Why politicians don’t lie

The fact is, we keep believing politicians – over and over again – even when something at the back of our mind whispers ‘don’t trust him/her’.

A. Kathirasen, FMT

As I lie down on my bed, eyes half closed, the face of Dr Mahathir Mohamad flits past, followed closely by that of Lim Guan Eng.

As I wonder why the images of these two upstanding men appear in my mind’s eye while I am lying down, I recall a report I had earlier read.

Former prime minister Mahathir had said on June 26 that DAP chairman Lim’s claim that he had threatened to sack the latter, who was finance minister under his Cabinet in 2018, was a “blatant lie”.

He was replying to Lim’s assertion that Mahathir had threatened to sack him thrice in front of other Cabinet members over his insistence on fulfilling the Pakatan Harapan coalition’s election manifesto, including reducing the North-South Highway toll by 18%.

Lim claimed Mahathir had also opposed his efforts to implement open tenders for government procurement and to grant development allocations to MPs.

Mahathir, of course, does not take such attacks lying down and, as expected, fired a salvo at Lim.

The slang match started when Lim accused Mahathir of having “selective memory” and making remarks that painted a favourable picture of himself in a forthcoming book by an ex-aide to former prime minister Najib Razak and that his recollections were “riddled with half-truths and falsehoods”.

In blasting Lim, Mahathir said: “Even if promises are made in a manifesto, the Cabinet cannot become just a rubber stamp.”

Conventional wisdom will have us believe that one of them must be lying and that politicians are inveterate liars.

But do politicians lie?

Mahathir and Lim were referring to the election promises made by Pakatan Harapan prior to the 2018 general election. Mahathir is on record as saying that they had made all these promises because they had not expected to win.

Over the decades, our governments and political leaders who became prime ministers have made a whole load of promises and given us nifty slogans that encapsulated their promises.
The latest is the Malaysia Madani slogan which condenses Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s promise to ensure effective governance, good values, greater freedom, racial harmony and sustainable development.

The Madani government is being criticised for not fulfilling many of the election promises made by both PH and Barisan Nasional, which is now a partner in the government, in the 2022 general election. The latest complaint is that freedom of expression is shrinking.

Remember the 1Malaysia slogan of former prime minister Najib Razak?

It was a promise to bring everyone together, to create a united Malaysia where race and religion would not matter.

But what happened? Didn’t the wedge between the races and religions grow wider during that period? Aren’t there several Malaysias today?

Remember the “People First. Performance Now” tagline that came with it? Did the politicians really put the people first in their policies and programmes? Or did they put some people or party first? Or one family first?

Remember the “Cemerlang, Gemilang, Terbilang” (Excellence, Glory and Distinction) promise of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who preceded Najib as prime minister?

Is there “cemerlang, gemilang, terbilang” in the way, for instance, our political leaders have behaved since 2018, or even earlier?

Remember Mahathir’s “Bersih, Cekap, Amanah” (Clean, Efficient, Trustworthy) tagline launched in 1982? It promised a well-governed and progressive state, and was especially directed at the civil service.

Are politicians today “bersih, cekap, amanah?” Are civil servants?

If they were, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission would be less busy today and the Auditor-General would have less to say about inefficiency and misuse of public funds.

If there really was “bersih, cekap, amanah”, if there really was “cemerlang, gemilang, terbilang”, and if there really was “1Malaysia”, why are we still complaining about the civil service, the education system, “kangkung” professors, cronyism, corruption, disunity and a host of other things?

Mahathir promoted the “Bangsa Malaysia” concept, where everyone would think of himself as a Malaysian first, where there would be a reconciliation of the competing interests and cultures of the various races making up Malaysia.

What happened?

How can ordinary people be expected to consider themselves Malaysian first, when we have leaders who claim to be Malay first? How can people be expected to take pride in being Malaysian when they are discriminated against via various policies and programmes?

How can you expect all citizens to think of themselves as Malaysians when the very man who promoted “Bangsa Malaysia” as part of Vision 2020 never tires of making divisive statements?

Mahathir drones on and on about how the Malays have lost out. For instance, in March 2023, he claimed that the Malays had “lost everything” after he resigned from office following the collapse of the PH government in February 2020.

Then in July 2023, he said Malays were at risk of not only losing the country but of being lost in the world if “Tanah Melayu” was destroyed and replaced by a multiracial Malaysia.

In January 2024, Mahathir claimed the Malays might face extinction within the next decade unless they remained united.

“We (Malays) are as if being subdued by other races without war,” the media quoted Mahathir as saying.

So, were Mahathir’s “Bangsa Malaysia” and “Cekap, Bersih, Amanah” all lies?

Politicians know that voters expect them to make promises. So they tell voters what they want to hear. Would you call that lying?

We want highway tolls to go, so they tell us they will make it go. We want political reforms and freedom of expression, so they tell us they will make it happen. We want equal opportunities for our children, so they tell us they will create a fair society where everyone has a place in the sun.

So, do politicians lie?

The fact is, we keep believing these politicians – over and over again – even when something at the back of our mind whispers “don’t trust him/her”.

What does that say? It says that, essentially, in yearning to believe their sweet words, we are lying to ourselves.