Say you will, say you won’t

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 misinterpreted 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 personal 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 private 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 politicians 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.

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