Selfie Politics: Perhaps We Need Superheroes After All


Sim as Superman, with brother in arms and MP for Bukit Bendera, Zairil Khir Johari, as Batman during the Justice League Run last year.

I wrote recently about “selfie politics” – how politicians try to project an “I’m-like-youthe- normal-people” image, exemplified by the proliferation of selfie-taking by politicians.

“(P)oliticians project themselves to be someone like us, with personal weaknesses, personal struggles; 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.” Someone said this to me, after reading the essay, “Do not underestimate the power of selfies.”

Actually, far from it, I am fully aware of the power of selfies, if my article was not clear enough. My problem with it is not that it will not work, but rather that it will work against the interest of the people.

There are “good politicians”, don’t get me wrong, and they take selfies too. But that’s beside the point. I am talking about how we have come to equate selfies with “politicians identifying themselves with the people”, equate “being grassroots” with “being good”, equate “humanness” with “reprievable”.

Behind every selfie is a subtle invitation to “come and see how I am a normal human being, just like you, my voters”.

Becoming Human to Continue Sinning

This is really a postmodern problem – the return of “humanness”, the peculiar individuality in all of us, how we have our highs and lows. So that now, even the most corrupted or oppressive leader is really a good father and a good son, and he loves cats and perhaps is even a vegan. As if his human side redeems him of his crime so that he can go on sinning.

This is a far cry from the days when leaders were portrayed as larger-than-life.

A very interesting example: in 2009 the Chinese government commissioned a historical epic, The Founding of a Republic, to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. In one scene, Mao Zedong was sleeping (after popping sleeping pills) when a Kuomintang air raid took place. Soldiers had to literally haul him away to safety in a stretcher, with him drowsily grumbling about his sleep being disturbed.

An unkempt, grumpy, sleepy Mao being carted away to save his life is so much different from Mao, the people’s great saviour, the Great Helmsman whose “thought is the sun that forever shines”. It was a human Mao, 毛爷爷 (Grandpa Mao). And that was propaganda par excellence – Mao the Great Helmsman, who is just like us and thus can identify with us, and the subtle corollary is therefore for us to identify with him.

A small plaque at Fort Canning commemorating Singapore’s Golden Jubilee celebration.

Superheroes Needed, After All

I have always said that there are no “superheroes” in politics. But recently as I was thinking about the shallow selfie politics, I realised that I was wrong, perhaps we do need superheroes after all.

What I mean is this: reflect for a while what a superhero does. He is inconspicuous to us. Like the mild-mannered, almost boring Clark Kent or the post-pubescent Peter Parker. We do not see them – except in crises. Outside of crises, everything should practically operate by auto-pilot without superheroic intervention. Crises, like politicians, should not be a regular feature. When we have to regularly call on our politicians, not only is something broken but the whole system is broken.

I am not saying things will not be broken or interrupted even on a good day, but a good system should be able to recover itself. Potholes do happen, but they should be repaired immediately, even before someone lodges a complaint. Why should we have a bunch of highly paid politicians appearing in the newspaper pointing to potholes and drains and uncut grass? And the amazing thing is, today, these are often indicators for “hardworking YBs”.

I have always said that a politician’s service centre is an indictment against a failed public delivery service. (Caveat: my own service centre is open five and a half days, plus two evenings a week). Taxpayers should be able to go into a government department properly and demand for service easily, not do it through the backdoor from a politician’s service centre.

This was why in Penang we created www. to insist that anyone in this country can go to a government department by themselves and effortlessly request for service. And with technology one does not even have to literally go anywhere, a request for service can be done from one’s smart phone. There you go: Uber for government delivery.

Boring Politics and Government of Small Things

Earlier this week, I was in Singapore for a brief work-related visit. One morning, as I was running at Fort Canning, an old colonial fort converted into a recreational park, I saw small plaques commemorating SG50 (Singapore’s Golden Jubilee celebration) embedded into the ground along the pathway. If one does not pay attention, it is easy to miss these pretty but rather unostentatious decors.

This made me think.

In a time when we are busy chasing for the next "big ideas" or the next brouhaha, we forget that the best solutions are those which are able to deal with the smallest of issues. They work meticulously and often quietly in the background on small things, so much so that we take for granted they are even there at all.

There is no glamour or clamour, only consistency and efficiency. That is how engineers think when we build a system.

Superhero father and son.

The Singapore government is a government of small things. They are disciplined enough to deal with even a small plaque on the ground. They pay attention to what works, not to big words without answers. Politicians have the tendency of saying nothing with many words. But at the same time, a consumerist constituency also wants Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam. to be constantly fed with the opium of excitement. This resulted in selfie politics.

Can we deal with a less exciting – even boring – politics, but one which works? One where we are not constantly looking out for unicorns but instead keeping our eyes on the bolts and nuts of society, ensuring they do not give way. One where politicians are really superheroes who appear only during crises but are otherwise inconspicuous and unobtrusive; where all the political self-promotion does not matter as much as the doctor who saved lives or the engineer who built things or the farmer who gave us quality produce for food or the teacher who nurtured and inspired our kids? So that we finally have politicians who run our country and not celebrities pretending to be politicians or politicians pretending to be celebrities. Your choice really, the kind of politicians and political behaviour you want to encourage and reward.This article first appeared in The Malaysian Insider and The Malay Mail on January 23.

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam.

Related Articles

Oct 2017

Imagine Malaysia Anew!

Malaysians should dare to campaign for change.

Jan 2017

The Budget Speech is NOT the Budget (Part Two)

The federal government’s murky budgeting practices have serious consequences.

Mar 2016

Lessons from Journey to the West

Although now 400 years old, the Chinese satire remains resonant.

Feb 2017

Time to Limit the Logic of the Market

When the final aim is to make a profit, all other things become subordinate.