Say you will, say you won’t

Whether it’s dodg­ing a sex video bul­let or deny­ing own­er­ship of bags of money, the mod­ern-day politi­cian is adept at any, and all eva­sive tac­tics.

The Star Malaysia - - Focus - News­desk@thes­tar.com.my Wong Chun Wai

MORE than three decades into my jour­nal­is­tic ca­reer, and I have learned one thing for cer­tain – most politi­cians will never change, and they can be chameleons, too. It would be naïve of me to ex­pect to meet an hon­est, God-fear­ing politi­cian who doesn’t lie, be­cause that would be like hop­ing to see a uni­corn.

It is stan­dard op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure for them to blame the me­dia when they fum­ble with their words or learn their com­ments have back­fired, which typ­i­cally gen­er­ate an­gry re­sponses from their con­stituents.

Their es­cape route is to deny or claim they have been mis­quoted, even though in this dig­i­tal age, one only needs to Google to trace the pat­tern and train of thought of some­one on a given sub­ject through their sound bites.

When things go pear-shaped though, most politi­cians de­velop am­ne­sia, or be­come lin­guis­tic ac­ro­bats to get them­selves out of a tight spot.

Of course, some me­dia will hap­pily play the game – to put down the com­peti­tor – and un­wit­tingly give the politi­cian a free ride to wrig­gle out of a fix and jus­tify his de­nial.

In the 1980s, a col­league told me about how a news ar­ti­cle of his was re­futed by a min­is­ter. He was so in­censed he con­fronted the politi­cian and played the record­ing of the in­ter­view to prove he had his facts right.

Af­ter lis­ten­ing to the en­tire tape in­tently, the min­is­ter re­mained silent but fi­nally told the re­porter: “Well, I may have said it, but I didn’t mean it.”

Sim­i­larly, I have also chal­lenged politi­cians from both sides of the di­vide on what they said, and later de­nied.

One even said this: “I said it, but I ex­pected you not to use it. Now that you have re­ported it, I have to deny it to pro­tect my­self.”

Then, there was a min­is­ter who was fond of leav­ing his sen­tences hang­ing. It was al­ways un­com­pleted, and when re­porters mis­in­ter- preted his com­ment, he would rep­ri­mand the me­dia, say­ing, “I ex­pect you to know what I was say­ing.”

Also, there was a Prime Min­is­ter who de­nied he was go­ing to dis­solve Par­lia­ment to make way for a gen­eral election. His de­nial was widely re­port­edly by the me­dia, but not long later, he car­ried out the dis­so­lu­tion.

Me­dia per­son­nel find it tir­ing to pur­sue con­tentious is­sues with politi­cians. We’d rather let it slide be­cause we have all devel­oped a love-hate re­la­tion­ship with some of them.

It doesn’t mat­ter what po­lit­i­cal par­ties they be­long to be­cause they are largely cut from the same cloth. Oth­er­wise, it would be dif­fi­cult for them to swim with the sharks, metaphor­i­cally speak­ing.

So, we have learned to ac­cept such de­nials as haz­ards of the job, and that there is lit­tle point in los­ing sleep over it be­cause the av­er­age news reader could care less for a dis­pute be­tween a politi­cian and the me­dia.

Law pro­fes­sor at George Ma­son Univer­sity, Ilya Somin, once wrote in an ar­ti­cle that Hil­lary Clin­ton had ad­mit­ted she some­times takes “pub­lic” po­si­tions that are at odds with her “pri­vate” po­si­tion.

“In other words, she some­times lies to the pub­lic about her true views. Only the most naive ob­servers find it sur­pris­ing that politi­cians try to de­ceive peo­ple in this way, or be­lieve that Hil­lary Clin­ton is an un­usual ex­cep­tion.”

An­other com­men­ta­tor, Jonathan Rauch, de­scribes why such de­cep­tions are com­mon, and may even be ben­e­fi­cial in many cases:

“In pol­i­tics, hypocrisy and dou­ble­s­peak are tools. They can be used ne­far­i­ously, il­le­gally or for per- sonal gain, as when Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon de­nied Water­gate com­plic­ity, but they can also be used for le­git­i­mate pub­lic pur­poses, such as try­ing to pre­vent a civil war, as in Lin­coln’s case, or try­ing to pro­tect Amer­i­can pres­tige and se­cu­rity, as when Pres­i­dent Dwight D. Eisen­hower de­nied that the Soviet Union had shot down a United States spy plane.

