Post-truth culture, the new norm

By Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir - 9 January 2017 @ 10:24 AM

Fireworks and the merriment of the new year are over. We are back to the reality of what lies ahead in 2017. As usual, political pundits, professionals and amateurs alike are busy with their crystal balls portending the possibilities of this year’s political landscape.

Two weeks into 2017, issues that have been plaguing the international and local stage in the past year have yet to simmer down. Instead, some have taken a new turn. These new political events will unquestionably unfold as politics continues to dominate all else.

Malaysia is not spared, domestically as well as internationally. Issues ranging from within democratic institutions, inter- and intra-party debacles to the impact of international and regional politics, such as the threat of terrorism, the South China Sea conflict as well as the Rohingya genocide, have also affected the country.

Since 2008, Malaysian politics has no longer followed the normal path. The 12th General Election had paved the way for a new normal and, as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak alluded to, business is not as usual any more. The new normal for Malaysians include attempting to create another two-party system, street demonstrations, accepting social media postings as gospel truth and the diminishing of private space.

Another element is the post-truth culture, where emotions rule and shape public opinion in decision-making. For instance, the tragic end of Iraq after it was occupied in 2003 by the United States armed forces, cloaked by the illusion of the existence of WMDs (weapon of mass destruction). Iraq’s destruction and the loss of innocent lives were amongst the first indication of the post-truth culture, where the powers that be were influenced by emotions and coerced perception rather than by the actual truth.

Not only were the Americans unsuccessful at finding WMDs, but they also did not succeed in establishing peace in the region.

Similarly, the spores of post-truth have spread further to various Middle Eastern countries under the popular uprising called the Arab Spring, including Tunisia, Egypt and Libya as well as all the way to African countries, such as Nigeria and Zambia. It spread like leprosy, eating from the inside out, destroying nations — this is what is happening to Syria.

This culture also hit home and triggered incidents in the like of Bersih street demonstrations, because issues are framed by appealing to feelings and emotions rather than details of policy. The repeated assertion of talking points and ignoring factual rebuttals had brought people to the streets.

The resulting effect is such that, in the last general election, Barisan Nasional was falsely accused of bringing in 40,000 jet-loaded Bangladeshis to win the election. Everybody remembers how this fallacious allegation caused chaos at almost every polling centre.

Facts and truth have become mere shadows in the backlight, and have less influence in shaping public opinion. This is the result of appealing to emotions, and having personal beliefs at the forefront. Slanderous and vitriolic messages are being disseminated indiscriminately via social media.

Najib, his family, his leadership and the party have been made the target of this post-truth, slanderous movement.

Domestic issues, such as 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) are being portrayed in the international context, which exfoliates another layer of political games.

The involvement of foreign players and lobbyists to unseat the government has made us aware that Malaysian politics is not only a product of a domestically manufactured political machine to fight the ruling government.

These are amongst the post-truth issues that are uppermost in our minds. As the general election looms near, the question repeatedly asked is, how will BN fare? How will the “3M force” (Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir) spin facts to convince the masses?

Analysing one crisis to another makes it clear that the opposition has yet to provide a credible platform that can convince the masses.

Since Donald Trump’s triumph in the recent US presidential election, several political models have been debunked on predicting results. This includes opinion polls, the media and social media tools, which apparently failed to capture the actual opinions of the majority. This, undoubtedly, poses concerns for the opposition on whether to rely on what they have at hand and to judge the number of those present at their functions.

The real challenge now is how to target, organise and motivate voters. It is within this grasp that BN has a more cohesive system compared with the opposition. But, BN cannot rest on its laurels.

With all that has been said and done, BN’s track record cannot be solely relied upon to win the people’s support. Other elements, including the new normal and post-truth culture, must be addressed to ensure that we will not only win the war but also all the battles.

Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir is Perak menteri besar

The April 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad. Post-truth culture played a pivotal part in compelling the United States to invade Iraq under the pretense of uncovering weapons of mass destruction.