Doctor-turned-politician Willie Ong a curveball in vice president race

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MALL OF ASIA, PASAY CITY, PHILIPPINES - 2019/04/28: Senatorial candidate Dr. Willie Ong seen speaking to the crowd during the competition.
It's an annual competition of Firemen to show their firefighting capability and their knowledge in rescuing a fire victim through different situations, from rescuing to fire fighting. (Photo by Josefiel Rivera/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
FILE PHOTO: Dr. Willie Ong is seen speaking to the crowd during an annual firemen competition to show their firefighting capability and their knowledge in rescuing a fire victim through different situations, from rescuing to fire fighting. (Photo: Josefiel Rivera/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A stroke of genius or a crazy gamble? That is the key question surrounding Philippines presidential election candidate Isko Moreno's choice of Dr. Willie Ong as his vice-presidential running mate.

In choosing the online health guru and political novice, Manila mayor Moreno has thrown a curveball ahead of the election. Will 58-year-old Ong's huge social media following give the duo a massive boost at the poll, or will his political inexperience cost them the precious votes?

Whatever the outcome, it has been a stunning rise to prominence for the affable Ong, who is neither a political heavyweight, nor a scion of a prominent clan, nor an incumbent government official.

However, he rose to public fame by offering free medical advice on his YouTube channel since 2007, earning more than 6.5 million channel subscribers and 16 million Facebook followers with his approachable demeanor in his videos.

Political/professional career

Franciso "Isko Moreno" Domagoso (3rd left) and his running mate Willie Ong (5th left). (Source: Isko Moreno Domagoso/Facebook)

Ong was born in Manila in 1963 to Ong Yong, a Chinese immigrant who became a prominent charity worker in the Chinese Filipino community.

The younger Ong earned his medical degree at the De La Salle University College of Medicine in 1992, and also earned the award for the highest academic performance when he did his Masters in Public Health at the University of the Philippines Manila.

During his medical career, Ong had already made a name for himself, authoring medical guidebooks that were popular among Filipino medical students and neophyte doctors. He has also worked as a consultant with the Department of Health from 2010 to 2014.

His first foray as a prominent media figure came in 2005 when he produced his own television show for RJTV. From 2008 to 2018, Ong made appearances on ABS-CBN's medical program Salamat Dok. He wrote columns for The Philippine Star and its sister publications, Pilipino Star Ngayon and PM PangMasa. He was also a resident doctor and host at radio station DZRH's public service program Docs on Call from 2009 to 2017.

It seemed natural that Ong would expand onto online social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, where he would share everything from advice on COVID-19 and vaccines to tips for reducing belly fat. It proved to be hugely popular with the Philippine public, so much so that he began to harbor political intentions.

In 2019, Ong launched a bid to get elected as a Senator, with his campaign focusing on health issues and leveraging on him being the "only doctor running for the Senate". Despite his political inexperience, Ong had a surprisingly good showing, garnering the second-highest number of overseas votes despite failing to win a Senate seat.

Candidate's issues of focus

Willie Ong (center). (Source: Doc WIllie Ong/Facebook)
Willie Ong (center). (Source: Doc WIllie Ong/Facebook)

Moreno has promised zero tolerance of Chinese maritime aggression in the South China Sea, and his economic agenda centers on housing, labor, infrastructure and health.

To complement him, Ong has declared he would champion improvements in the pandemic response and health services for Filipinos. During his Senate bid in 2019, he has pushed for free maintenance medicine and laboratory tests, and was also open to legalizing medical marijuana.

He has also previously expressed openness for the introduction of the death penalty for heinous crimes, the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility, and the adoption of federalism as the form of government for the Philippines.

Ong has also said he would not accept any campaign donations, and would just rely on Moreno’s machinery to help boost his vice-presidential bid.

However, the "Isko-Ong" campaign trail got off to a rocky start in February, upon reaching the vote-rich Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which is a stronghold for vice-president candidate Sara Duterte-Carpio.

The voters in the region have made public that they prefer a "Isko-Sara" pairing, so Moreno decided to campaign without Ong to prevent any awkward situation.

Ong was also hit by a bout of COVID-19 in January, and when he returned to campaigning, he laid out a five point plan to deal with potential COVID case surges in the future.

He was also concerned that the Philippines is not prepared enough should the Ukraine-Russia conflict escalate into a nuclear war, and suggested building fallout shelters and buying potassium iodide, which protects from radiation injury.

Personal and family background

Ong is married to Anna Liza Ramoso, who is also a physician. They first met each other in 1992, when Ong was working as an intern at San Juan De Dios Hospital, and got married a year later. They have two daughters, and have been active in charity medical work.

Coming largely from a medical background, Ong has portrayed himself as a non-traditional politician, insisting that he will never attack or negatively comment on other political rivals.

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Vice presidential candidates' profiles

READ: More 2022 Philippine elections stories here.

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