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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Political rhetoric to the fore

Weigh the threats with caution

When the member from Gombak, Azmin Ali, wanted to tear down the walls of the Sungai Buloh Prison to free Anwar Ibrahim if he were to be found guilty at his current on-going trial for sodomy, or a leader promising to take to the streets if the election results were not to their liking, then we should be careful.

By Zainul Ariffin Md Isa, New Straits Times

WITH the political season heating up, our daily diet of speeches has gotten hotter. This is the time for political speak, which is often high on rhetoric and metaphors.

So for the upcoming general election, Umno and Barisan Nasional (BN) members have been advised by their president to prepare for war, while Pakatan Rakyat leaders have been asking us to help them to save the country.

Some speeches are to inspire, some to motivate, some to proclaim, while others to incite. Politicians, by profession, do a lot of them to drum up support and rouse people into action (read vote). Some do that and nothing else, ever on the stump from the first day they were elected.

People get the exaggerations and the over-the-top-ness of great political speak, since they add colour and vigour, and are able to encapsulate ideas in a nutshell for easy and manageable bites. They get the adrenaline going and make an otherwise passive act of listening into a participatory thing.

But even if people understand that in the heat of battle we tend to say things, they are unlikely to tolerate flippant, chauvinistic and racist remarks -- hence, for example, the controversy that followed Pas deputy president Mat Sabu's belittling of dead servicemen and Perak assemblyman Nga's racist reference to his mentri besar.

When Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said his party should be prepared for war, we know no one was training for combat nor expecting to put life or limb on the line. It's war, but not the warring kind -- the battlegrounds are the constituencies; it is not turf nor resources the fight is all about, but instead a share of voters' hearts and minds.

Politicians like to evoke a sense of battle. In politics where ideas are grand and visions are pure -- it is the "fight" between good and evil, us against them, our way of life and theirs, etc -- the images get them along quickly.

War suggests battles, and the ultimate outcome of war is that the winner takes all. The loser, too, loses something more precious, which is his sovereignty. So if Umno or BN members don't get the message -- they lose everything if they were defeated in the political battlefield -- then, I suppose, nothing else will.

In political speak, many try to evoke a sense of the divine, too, or semi-divine. The Pas president was famous for branding Umno infidels to the point that animals slaughtered by them were haram. Its adviser, too, can do no wrong and comes out with edicts almost at will.

A sense of drama would be great, too. DAP "Godfather" Karpal Singh suggested that he was willing to die -- over his dead body -- in his opposition of the hudud. I believe it was a figure of speech from him, rattling the cages, though not necessarily literally fighting to the death with his mates in Pas, who at this moment still see hudud as the end game in a Pakatan Rakyat takeover of the government.

It is also good to be lumped by association with underdog political figures, like American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, or Myanmar prisoner of conscience Aung San Suu Kyi, or South African freedom fighter Nelson Mandela, by referring to them in political speeches.

Us, the unwashed masses, should be too thick to see through them, I suppose.

Righteousness is such a common commodity in the Dewan Rakyat, peppered in all speeches that at times we hope all of the righteous right honourable elected members could practise it beyond the confines of the august hall.

But it is when politicians decide to disband from the metaphors and start being specific, which is not along the lines of someone saying that someone is God's gift to Malaysians, that we should worry about.

When the member from Gombak, Azmin Ali, wanted to tear down the walls of the Sungai Buloh Prison to free Anwar Ibrahim if he were to be found guilty at his current on-going trial for sodomy, or a leader promising to take to the streets if the election results were not to their liking, then we should be careful.

Similarly, there is no poetic reference to a suggestion that our submarines cannot dive. There is no vagueness in the statement. Was the intention in the political speech then to rouse anger by propagating unsubstantiated untruths?

Would Azmin really be bringing Anwar supporters armed with hammers and picks to break down the walls? If he was not, then he better find a better speechwriter; his metaphor sucks. There was no reference to the alleged walls of injustice, for instance, but instead the brick and mortar walls of the Sungai Buloh Prison.

If he is serious, then he must surely be an anarchist. The specificity of his threat to create chaos or tear down buildings is a threat at subverting law and order and to create chaos.

Former Bar Council president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan suggested that Myanmar is better than Malaysia in the issue of human rights. We have made the case that politicians -- which I think Ambiga is, based on the company she keeps -- like to exaggerate. But even then, I cannot reconcile her statement with the images of street protesters shot in the streets by the armed forces, and guess what, we are worse off than that.

We can live with the hyperbole. We know when they are full of rhetoric and when they are not. We know they are political speak, mostly words to add spice to the situation.

But surely, we can live without some of them.

Perhaps we can laugh at them as the consequences of politicians getting shallow on ideas trying to drum up emotion in the absence of substance.

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