CNN  — 

A very public kiss between Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and a Filipina woman on stage in Seoul was an “act of endearment” toward Filipino workers, his spokesman said.

The controversial kiss, which came during Duterte’s meeting with members of the Filipino diaspora in South Korea on Sunday, was met with cheers at the event and condemnation by opposition politicians, women’s rights activists and social media users.

Calling it a “light moment that is very accepted in the culture of Filipinos,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told CNN affiliate CNN Philippines Monday that the kiss was “what makes the President popular among our people.”

Opponents of the outspoken, controversial leader said that it was misogynistic and an abuse of power.

Women’s rights group Gabriela condemned the spectacle as the “disgusting theatrics of a misogynist president who feels entitled to demean, humiliate or disrespect women according to his whim.”

Opposition senator Risa Hontiveros said that Duterte “acted like a feudal king who thinks that being the president is an entitlement to do anything that he pleases,” adding that “uneven power relations” meant that the kiss wasn’t an act between consenting adults.

Others defended his decision, with one social media user asserting that his actions were typical of the way Visayans – his ethnic group – joked around. Another spoke lovingly of his roguish behavior.

“He got a hug and a kiss on the lips. Wahahaha (Duterte) is so mischievous,” the Facebook user said, according to CNN affiliate CNN Philippines.

Controversial kiss

The controversial moment came after a lengthy speech by the president to a crowd of expatriate Filipinos in Seoul.

Duterte invited two audience members on stage, both female, to present them each with a copy of the book – Altar of Secrets: Sex, Politics, and Money in the Philippine Catholic Church – which is highly critical of the Catholic Church in the Philippines, “in exchange for a kiss.”

After one of the women proffered her cheek, the second audience member, identified by Philippines state media PNA as Bea Kim, touched his hand to her forehead, a traditional greeting of respect in Filipino culture.

But, to the cheers of the audience, Duterte gestured to his mouth, indicating that he wanted the woman to kiss him on the lips.

“Are you single? You’re not separated from (your husband)? But you can tell him that this is just a joke?” he asked, according to a report by Philippines news outlet Rappler.

After some back and forth she relented and the president kissed her as the audience hooted their approval.

Kim said that there was “no malice” in the kiss, and that it didn’t “mean anything except to entertain and make other Filipinos in the gathering happy.”

She is married to a South Korean national and has two children, PNA reported.

OFWs in spotlight

On his trips to foreign countries, the president often takes time to meet members of the Filipino diaspora.

Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) make up significant parts of the workforces of many Asian and Middle Eastern countries, with many employed as domestic workers or in the construction industry. Their remittances home are an important contributor to the country’s economy.

There have been a number of high-profile cases of abuse, including the recent murder of a Filipina domestic worker by her employers in Kuwait which prompted a diplomatic dispute between the two countries.

The scandal led to Duterte declaring a ban on OFWs taking up positions in the Middle Eastern country, and a mooted “rescue mission” to liberate distressed workers from their Kuwaiti employers.

Controversial figure

The outspoken leader has a history of disparaging remarks about women, notably saying on the campaign trail in 2016, when he said that the rape and murder of an Australian missionary who was visiting a Filipino jail was “a waste” and that he should “have been first” to sexually assault the woman. He later apologized for the remarks.

He has also exhorted the soldiers to go all out in fighting Islamic militants and joked that under martial law they could even commit rape with impunity, while also saying soldiers should shoot female communist rebels “in the vagina.”

At a CNN Philippines town hall event in February that year he admitted that he had three girlfriends and a common-law wife. His previous marriage was annulled due to his womanizing, but he denied this meant he objectified women.

He has also drawn widespread condemnation for his initiation and support of a bloody war on drugs, which has seen thousands of suspected drug users and dealers killed by police and vigilantes.