This is a long overdue article. I had written most part of it in 2014, and then I left it unpublished.
I think it’s a good deferment. Along the way, I developed new insights. And I read what other people say about this subject.
Last year in May, President Barack Obama came to Malaysia for the first time. When he was here, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a selfie with the most powerful man in the world. It made headlines. And then PM Najib posted another selfie with Obama, this time in the Beast, the presidential car.
This was not the first time our prime minister took selfies.
In November 2013, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Colombo Sri Lanka, Najib took a selfie with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. PM Lee tweeted the photograph into a frenzied social media. It received a lot of attention, many fans, and many critics. But mostly people were just amused.
Our prime minister also did other ‘big shot’ selfies (pun intended) as well, notably with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, when he was still president of Indonesia, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish PM turned president who at the height of social unrest in his country banned Twitter.
And other leaders do it, too.
A month after the Najib-Lee selfie in Colombo, Obama did a selfie with UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt right at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg.
So it’s a global thing, but do you see the problem?
Now we have our politicians, our prime ministers and presidents, the president of the United States of America even, doing things that we normal people do. We have big powerful leaders becoming… (gasp!) just like one of us. They too use Twitter and Facebook and do silly things like selfie. They are just like us!
But are they?
The bluffing interpreter or the interpreter of bluff?
One of my favourite contemporary philosophers, the Slovenian Slavoj Zizek, told the following story: When Barack Obama delivered the eulogy at Mandela’s memorial service, the one where he did a three-person selfie, seen on live telecast TV was a South African man, Thamsanqa Jantjie, standing beside the president making sign-language interpretation of Obama’s speech. After a while, those who knew sign language suddenly realised in horror that Jantjie the interpreter was not doing sign language at all. What he did was merely empty meaningless gestures.
What is happening here? What is the relationship between politics, selfies and a bluffing sign language interpreter?
There used to be a time when leaders were far and distant from the public. Public life is one of decorum and propriety, or properness. I think today, in the age of selfies, it is easier for those in the legal fraternity to imagine this decorum. Justices do not mingle outside the bench.
In other words, judges do not socialise, they do not act or speak carelessly even outside the court. They do not become like one of us. They keep a certain distant, a certain exclusivity.
This is important to maintain the image of regal impartiality. The unknowable judge was to weigh issues like the proverbial and equally unknown ‘reasonable man’. The unknowability keeps the judges impassioned and ‘pure’. A free mingling with the public may ‘corrupt’ and ‘influence’ the decision of the judge.
But somehow, and I argue it coincided with the advent of televised political speeches and mass media campaigns, public leaders begin to take another approach.
One where they project themselves to be someone like us, with personal weaknesses (remember the alleged First Lady of Malaysia or Flom’s “I have no time to play badminton” and “I feel sorry for my husband and he for me”), personal struggles (“menabung dari kecil”), they ride on motorbikes just like us, fly AirAsia promo instead of SIA business class, just like us. And they are sometimes a little playful, like us they take selfies.
Do you see the irony? When we were young, sometimes, we say we want to be a prime minister, but the joke is, now the prime minister wants to be us.
What is the message here, behind this, what I call, selfie politics?
There is nothing behind the circus, only circus
I think it is clear, the subtle message is: Trust me (regardless of RM2.6 billion), I am just like you. Vote me (despite the National Security Council or NSC Bill), support me (even though I’m scandalous), because I know your problems, your weaknesses, your struggles, your aspirations, your dreams. I know them because hey look, I have them too! I am one of you. I am just like you.
Let me tell you, it’s bulls**t.
Just like our South African sign language interpreter, Jantjie, and here I would like to quote Zizek’s reading of the whole South African fracas: “Jantjie’s performance was not meaningless – precisely because it delivered no particular meaning (the gestures were meaningless), it directly rendered meaning as such – the pretence of meaning.”
In other words, the interpreter’s performance became meaningful because it exposed the truth behind the whole set-up of the memorial, the political speeches, and even the need to show how we are inclusive and have a sign language interpreter on stage.
What is this truth? The truth is, the whole thing is a scam. There is absolutely no meaning whatsoever in all this political drama and hence, Jantjie correctly interpreted the event as a big nonsense.
Jantjie later apologised and claimed that he is schizophrenic, but many people were angry with him. Some said what he was doing was not sign language but rather a circus act. I think they nailed it. But behind the grand scheme of thing, by the accident twist of fate, Jantjie was merely interpreting the political circus taking place behind the show. There is really nothing behind the circus, only circus.
What I want to say is this; do not be deceived by the selfies and the “I am just like you” masks.
How can politicians be like the people? Surely ordinary citizens cannot command armies of police to assault those who criticise their lavish lifestyle or make fun of their “menabung” theatrics. Surely the people have no state machinery to go after those who disagree with their opinions or their actions. So how are politicians like the people?
The party’s over, behind the selfie is NOT a person like you and you and you. Behind the selfie is someone who has the money and the power and the tools to decide on lives of millions and the lives of our future generations.
Just like the South African interpreter, the political selfie is merely an empty gesture, meaningless because they refer to the pretension of meaning by the politicians in question. In other words, this is the self same circus, meant to distract us.
The prime minister is a public office
A politician’s personal life is less important than whether he is corrupted, whether he abuses power, whether he is a good administrator.
Do not be conned, when a prime minister said he is sorry when he failed to deliver his job in public office, it is not like friends saying sorry to one another. A lousy friend can be tolerated, but not a lousy prime minister. A friend with flaws is different from a prime minister with flaws. A silly friend is amusing or even fun to be with, but a silly prime minister is destructive to the country.
The prime minister is a public office, we entrust him to do his job with perfect effort if not perfect result. If he cannot deliver, the party’s over for him, no charming selfies or cute personal touch should save him from the sacking.
Do not be conned and demand for the so-called ‘grassroots politicians’. Because the scary thing is, you will get what you want – in the form of selfie politicians.They will minum teh with you, watch World Cup with you at the mamak stall, go to your rubbish dump with you, they will take photos with babies, they will take photos and tell you bits of their personal lives on Facebook, they will wear slippers and sarongs and go into the flood water and ride on motorbikes and cycle and run and do whatever to show you, “hey, I am just like you”.
That’s politicians PR handbook 101. I know, I am a politician – mea culpa!
By then, you are done.
When you demand such selfie politics, the good politicians will have to keep up. They will have to do all the hard work of running the country whether as government or as opposition, and then add in all those selfie politics stuff. Because if they don’t, they will not survive a market which now has come to demand for selfie politics and has come to equate selfie politicians as good politicians.