Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Personality Cults Come With the Territory

Written by johnleemk on 2:22:26 am Oct 2, 2008.

Anwar Ibrahim, Leader of the Opposition, is a common target of derision for his supposed cult of personality and power hunger. Far be it from me to deny the truth — Anwar has his fair share of deranged supporters, and has a history of conveniently changing his stripes for the sake of enhancing his power base. However, allow me to point out an often-overlooked truth as well: any good politician is equally guilty of the same, and this especially includes our much-venerated former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. And at this moment of crisis, the rhetoric Anwar and his Pakatan Rakyat coalition put forward is infinitely more desirable than the nonsense of Mahathir and his favoured Barisan Nasional.

Politics is ultimately personal. As much as we would like it to be about policy, most elections are ultimately decided on questions of personality and character than positions on the issues of the day. We are far more wont to excuse the behaviour and proposals of "our" team than we are to do the same for the other team; Barisan supporters will always be prone to excoriating Anwar's hypocrisy while excusing Mahathir's, and vice-versa for the Pakatan fans. If people really voted for the honest and sincere policy wonks, we would not be making jokes about lying politicians — there is a reason why charisma counts.

Anwar's charisma has always been a bit of a frightening thing for those in power. Since his days as a student radical he has appeared as a genuine man of the masses, one more comfortable with rabblerousing his followers than playing by the rules of the elite in the establishment. One Prime Minister tried to tame him by throwing him in jail; another Prime Minister tried to do the same by giving him a government position. But using his charisma, Anwar simply exploited his new position, wherever he was, be it prison or palace, to spur on his followers and consolidate his influence.

Anwar is clearly a born charismatic leader; it is easy to see why people would spurn him and find his politics distasteful. Rabblerousing with cheap rhetoric is never pleasant for those who can see through the charade. Likewise, blind loyalty to a personality cult is the surest way to persuade a thinking person not to join a particular cause. Many see elements of a personality cult in Anwar's following, and cynically pronounce Anwar's latest stump speeches as another attempt to be all things to all people.

However, even though Mahathir is clearly not the most charismatic politician around, I think it is surprisingly easy to draw parallels between his politics and Anwar's. Mahathir has after all played up various angles of his personality to capitalise on prevailing public sentiment and pander to the masses: his rampant racism in the 1960s and 70s, his promotion of Islamism in the 1980s, his Bangsa Malaysia and secularism in the 1990s, followed by a return to racism and Islamism in the 2000s. Two wrongs never make a right, but I would really like to understand how one can be an ardent supporter of Mahathir and still criticise Anwar for changing his mind on ketuanan Melayu and fundamentalist Islam, considering Mahathir has done the same twice.

Mahathir has never shrunk from promoting his policies in a populist way, one calculated more to appeal to the public than the policymaker. It was him, after all, who touted the target of a population of 70 million by 2100, in spite of the incredible economic growth we would need just to ensure an adequate standard of living for all. It was Mahathir who sold ridiculous protectionist policies doubling or tripling the prices of some foreign automobiles to the public in the guise of promoting Malaysian industry. I'm sure many intelligent people cringed in 1998 when Mahathir promoted his bailout of several collapsing corrupt companies as a snub to the "neocolonialists" and striking a blow for the good of the economy. Anwar's peddling of fuel subsidies to the public almost looks reasonable in the light of these oversimplified and misleading pictures Mahathir once painted for us.

And if we are talking about personality cults now, has anyone been reading the comments on No matter how outrageously obtuse Mahathir's reading of the situation might be, no matter how insanely inaccurate the facts he cites are, his eager club of fanboys lets the errors slip by without hardly a peep. Mahathir might be reviled by many, but his own personality cult is nevertheless very real — full of people ready to accept anything Mahathir says, looking up to him as a towering patriot no matter what he does. In the eyes of thousands, if not millions, Mahathir can do no wrong.

Does this mean both Anwar and Mahathir are to be reviled for playing populist politics and fostering unhealthy cults of personality? I do not think so. I think ultimately these things are part and parcel of politics; they come with the territory; they are there by definition. After all, look at any politician: Samy Vellu, Teresa Kok, Tan Siew Sin, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Dato Onn Ja'afar — did you really think these men and women built their political careers on boring policy analysis? Demagoguery and building a base of ardent supporters are simply things good politicians do.

This does not mean that dirty politics are desirable, not by a long shot: society nearly always benefits when we pick policies based on how we think rather than how we feel. But we ultimately live in a world constrained by the heritage of our reptilian brains, and our innate emotional nature. To call a politician a demagogue is no more an insult than to call a garbage collector smelly.

Today, there are many people skeptical of Anwar's prospects for change; he is, after all, a classic demagogue, long on rhetoric but short on demonstrable ability to solve the problems we face. But to these people I say: the choice is not between an irrational demagogue and a rational policymaker. The choice is between a demagogue who promises the change we need — even if he lacks concrete details on how he will achieve this change — and a party led by men and women who deny we are in a crisis of policy and governance, led by leaders who insist that if we just put a stop to Anwar's politicking, all will be well and hunky dory. We have a choice between a party of rhetoricians who promise to fight discrimination, and a party of rhetoricians who can't even agree on whether there is discrimination to fight. Our institutions are falling apart, and one party believes it can fix them, while the other just blames Pakatan for rightly pointing out these cracks in our country's foundation. It's a risk, taking a chance on Anwar and Pakatan, no doubt. But the risk of entrusting our country to the hands of a party blind to the situation we are in, a party that cannot even decide what its stands on the critical issues of the day are — that risk is far, far more than can ever be worth taking.

First published in The Malaysian Insider.

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