The next Flavier? Social media star admits tough time in Senate race

Isay Reyes, ABS CBN News

Posted at May 10 2019 11:34 AM | Updated as of May 10 2019 11:35 AM

MANILA - In a large house in an exclusive village in Makati, senatorial candidate Willie Ong is getting ready to go to work. 

Doc Willie Ong. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Instead of pounding the pavement and courting votes on the streets, Ong is at his desk, thinking about his next video: Will it be about cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, or depression?

The numbers don’t lie though: Ong’s large social media following is heads and tails over his opponents. As of this writing, Ong has amassed 10,057,187 followers on Facebook, triple the size of survey frontrunners Grace Poe (3.3 million) and Cynthia Villar (1.5 million). His YouTube channel, which houses more than a thousand videos on his health tips, has 1,184, 857 subscribers.

Senatorial Candidate Willie Ong browsing his social media pages

Millions of people have logged on to watch his YouTube and Facebook videos about medical tips, earning him up to half a million pesos a month. 

Will his strategy translate to votes come Election Day? 

"I have no strategy. Strategy ko lang dasal,” he said in an interview with ABS-CBN News. “Siya naglagay sa akin dito, trabaho Niya ayusin ito, trabaho niya mag viral. Not my choice.”

BORN IN AFFLUENCE

Born in Tondo, Ong is the youngest of 4 siblings. His parents, both affluent businessmen, made sure that every need was provided for in the Ong family.

When he was 6, Ong developed a desire to help the poor. 

“Since I was 6, gusto ko na tumulong sa marami. Nakikita ko pag dumadaan ang sasakyan ko nandiyan ang mahihirap, ako may kotse. Dito na kami nakatira at 6 years old. I can get what I want, anong pagkain, may pera. So, nagi-guilty ako paano ako tutulong sa mahihirap,” he said. 

Ong studied at the Xavier School before taking a pre-med course at University of the Philippines-Diliman and eventually medicine at De La Salle University. Graduating in 1993, his career as an internist and cardiologist started with 7 years of training at the Philippine General Hospital where he became frustrated with the lack of resources to help indigent patients. "They don’t see the patients dying kasi kaya ganun," he said. 

Life as a cardiologist was anything but ordinary for Ong. He had his own private practice, helped in medical missions and joined health-oriented TV shows like ABS CBN’s Salamat Dok. He also wrote medical columns for national broadsheets. 

"I wrote for 18 years. Manila Bulletin, Star, Manila Standard, Pilipino Star. Mahirap maging doktor eh, paulit ulit lang. Huwag kang kumain nito, huwag ganiyan, huwag manigarilyo itigil mo iyan," he said. 

He also realized that he could reach more people if he concentrated on TV. 

In 2007, Ong stopped his private practice to devote more time on volunteer work for shows as well as his medical columns. 

“May pera na naman ako eh. We’ve been living here for 50 years (pertaining to his present house). Ako bunso, ang Dad ko magaling mag negosyo nung nabubuhay siya. Ang job ko lang bilang bunso ay tumulong. So, 25 years kaming doctor, parang missionary,” he said. 

Seeing how YouTube videos were becoming popular, he started producing videos for his "virtual clinic," focusing on tips about illnesses, lifestyle choices and medical prescriptions. It was a team effort - he and his wife gave tips on healthy living, made explainer videos for different illnesses, and even gave out medical prescriptions. 

"Hindi ko magawa sa TV 'yung mga gusto ko. Mahal ang airtime eh, kaya ako napunta sa social media. Libre airtime...Dito ko rin binubuhos lahat pati sama ng loob ko, hanggang sa maging viral. So hindi mo kailangan maging negative, manira," he said.

To date, Ong has released almost 2,000 videos on his YouTube channel – some lasting as long as 50 minutes - enough that “it would take a year for you to watch all of them.” 

He also has one major qualm about doing TV shows: the need to sell ads. 

“Ang dami niyong ads eh. Nahahaluan ng supplement, nako-compromise yung tips eh. There are doctors who are bashing me and saying I sell alternative medicine. So ‘yun ang nagiging compromise ng shows. Lahat ng tips ko walang sponsor. Maraming gusto mag advertise sakin pero hindi ko tinatanggap,” he said.

