A convenient lie believed is more powerful than the truth


Is it really difficult to be an honest leader?

About a fortnight ago, the then Ukrainian prime minister, Arseniy Yatseniuk, gave several remarkable press interviews in which he condemned the Russians for puppeteering the rebels fighting for separation from Ukraine, culminating in the rebels firing a missile that downed flight MH17.

What made it so noteworthy was the naked emotion on display, with him pulling no punches in labelling his adversaries “bast****”. It felt like he was being brazenly honest, in stark contrast to the control most politicians have when facing the public. Usually it’s hard to even tell if they’re telling the truth.

A website called Politifact assesses statements made by American politicians and rates them on how true they are. It may not surprise you that it’s not unusual to find politicians to tell more half-truths or falsehoods than otherwise.

Malaysian politicians are not immune to this either. Earlier this year, an online news portal presented a list of “reneged promises” made by Pakatan Rakyat leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Along with his claim that he would retire to become a professor if Pakatan Rakyat lost the general election (he did not), he also said he would not contest the Kajang by-election the day before he was announced as a candidate. The opposition leader also rubbished reports that he would take over Tan Sri Khalid’s position as Selangor Menteri Besar as mere “speculation”.

Of course, promises have their own contexts of circumstances when they were made. For example, Anwar insisted that Pakatan Rakyat were robbed of their rightful victory by a campaign of dirty tricks by their opponents, so PR did not really lose. And just because something is “speculation”, it doesn’t mean it isn’t “true”.

It is possible to always tell the truth and yet leave enough out so that for all intents and purposes, you’re lying. Possibly the most famous of such statements in recent US politics was when Bill Clinton said with conviction, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”. It took cross examination in front of a grand jury to understand how narrow the definition of “sexual relations” was for the President.

You assert your point of view while conveniently ignoring all evidence to the contrary, and you do it with such conviction that you forget where you crossed the line.

I myself have seen this sort of behaviour up close. Recently, several MPs were invited to a presentation organised by local community groups who were protesting the development of a project by the city council. My interest in this project is partly because my house is directly affected by it, and partly because I know a few people who are working on the project.

I also knew that four of the MPs there that night had already been briefed by the implementing company about the project. When the MPs were invited to speak, I was keen to see, given they had more knowledge about the project, if they would plead to the audience to look at both sides of the story.

The first MP said the existing administration should listen to the rakyat. The second said if the existing administration could not do their job, they should be rejected by the rakyat. The third said there must be a process to listen and review.

Everything the first three MPs were saying was true and yet not particularly specific to the current issue. They were generic statements churned out at any time on an election trail, soundbites to be tweeted so that they were relevant at any time for any situation. Yet, when I looked around the room, I saw most of the audience were lapping it up. Their voices, so loud and critical when aimed at those who opposed them suddenly turned timid in the face of stale plaudits sung in their favour.

Then, the fourth MP stood up to talk. She explained she had key reports from the company and after examining them, she decided the traffic problems it would cause were not worth it. This MP said that this information only came to light because she and a few ADUNs worked hard to compel the company to give the preliminary reports to them.

My contacts in the company disagreed with this. According to them, they were the ones who worked hard to get in contact with the MP so that they could give her the reports to persuade her to come to their side. The report also said overall traffic would decrease, not increase.

Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but we have to recognise that politicians act not as experts in various scientific fields, nor are they neutral arbiters of justice. What they are experts in are in getting themselves elected. Or in the case of these four MPs, re-elected.

And many of them do so by making it clear they are on the side of the rakyat, by finding a topical issue, planting it into the ground, see where the crowds gather, and then preaching to the converted. Look at me, they say, I am on the people’s side. Wouldn’t you prefer a leader who leads rather than one who waits for you to show him where you want to go and gains credit for just turning up?

But perhaps being an honest leader is difficult. At the end of it, Prime Minister Yatseniuk resigned from his post, citing difficulties in getting key military budgets passed amidst the political turmoil. Put in this context, his anger earlier that week looks to be borne of frustration from a man under siege. But at least when he spoke out, the words seemed honest.

> Logic is the antithesis of emotion for mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi.

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