, with footage from state media RTVM. Marcos noted in his departure speeches his targets, mainly the economy and foreign investments. On his return, his arrival speeches cited the gains to be expected in projected investments. Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles echoed in her press briefings Marcos' big talk on such numbers. But both failed to identify concrete gains and their immediate effects on Filipino citizens or when these can be expected.
Meanwhile, only a few reports called attention to the critical developments and pending problems the President pushed into sidelines when he was out of the country.
Media reported the four agreements on the economy, culture, and defense signed by Philippine and Indonesian officials in Jakarta, as presented to Marcos and Indonesian President Joko Widodo before the two delivered their joint statements.
Media also reported on the family and rights groups that asked the President to seek clemency for Filipino worker Mary Jane Veloso whom Indonesian courts had found guilty of drug dealing and has been serving her sentence since 2010. Not on Marcos' official agenda, the issue was taken up by Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo with his Indonesian counterpart.
In Singapore, Marcos met with both Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Halima Jacob. Journalists reported at least five agreements that were signed on counter-terrorism, digital cooperation, infrastructure development, personal data protection, and water collaboration.
His meetings with either the Prime Minister or President expressed ASEAN's "consistent position on the South China Sea" and the "importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, safety, and freedom of navigation and overflight in and above the South China Sea, and peaceful resolution of disputes without resorting to threat or use of force, in accordance with international law."
Media coverage included "color" elements, including Singapore's traditional "Orchid diplomacy" which names hybrids after visiting world leaders. Marcos Jr. and First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos are now in the list of Philippine dignitaries with hybrids named after them, such as Imelda Marcos when she was First Lady, the late president Corazon Aquino, and former president Rodrigo Duterte.
The media did report the members of the official entourage, but only Rappler called attention to the inclusion of Marcos Jr.'s oldest son, Ilocos Norte 1st District Representative Ferdinand Alexander "Sandro" Marcos in most official and social events.
The longest of the three tours, the New York visit was six days. Marcos Jr. addressed the international community and attended meetings, including his one-on-one session with US President Joseph Biden who was also in New York.
His speech at the UNGA assured other nations of the country's 'friendly' foreign policy, seeking support to maintain security and urging other countries to act against climate change.
Marcos family members present included the First Lady, his son Sandro, and his cousin House Speaker Martin Romualdez as part of the official entourage of Cabinet members and business leaders. Rappler noted that Marcos' second son, Joseph Simon Marcos, also flew with his family to the US but was not part of the delegation.
Meanwhile, back home
Ironically, at about the same time, Filipinos were suffering from the wrath of super typhoon Karding. InterAksyon captured netizens' dismay over Marcos' vlog regarding his trip in New York, which he released amid the storm.
Bulatlat and the Inquirer provided the broader response of other Filipinos, noting how groups pointed to Marcos' "grand show of hypocrisy" in his speech calling for "unity... upholding justice and respecting human rights." And yet, he rejected the International Criminal Court's (ICC) investigation of the thousands killed during Duterte's bloody drug war. More recently, he claimed that the human rights abuses of his father's time were committed under "circumstances of war."
While foreign trips are necessary and may be beneficial in different ways, these trips do take time away from issues at home that call for presidential attention. Positive gains from international meetings do not materialize overnight and the nature of the agreements signed require more talks for any results to happen. As Froilan Calilung, political science professor in the University of Santo Tomas said in an ABS-CBN interview, the immediate effect of the agreements would depend on how long these would materialize into a concrete plan of action.
Meanwhile, national problems weighed more heavily on the public mind while the President was away. Clearly, a clutch of issues were left unattended, as the administration has not at this point laid out any comprehensive plan for economic recovery and addressing other crises arising from the still ongoing pandemic.
Peter Wallace's column in the Inquirer said Marcos should have appointed a health secretary by now. The sugar importation mess remains unsolved despite Marcos' being concurrent agriculture secretary. As the peso further devalues, Filipinos worry more about the high cost of basic goods. To make things worse, a supertyphoon just left countless families homeless.
With or without foreign trips, the President must attend to the people's urgent needs. So far, Marcos Jr. has not shown himself quick to respond to crises. There is no sign of an executive team to whom he can delegate tasks. And at press time, his quick visit to attend the Grand Prix in Singapore was confirmed.
Meanwhile, the media's role as watchdog for the people demands a more candid assessment of these foreign trips and the benefits gained for the good of the people journalists and the President have sworn to serve.