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MANILA, Philippines – Known for his disdain for pomp and protocol, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte turned his first state of the nation address Monday into primetime entertainment by injecting jokes and showing his unease with the teleprompter.
He signaled a few days ago that he would stray from the traditional formalities of the Philippine president's most important speech by asking legislators and their spouses to dress in business attire and not the expensive gowns and suits that Manila's media feast on like in a fashion spectacle each year.
He also signed an order to strike out the honorifics "his excellency" to address him and "honorable" to address lawmakers.
When he stepped on the red carpet to enter the House of Representatives, his anti-corruption campaign jingle sang by prominent folk singer Freddie Aguilar lilted in the august hall. Then he was called on stage, his native shirt partly unbuttoned and its sleeve slightly rolled up.
Duterte focused Monday's speech on his deadly war on drugs and his peacemaking efforts with Marxist and Muslim insurgents, but many may remember his antics the most.
He recalled how he appointed his environment secretary, Gina Lopez. The TV network executive and staunch environmentalist had been bombarding him for hours with cases of environmental degradation, until he said he butted in and told her: "Ma'am, it's almost 4 a.m., what if you just become the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources secretary)?"
Making light of notorious delays in the release of car plates by the government's Land Transportation Office, Duterte said private car dealers may now be tapped to help make the process faster "because up to now, since the time of Christ, their first plate has not come out."
The crowd erupted in laughter but he admonished them in jest: "Listen, don't keep on laughing there."
The former congressman also bristled with pride at one point when he pointed to a seat in the huge gallery: "I used to sit there."
From the presidential pedestal, he resembled the show's director, barking orders in jest to an aide operating the teleprompter: "Raise that paragraph already, that's not important anymore" or "raise that, I will speak in Tagalog already. I think you are already sleeping." Then appearing exasperated at reading the speech through the teleprompter, he uttered: "It's hard to be a president even here."
Even political opponents were overwhelmed. Sen. Leila de Lima, who has criticized Duterte's tough anti-crime methods and has had a widely publicized spat with the macho leader, said the president approached her as he entered the plenary hall.
"He approached me, he extended his hand, smiled didn't say anything," said the visibly enamored del Lima, a former human rights commission chief at odds with Duterte. "I just said, 'Hi sir,' to the delight of the audience."
Duterte explained a recent decision for him not to accept social invitations, explaining his entourage would mess up traffic. Instead of traveling with his long security entourage, he said he had a more practical idea, which he said would scare his security escorts.
"Really, I'd rather take a cab at the back."