Insidious Selfies: Should Leaders Act like the Rest of Us?

The age of selfie politics is upon us, and it is time to examine the message behind it.

Last year in May, President Barack Obama came to Malaysia for the first time. When he was here, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a selfie with the most powerful man in the world. It made headlines. And then Najib posted another selfie with Obama, this time in the Beast, the presidential car.

This was not the first time our Prime Minister took selfies.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

In November 2013, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Najib took a selfie with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Lee tweeted the photograph into a frenzied social media. It received a lot of attention, many fans and many critics. But people were mostly just amused.

Our Prime Minister also took other “big shot” selfies (pun intended), notably with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono when he was still President of Indonesia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister-turned-President who, at the height of social unrest in his country, banned Twitter.

Other leaders are doing it too.

A month after the Najib-Lee selfie in Colombo, Obama took a selfie with UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg.

So it's a global thing, but do you see the problem?

Now we have our politicians, prime ministers and presidents – the President of the US even – doing things that we normal people do. We have big powerful leaders becoming… (gasp!) just like one of us. They too use Twitter and Facebook and do silly things like taking selfies. They are just like us!

But are they? Or are they just pretending to do so in a novel fashion?

The Bluffing Interpreter or the Interpreter of Bluff?

One of my favourite contemporary philosophers, Slovenian Slavoj Zizek, once told the following story:

When Obama delivered the eulogy at Mandela’s memorial service, the one where he took a three-person selfie, it was telecasted live and a South African man, Thamsanqa Jantjie, was standing beside the President, providing sign language interpretation of Obama’s speech. After a while, those who knew sign language suddenly realised in horror that Jantjie the interpreter was not doing sign language at all. What he did were merely empty meaningless gestures.

What is happening here? What is the relationship between politics, selfies and a bluffing sign language interpreter?

There used to be a time when leaders were far and distant from the public. Public life for them was one of decorum and propriety. I think, today, in the age of the selfies, it is now left perhaps only to those in the legal fraternity to imagine this decorum. Justices do not mingle outside the bench. In other words, judges do not socialise; they do not act or speak carelessly even outside the court; they do not become like one of us. They keep a certain distance, a certain exclusivity. This is important for the image of regal impartiality to be maintained. The inscrutable judge has to weigh issues like the proverbial and equally unknowable “reasonable man.” The “unknowability” keeps the judges impassioned and “pure”. A free-mingling with the public may “corrupt” and “influence” his decisions. This is significant indeed.

Somewhere along the way, and I argue that it coincided with the advent of televised political speeches and mass media campaigns, leaders began to adopt a new approach – one where they project themselves as being one of us, with personal weaknesses and personal struggles. They ride on motorbikes just like us, fly Air Asia promo instead of SIA business class, just like us. And they are sometimes a little playful. Like us, they take selfies.

Do you see the irony? When we were young, we sometimes would say that we wanted to be the Prime Minister. But the joke is, now, the Prime Minister wants to be us.

What I want to say is this: the selfies and the “I am just like you” masks must not be believed. How can politicians be like common people?

What is the message behind this, behind what I call “selfie politics”?

There is Nothing behind the Circus, only More Circus

I think it is clear what the subtle message is: trust me (regardless of the missing RM2.6bil), I am just like you. Vote for me (despite the NSC Bill); support me (even though I’m surrounded by scandals), because I know your problems, your weaknesses, your struggles, your aspirations, your dreams. I know them because, hey, look, I have them too! I am one of you. I am just like you.

Syerleena Abdul Rashid

Tucker McIntosh, great-grandson of former US President Lyndon B. Johnson, takes a selfie with former President Bill Clinton. .

Let me tell you, it’s all vacuous.

Just like our South African sign language interpreter, Jantjie, and here I would like to quote Zizek’s reading of the whole South African fracas:

“Jantjie’s performance was not meaningless – precisely because it delivered no particular meaning (the gestures were meaningless), it directly rendered meaning as such – the pretence of meaning.”

In other words, the interpreter’s performance became meaningful because it exposed the truth behind the whole setup of the memorial, the political speeches, and even the need to show how we are inclusive and have a sign language interpreter on stage.

The truth is the whole thing was a scam. There was absolutely no meaning whatsoever in this political drama and, hence, Jantjie correctly interpreted the event as simple nonsense.

Jantjie later apologised and claimed that he is schizophrenic. But many stayed angry at him. Some said that what he was doing was not sign language but rather a circus act. I think that hit the nail on the head. But within the grand scheme of things, Jantjie was merely interpreting the political circus taking place behind the stage. There was really nothing behind the circus, only more circus.

What I want to say is this: the selfies and the “I am just like you” masks must not be believed. How can politicians be like common people? Surely ordinary citizens cannot command armies of police to assault those who criticise their lavish lifestyles or make fun of their “menabung” theatrics. Surely the people have no state machinery to use against those who disagree with their opinions or their actions.

Another day at the office. Selfie with special assistant, Joshua Woo.

Selfie taken during City Walk 2016.

So how can politicians be like the people? The party’s over; behind the selfie is NOT a person like you and you and you. Behind the selfie is someone who has the money and the power and the tools to decide over the lives of millions and the lives of future generations.

Just like the South African interpreter, the political selfie is merely an empty gesture, meaningless because it is a pretension of meaning.

Do Not be Conned by Selfie Politics

A politician's personal life is less important than whether he is corrupted, whether he abuses power or whether he is a good administrator. When a Prime Minister says he is sorry for failing to do his job, it is not the same thing as friends saying sorry to one another. A worthless friend can be tolerated, but not a worthless Prime Minister. A friend with flaws is different from a Prime Minister with flaws. A silly friend is amusing or even fun to be with, but a silly Prime Minister is destructive for the country.

The Prime Minister holds public office. We entrust him to do his job with sincere effort even if the results are not perfect. But if he cannot deliver, the party’s over for him – no charming selfies or cute personal touches should save him from resigning.

The Prime Minister holds public office. We entrust him to do his job with sincere effort even if the results are not perfect. But if he cannot deliver, the party’s over for him – no charming selfies or cute personal touches should save him from resigning.

If you wish for “grassroots politicians”, the scary thing is, you may get what you want – in the form of selfie politicians. They will minum teh with you, watch World Cup with you at the mamak stall, go to your rubbish dump with you; they will take photos with babies; they will take photos and tell you bits of their personal lives on Facebook; they will wear slippers and sarongs and wade into floodwaters and ride motorbikes, cycle or run with you and do whatever to show you, “Hey, I am just like you”.

That’s politicians per Handbook 101. I know, I am a politician – mea culpa!

But by then, you are done; you are up the creek.

When selfie politics sell, the pressure is on the good politicians. They will have to keep up. They will have to do the hard work running the country whether as government or as opposition; and whenever they can, they will have to try to make time for selfie politics of their own. Because if they don’t, they will not survive in a political market that has come to equate selfie politics with good politics.

This article was first published in The Malaysian Insider on December 5, 2015.



Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam. Readers can check out his selfies and other stuff at StevenSimCK.

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