He also noticed a curious thing when he decided to give up his private practice and start giving away medical advice for free. 

"When I was in private practice, I would notice that if I treated 4 patients - 2 would be okay, 1 would be happy and 1 would be angry," he said.

"Pero pag nilibre ko sila and sinabi ko 'di na ako sisingil, sundin lang ang payo ko, biglang gumagaling. Magic. Nakita ko, pag nilibre mo pala ang pasyente, ang bilis gumaling, ang bilis sumunod."

FROM MEDICINE TO POLITICS

In Ong’s home, there are 2 awards that are different from the usual plaques and certificates of recognition. The Silver Play Button--an award given by YouTube to content creators with 100,000--hangs on the wall. Not far from it, inside a black box on top of the office table is a shiny sleek plaque: The Gold Play Button, given to a few Filipinos with a million or more subscribers. 

Doctors Willie and Liza Ong show their silver and gold play button plaques given by YouTube

Ong is hesitant to reveal how much he earns from his YouTube videos – only to say that he was getting about 4,000 pesos a month when he started out. In 2017, the ad revenues rose to 60,000 pesos a month. 

“Tapos last year, umabot siguro ng mga 150,000 pesos a month. Ngayon, sobra akong honest eh. Mga 500,000 pesos a month. Pero bumababa. January-February is low, siguro mga 200 (thousand) pero ako kasi may money, no money I still do it eh. Saka ang YouTube, hindi siya stable. Mayroong Article 13 na ginagawa sa Europe, pag nangyari ‘yun, bagsak lahat ng income. Like made-demanda na ang YouTube sa gagamit ng clips. So, in waves siya,” he said.

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Ong does not come from a family of doctors, or politicians for that matter. So when he decided to run for politics, everyone in the family was against the idea. 

For Ong, he said the decision to run was just a natural progression in trying to help people. Politicians, he said, could not understand the medical needs of people. 

"Ako lang ang first doctor. No politician in the family, no barangay captain. Lahat against sa pagtakbo sa politics. Wala kasi akong choice kasi nag iinit ang ulo ko. Parang ‘ayan na naman ba, mamamatay na naman itong pasyente, wala naman tayong magagawa.’” 

“Tapos kaming mga health advocates, ang dami namin. We have one idea, one voice eh. 99 percent the same idea, we know what to do sa tobacco tax, whatever, depression, cancer. Alam na namin lahat ng doctors pero we have to beg the politician. We have to make them understand but they cannot understand. Hindi nila ma-feel eh. Tapos pag makausap na namin ‘yung politician, makakausap siya ng lobbyist, ay tapos na usapan.” 

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He also decided against running for congressman because of stiff competition in Makati. “Followers ko, 10 million. Kung followers ko siguro 100,000, baka nag barangay captain ako,” he said. 

With one foot in, Ong almost fell out of the battle before the filing of certificates of candidacy because he had no political party. Under Comelec rules, a new candidate must have a political party lest he or she be considered a nuisance candidate. 

Several talks with existing political parties failed to make a dent since the opposition and administration simply were looking for someone else. 

Two months before the end of filing, the Lakas- Christian Muslim Democrats opened their doors to Ong. At the time, he said, the party seemed to be composed of 2 members – Lakas-CMD head Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez and chairman Senator Bong Revilla Jr. – until Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took over as Speaker of the House. 

“Sabi ni Romualdez: ‘Sali ka sa amin. Meron kang bahay. Pero tandaan mo Willie, maliit kaming party. Tiyaga ka lang sa maliit, dalawa lang yata miyembro. So payag ka ba?’ Oo payag ako, payag. I accept, accept…After 2 weeks, naging speaker si GMA. Naging pinakamalaking party na ang Lakas. Sabi nila, ako daw lucky charm,” he said. 

Joining a political party, however, did not mean he got funding for his senatorial bid. Ong said he pays all his expenses out of his own pocket despite offers from some businessmen to sponsor his trips. 

"Wala akong gastos. Gastos ko lang travel, hotel. Wala kaming staff, 2 secretary lang. Wala akong headquarters. Yung tarp, yung mga friends gumagawa,” he said.

