Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr may have pitched his surprise attendance at the Formula One Singapore Grand Prix as a necessity to meet potential high-key investors, but the trip has instead shone a spotlight on what some critics say is his penchant for a “jet-setting lifestyle” and neglect of urgent tasks.
Critics such as the left-wing political alliance Bayan say Marcos Jnr was “shamelessly entitled” and “callous” for attending the race weekend while the country’s economy remained in turmoil and in the aftermath of destruction caused by Super Typhoon Noru across the main island of Luzon.
The annual event – held for the first time since 2019 following a pandemic-enforced interruption – has since its inception in 2008 served as a platform for global investors and world leaders to converge for a weekend of deal-making on the sidelines.
Ahead of this year’s race, several high-key business conferences were held in Singapore, including the Milken Institute Asia Summit .
Marcos Jnr was not the only world leader at the grand prix. Among the dignitaries in Singapore over the weekend were Rwanda President Paul Kagame, Palau’s president Surangel Whipps Jnr, Malaysia’s Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Abdul Aziz and Saudi royal court adviser Fahad Toonsi.
Anger over Marcos Jnr’s attendance, observers said, primarily was due to his office’s lack of transparency over whether he would actually be at the event. Questions were also raised over whether the trip was funded by state coffers.
Anthony Leachon, a medical doctor who served as a senior adviser in the Philippines’ Covid-19 task force, said the president’s visit was “bad optics” and reflected his “lack of empathy [arising from] his hedonistic core values”.
Some social media users had estimated the return flight on the presidential plane, a Gulfstream G280, was likely to have cost US$32,000 ($S45,000).
Marcos Jnr’s office has not responded to these accusations. Amid the online rancour, the president said on Facebook: “They say that playing golf is the best way to drum up business, but I say it’s Formula 1. What a productive weekend!”
“It was fulfilling to have been invited alongside several dignitaries and to have met new business friends who showed that they are ready and willing to invest in the Philippines,” he wrote.
For critics like legislator Arlene Brosas of the Gabriela Women’s Party, the optics of Marcos Jnr hobnobbing with the region’s elite was simply too crass given the recent natural disaster.
“The floodwaters in many rice fields hadn’t even gone down and off went the president to Singapore to watch the F1 Grand Prix,” Brosas said. Typhoon Noru killed people and destroyed billions of pesos worth of rice fields.
Nuelle Duterte, a prominent critic of the Marcoses and niece of ex-leader Rodrigo Duterte, said the message the president was sending through his Singapore visit was that “he values his hobbies more than the job he applied for”.
“He believes he has the right to indulge himself even when, as president, he should be putting the people’s welfare before his own,” she said.
Word of Marcos Jnr’s Singapore trip started as a rumour that raced through social media last Friday. Typically, VIP visitors at F1 races attend the Friday practice sessions, the qualifying session on Saturday and the actual race on Sunday.
Singapore officials including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Manpower Minister Tan See Leng shared social media posts featuring their meetings with Marcos Jnr following Sunday’s race.
Tan said in his post that the meetings with various government officials had helped “affirm our bilateral economic relationships and strengthen collaborations in energy cooperation as well as exchange views on manpower policies on the sidelines of the race”.
Early on Monday, Marcos Jnr’s press secretary issued a statement saying the president’s trip was productive and had firmed up discussions regarding investment that had begun in a previous trip. She also shared Singapore minister Tan’s post.
That narrative has largely resonated with the president’s support base, with loyalists saying he would have hurt economic ties if he had turned down the invitation to attend the race.
Sceptics, however, queried why the president had not been accompanied by key economic advisers if the trip had been intended to secure investment deals.
In addition, some social media users questioned why there was a need for Marcos Jnr to hold talks with Singapore officials just weeks after a state visit to the island republic. Manila secured some 356.65 billion pesos (US$6.08 billion) of investment pledges in that trip.
Edwin Lacierda, who was spokesperson for the late President Benigno Aquino III , tweeted how “in our time, when the President leaves for an official business trip, he will undoubtedly bring a Cabinet member who is the subject matter expert in a particular field”.
Raf Ignacio, who was an executive assistant of Aquino, also tweeted to point out that “PM Lee regularly invited PNoy (Aquino, who also loved racing cars) to watch the F1 race before, but PNoy always sent his regrets”.
“He felt that such a trip would be purely for leisure and recreation, and it was inappropriate to use the influence of his office and public funds for personal matters.”
Others say the Singapore race attendance is not a one-off. One meme circulating online compiled all the non-work events Marcos Jnr had been pictured attending since July.
These included four lavish birthday parties – including that of his wife, his mother Imelda and his own – and a separate commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by his namesake father, who led the country through a period of brutal dictatorship and plunder that ended in 1986.
Despite the hand-wringing, however, critics are clear-eyed that what they see as unacceptable slacking off by the president at a time when there are pressing governance issues is unlikely to subside.
“He seems to be confident of his mandate and the ways his supporters will frame the trip to his advantage. For this reason, he is emboldened to do these things,” said Jean Franco, a political analyst from the University of the Philippines.
“My sense is that it is really the lifestyle he grew up in so it is difficult for him to stop at this stage of his life,” she said. “It seems that he never really learned the lesson of what happened to his family and the extent to which partying and profligacy made the people turn against Marcos Snr.”