The truth of Shakespeare’s axiom that there is a tide in the affairs of men has rarely been better illustrated than by the fluctuating fortunes of some of this region’s leaders over the past few months.
In Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand, heads of government and opposition leaders, who had appeared to be riding high, have suffered major setbacks.
At the same time, some others in Vietnam and also in the Philippines, whose hold on power appeared tenuous, have not only clung on, but have reasserted their popularity even more firmly.
Often, it is hard to know why the tide suddenly turns for one prominent figure, while a neighbouring counterpart unexpectedly manages to put his house in order and appears as a regional strongman.
The best recent example has come in the Philippines, where the youthful bachelor president, Benigno Aquino, who was once viewed as a kind of national saviour, has seen his reputation plummet.
While concurrently, a reviled predecessor and convicted felon, the ex-film star and former president Joseph Estrada, has returned to public favour and was recently elected mayor of Manila, the nation’s capital.
Let’s start with Aquino, who has been forced to fend off charges of incompetency over his handling of two major incidents this year.
The first was his slipshod response to February’s sea-borne “invasion” of the East Malaysian state of Sabah by followers of a Filipino sultan who claimed title to the land.
By not taking the maritime assault seriously, Aquino almost precipitated an armed conflict with Malaysia.
Then, in September, he again appeared asleep at the wheel when Muslim fighters stormed the southern city of Zamboanga, taking scores of hostages and wreaking devastation.
The attackers were motivated by Aquino having left their group out of a peace agreement granting the Muslim south greater autonomy.
They were eventually routed, but not before more than 150 Zamboangans were killed, 120,000 displaced and the peace pact left in tatters.
Then, last month, an even worse debacle returned to haunt Aquino.
It all began shortly after he was sworn in as president in May 2010, when a disgruntled former police officer hijacked a bus carrying Hong Kong tourists in central Manila.
The ex-cop, Rolando Mendoza, had been sacked for alleged extortion and he now demanded his job back in return for releasing the tourists.
In the absence of directions from Aquino, the then-Manila mayor, Alfredo “Dirty Harry” Lim, adopted a tough line and had Mendoza’s brother, who had tried to join the negotiations, handcuffed and dragged away.
That spooked the heavily armed Mendoza, who was watching the police response on the bus’s closed circuit television, and he began shooting.
As a bungled attempt to charge the bus ensued, eight hostages were killed before Mendoza himself was taken out by a police marksman.
In the aftermath, Hong Kong demanded a formal apology, compensation for the victims and charges to be filed against those responsible for the lethal debacle.
Aquino refused, saying: “When I, as president, apologise, then I’m apologising on behalf of the entire country, and I don’t think that is appropriate at this point in time.”
Appalled, Hong Kong formally instructed its citizens to avoid all travel to the Philippines – and China backed that stance.
Consequently, millions of dollars were lost in trade and tourism revenue, and calls grew for limits on the tens of thousands of Filipino maids in the territory.
Fed up with this impasse, Estrada, who defeated the now-disgraced Lim in Manila’s mayoralty race, vowed last week to visit Hong Kong and deliver a personal apology, while assuring people that his city is now safe.
So, in the near future, the haggard ex-movie star may well accomplish what the youthful Aquino has failed to do in three years: repair ties with Hong Kong.
If he succeeds, Estrada’s tide really will have come in, while Aquino’s will slip further out and his once-bright image will be even more sullied.