“They can offer 1 or 2 million pero pag tumanggap ka sa 5 negosyante, liliit ang mundo mo. Hindi mo na magagalaw ang products nila. Kahit di ako manalo, at least na-change natin ‘yung conversation… Politics kasi naging business na eh. Nakita ko na yung problem eh.” 

THE NEXT FLAVIER? 

Ong’s political bid has drawn comparisons to another popular doctor who became senator: the late former Health Secretary Juan Flavier. 

Flavier, who got his start as a doctor to the barrios for 30 years, became a household name after he was appointed secretary of health in 1992. The launch of his famous slogan “Let’s DOH it!” catapulted him to the Senate where he served for 2 consecutive terms until 2007. He died of pneumonia-related sepsis and organ failure in 2014. 

Ong said it is a privilege to be regarded as a possible successor to the doctor-turned-senator. 

"Si Dr. Flavier, more general ang tips niya eh. General like tigil sigarilyo, tigil alak. Ako kasi, specialist. I’m an internist, cardiologist, nag public health din ako, kaya ‘yung tips ko malalim. Heart attack, anong gamot. So medyo nilalaliman ko ‘yung tips ko. Parang virtual nga, parang hindi na nila kailangan mag consult,” he said. 

If elected senator, Ong said he wants to champion universal health care, an advocacy pushed by former Health Secretary Enrique Ona. Free check-ups, free medical operations, free medicine, improvement of hospitals, blood analyzers in health centers, and boosting PhilHealth funds can go a long way in helping Filipinos, he said. 

His political bid has also earned him a few critics on social media. 
Ong, however, said he has the fewest critics in social media. 

"I think may isang group of people na galit talaga sa lahat ng politicians. Yung galit sila sa lahat, all. Basta politician ka, corrupt ka na,” he said. 

One time, he said, a supporter decided to engage one of Ong’s bashers. 

“Kinausap ng supporter ko ‘yung basher. ‘Bakit mo ba bina-bash si Doc lagi?’ Sabi nung basher: ‘Eh wala naman akong nakukuhang pera sa kaniya eh. Ano bang pakinabang ko sa kaniya? Kaya bina-bash ko siya’ AC-DC eh,” he said, referring to the “attack-collect, defend-collect” practice of unscrupulous individuals. 

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Less than 2 weeks before the May 13 polls, Ong said the elections are also taking a toll on his health. 

“Namayat ako ng 5-6 lbs. Dati wala akong sakit ng ulo, ngayon sumasakit ang ulo ko talaga. Stress. It’s not good for my body. And it’s not good for my reputation. Not good for your health, not good for your money, no good for your security, not good for the business of the family,” he said. 

Slowly, however, Ong’s message is starting to be heard. According to BlogWatch co-founder Noemi Lardizabal-Dado, Ong is now the most popular, most viewed, fastest growing and most liked senatorial candidate in the period of March 25-March 31, 2019. A listen.ph tool also showed Ong “is the most engaging and has the most shared posts…the highest number of followers on Instagram.” 

However, given the still limited internet reach in the Philippines, being a hit on social media may not be enough to win a senatorial seat. An April 10 – 14, 2019 survey by Pulse Asia showed Ong ranking 19-23 in the Senate race. 

Ong acknowledged that high social media awareness may not be enough to win a seat come Election Day. 

“Feeling ko, 99 percent hindi ako mananalo kasi you cannot beat the hundreds of millions eh, pero feeling ko may mangyayari afterward. Baka may ibang tatakbo, ganun, pag nakitang tumakbo ako. Social media will not win, not yet. Kailangan mo mainstream,” he said. 

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And what if he loses? Ong said he will go back to doing missionary work but will continue working on getting funding to donate for hospital improvements. 

"God’s will eh. Nung pumasok naman ako rito, sure ako hindi ako mananalo. It will take a miracle, alam mo naman ang politics,” he said. 

"Sinabi ko nga sa isang operator, feeling ko God’s will eh. Sabi ng operator: ‘Wala nang God dito, wala na si God.’ Sabi ko ipo-prove ko sa’yo mayroon. May God. Tingnan natin". -- Editing by David Dizon, ABS-CBN News