Like most people, I was charmed when I first heard about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s detour to a branch of fast food chain Jollibee as soon as he landed in Manila two days ago.
Aww, I thought, how adorable that a world leader—one that many people, particularly women, seem to think is extremely good-looking—would stop by an intensely unmistakable symbol of the Philippines, order something to go and get his picture taken with customers and staff.
As if he needed to earn more brownie points from us Filipinos considering how popular he already is, there he was again being cute all over social media, his face flashing that million-(Canadian) dollar smile, one arm gripping a plastic take-out bag with the big red letters of the fast food chain emblazoned on the front. This was mere hours, even minutes after that visit at the Jollibee branch in North Harbor, Tondo.
News outlets were on it, natch (and, honestly, so did we—ed.). Stories were written, photos were shared, people swooned. And because it was Trudeau, and he was here for the annual ASEAN Summit with other world leaders, even international news media picked it up. It was a coup for Jollibee, too. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.
But I started to think about it some more—the timing, the choice for a detour, the all-too perfect poses and snapshots—and something felt off. It all seemed too perfect.
It’s no secret that Trudeau is generally well-regarded by many people, even those who don’t even follow world politics on a regular basis. His looks certainly help, but it’s his antics outside of political functions that have endeared him even to casual news consumers. The Guardian has run a scathing piece about what it calls his PR stunts over the years—posing for a selfie shirtless with some hikers, answering a question about quantum physics, jogging with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, and many others. The writer interviewed pundits who accused people of continuously falling for Trudeau’s carefully orchestrated exploits to the detriment of critical analysis of actual, real-life issues.
Sounds vaguely familiar.
If Trudeau hadn’t made that Jollibee stopover, yes, people here would probably still be talking about him, but perhaps it would be in the context of the still-unresolved garbage issue between Canada and the Philippines. In case you forgot, over a hundred container vans filled with mixed waste made its way in batches from the North American country to Manila in 2013 and 2014.
Canadian officials insist the shipments were totally legal under current international treaties, but the implication is clear for environment advocacy groups and the local government and residents of Capas, Tarlac, where contents of 26 of the containers were dumped—the Philippines is being used as a dumpsite by a larger and wealthier nation.
True, I have seen a few news reports detailing concern from these advocacy groups and their plea for the Canadian Prime Minister to tackle the issue once and for all, but you have to admit that all that was buried by the news of Trudeau’s Jollibee pit stop. (To be fair, he did also visit a women’s health center that is being funded by the Canadian government). Sure, the Prime Minister may really be a Chickenjoy fan, but how hard could it have been to ask someone to go get it for him while he’s here?
The answer, of course, is because it was never about the Chickenjoy. It was a brilliant look-here-not-there tactic by Trudeau, or his PR team at least. Visit the most Filipino of dining spots, pose for pictures while chatting with the locals, smile and wave to the crowd while carrying your precious take-out. What was that thing about the garbage again?
Sadly, that pattern is being repeated in most everything else about the ASEAN Summit. Instead of talking about policy that has actual, real-world consequences, we’re getting sidetracked into talking about matters that are likely inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
While ASEAN and China have agreed to finally hunker down to work on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea—a major accomplishment considering that this COC has been on the drawing board for the last 15 years—people would much rather talk about that exchange caught on video between a BBC reporter and a fervently pro-administration blogger.
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi made assurances that her government is working to find a solution to the catastrophic situation involving the Rohingya Muslims in her country, while the ASEAN draft statement is noticeably silent on the entire issue. And yet that hasn’t made headlines as much as the fashion statements of the leaders’ spouses have.
Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counselor of Myanmar, with Indonesian President Joko Widodo
And while the ASEAN draft statement includes a call to de-escalate tensions in the Korean peninsula in response to multiple missile tests by North Korea, people are pouncing on an actress who had the gall to remove traffic barriers so her vehicle could use the so-called ASEAN lanes and skip the ridiculous traffic on EDSA.
Look, I have nothing against Trudeau nor Jollibee (hey, I do love me some Chickenjoy), but we need to be more discerning when it comes to deciphering when we’re being distracted from the real issues. In an age where fake news is rampant and unscrupulous individuals are targeting the impressionable and the gullible, that’s an extra level of vigilance we need to develop. Otherwise we might as well just give up and simply allow ourselves to be passive recipients of whatever garbage is shoved down our throats.
The Unpopular Opinion is Esquire’s space to provide additional insight and introduce new perspectives to issues that we may think have foregone conclusions. These articles don't always reflect our editorial stance, but we publish them here to continue the discourse.