Emotional politics and the reasonable voter


  • Opinion
  • Tuesday, 04 Jul 2017

THE political climate in Malaysia is becoming increasingly heated, especially with the 14th general election having to be held soon.

For the politicians, there is a very short span of time left, especially in terms of making sure that all the political planning is in place to win the election.

Political parties try to use all sorts of arguments and rhetoric to convince the rakyat that they are the most suitable party or front to lead the country to a much better, more prosperous and just future.

Since politicians mainly target the common folk, arguments that will appeal more to emotion seem to be among the best rhetorical choices for some politicians. Therefore, orators and rhetoricians will be placed in the front seat of their political campaigns.

Great orators-cum-politicians – such as Germany’s Adolf Hitler, Indo­nesia’s Sukarno, America’s Mar­tin Luther King Jr and Britain’s Winston Churchill – have had a great influence on people’s political decisions. Thus, the saying by Prophet Muhammad rings true: “In eloquence there is magic.”

Only with the power of speech can thousands and millions of people be bewildered and influenced into making a decision, including unanticipated major decisions.

This can be seen, for example, in the case of Donald Trump’s win in the US presidential election that shocked the world and stunned most political pundits.

A similar case is Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum, where the unpopular result emerged out of the extreme campaign that was run by pro-Brexit groups.

It shows how unusual results will happen when people are deluded by the aggressive ideas brought about by politicians.

Indeed, the context that surrounds the particular issues also plays an important role in influen­cing unexpected results.

But it is also clear that the way the issue is projected and manipulated through rhetoric and the twists and turns of words is also instrumental in determining the result of an election.

But the more pertinent question is, how sound is the decision made during the general election by and for the people at large, especially in the five years to come after the election and before the coming of the next gene­ral election?

This is important because the policies that are promised and agreed upon will be used for a long-term period.

There are a lot of examples of policies that were promised in the election which eventually could not be implemented, because they were ambitious “over-promises” made by political parties with the sole intention of winning the election.

It is therefore very important that the rakyat must be properly educated, where their reason must play a bigger role when listening to political promises and rhetoric.

They must see themselves as being in the position of a judge – one who has the power to give wise and proper judgments only after listening to both defenders and prosecutors in a particular case.

They cannot let themselves be like people who are deluded after being entranced by the charm and persuasion of a demagogue.

In a democracy, it is the people who decide. The rakyat are the ones who choose those who are qualified to lead them.

But this will only take place when their sense of reason and sanity are in its proper place, and not easily trapped and deluded by mere rhetoric.

A great deal of sobriety is needed for people to properly assess the issues and planning put forward by political parties.

Ultimately, it is the masses that have to be properly educated. Great political philosophers such as Plato and the Syrian Abu Nasr al-Farabi have proposed a list of virtues that politicians as well as people at large have to possess in order to create a virtuous state.

Both sages suggest that a virtuous state can only be founded on the principles of the realisation of human excellence through good virtues.

Plato, for example, placed justice as one of the important virtues of man, not only in politics but in all aspects of life.

Nevertheless, the virtue of justice can only be achieved through three other pertinent virtues – namely wisdom, courage and moderation. Along with justice, these are the four cardinal virtues that serve as the important ethical foundation for politics.

Man, indeed, is a microcosmic representation of the political state outside him, or on a bigger scale, the universe at large.

If on the bigger scale, it is God who rules the universe with His justice and blessing, it is the wise and just ruler who rules the state with justice on the smaller scale.

And on the smallest scale, it is the reason of man which rules his whole self with the virtues of wisdom and justice.

Just as in the case of the universe where God’s rule creates the cosmos and keeps it in harmony, similarly does man’s proper reasoning create good political and social condition at the microcosmic level.

According to al-Farabi, a virtuous state can be defined as a state in which human beings come together and cooperate with the aim of becoming virtuous, performing noble activities and attaining happiness.

And the attainment of happiness means the perfection of the power of the human soul that is specific to man, i.e., his reason.

That is how important the role of reason is in politics. Only with proper wisdom can humans really leave a positive impact when analysing issues and ultimately deciding on suitable leaders for the country.

  • Dr Mohd Farid Mohd Shahran is director of Ikim’s Centre for Study of Syariah, Law and Politics. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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