“Of­ten, the only way to get some­thing done is to have sep­a­rate pri- vate and pub­lic truths. Be­hind closed doors, noth­ing is set­tled un­til ev­ery­thing is set­tled. Un­til the deal is done, every­one can pre­tend not to have de­cided any­thing.

“But the mo­ment the con­ver­sa­tion be­comes pub­lic, plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity ceases. Every­one knows I’ve made an of­fer. An­gry in­ter­est groups, ad­ver­saries in the other party, and even purists in my own party, start cut­ting at­tack ads and lin­ing up chal­lengers to pre­vent a deal and de­feat me.”

By such logic, it is as if to say, ly­ing or of­fer­ing half-truths is ac­cept­able if it’s done for na­tional in­ter­est.

So, what Rauch, an aca­demi­cian, ar­gues is that po­lit­i­cal du­plic­ity is some­times a nec­es­sary tool to fa­cil­i­tate deals, ne­go­ti­a­tions and diplo­matic ma­noeu­vring.

But what usu­ally hap­pens is, when politi­cians lie, it of­ten in­volves cap­i­tal­i­sa­tion on pub­lic ig­no­rance and their self-preser­va­tion.

Any politi­cian who has su­perla­tive amounts of ring­git in his per­sonal bank ac­count, or in an apart­ment, will likely al­ways have an al­ibi.

The ones caught with their pants down have ve­he­mently and an­grily de­nied their in­volve­ment in those lurid videos or pic­tures, in­sist­ing the “ac­tors” and “mod­els” are mere looka­likes.

Maybe be­cause most of us are just or­di­nary mor­tals, no gen­er­ous soul has de­posited bil­lions in our name, and nei­ther have we chanced upon any­one who re­sem­bles us, our sib­lings apart, per­haps.

In the case of sex videos, the rule of thumb is to deny, deny and deny. Go ahead and laugh, but that tac­tic has proven to be ef­fec­tive, be­cause af­ter a while, news turns into archival ma­te­rial.

Vot­ers ac­cept that they are sup­posed to choose ca­pa­ble and ef­fec­tive lead­ers to lead them, and not high-moral re­li­gious fig­ures, but politi­cians can be per­sua­sive in in­flu­enc­ing the rakyat to get what they want.

It’s par for the course for politi- cians to be crit­i­cised, but when their per­sonal lives come un­der scru­tiny and draw flack, that’s tak­ing things too far. As democ­racy ma­tures, vot­ers find such tac­tics of­fen­sive and dis­taste­ful.

In the same ar­ti­cle by Somin, he quoted MIT econ­o­mist Jonathan Gru­ber say­ing de­cep­tion has proven to be an ef­fec­tive po­lit­i­cal tool and that laws have been passed with politi­cians “ex­ploit­ing the stu­pid­ity of the Amer­i­can voter.”

In Malaysia, cyn­i­cal jour­nal­ists have a sim­i­lar say­ing. We like to de­scribe it as “rakyat diper­bodohkan lagi”, or the peo­ple have been made to look stupid again or, have been ex­ploited again.

I have seen dyed in the wool sup­port­ers us­ing their time and re­sources to back cer­tain politi­cians. And some­times, when dis­putes arise and emo­tions flare, they lose all com­mon sense and end up cut­ting friend­ships and even fam­ily re­la­tion­ship for the sake of the politi­cian.

But how stupid they must feel when par­ties make pacts, or when sworn en­e­mies close ranks and then hug each other, es­pe­cially when there are po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests to serve? Un­for­tu­nately, this is a re­peated sce­nario time and again.

Of course, leave it to them to come up with the best rea­sons to jus­tify new po­lit­i­cal al­le­giances. The best part? They claim they are slog­ging for the in­ter­est of the rakyat and coun­try. Ap­par­ently, it’s never about them­selves. Yes, fun­nier jokes have been told.

It doesn’t re­ally mat­ter if this is the Old or New Malaysia, the harder the politi­cians try, the more things stay the same, be­cause ul­ti­mately, a leop­ard can­not change its spots.

In the case of sex videos, the rule of thumb is to deny, deny and deny. Go ahead and laugh, but that tac­tic has proven to be ef­fec­tive, be­cause af­ter a while, news turns into archival ma­te­rial.

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