‘And those who seek to defend our political Pinocchio’s will argue that lying has always been part of political theater. But above heightened community expectations about truth-telling, they also conveniently overlook how the political lie has now gone into hyper drive.’
Consumerist: Make Political Lies A Criminal Offense!
There is a simple way to reverse the spiral of distrust that is slowly destroying Malaysia’s democracy!
Yes, there is a way forward by making lying by politicians a criminal offense!
We cannot deny any longer that Malaysians are in the midst of a trust emergency – a terminal turn-off from our democratic system caused by a growing disconnect between what we hear politicians say and what we know to be the truth.
Let me be precise to what I am alluding to!
To be clear, this would not include the evasions and splitting hairs that pervade so-called “normal” political life.
I am referring to the malicious, calculated, blatant and outright lies – uttered to deliberately mislead the public – and these – need to be dealt with as swiftly and effectively as they are dealt with in other spheres of society.
To me addressing this issue of “political lie” illegal might seem a drastic step.
But, fellow Malaysians, we are facing a drastic problem.
Malaysia’s democratic system depends on trust and transparency to work effectively.
This is even more so in a world where citizens are far less likely to take what politicians say at face value.
Thanks to the internet and the immediacy of hyper-networked information, facebook, twitter, and a host of other mediums and community expectations about our leaders and truth-telling have increased.
Malaysians expect more because we now know the difference between truth and lies much faster than ever, and with greater amounts of real-time transparency.
Despite that political life in Malaysia, as with many other democracies around the world, remains stuck in the dark ages.
This is a parallel universe where evading the truth through sophistry or spin remains one of the most saleable skills in the eyes of our political class.
But in contrast in the real world – hello – anyone who knowingly lies to a court of law risks going to jail.
A company head who lies about his or her business or the products it offers can be jailed, fined, or banned from business, or all three.
In comparison, lies told by a politician are usually about much bigger issues, and have more implications for the broader public than a controversial business arrangement.
I have always stated this as the lead Consumer Advocate that the ripple effect of the political lie – particularly election promises that are uttered with no intent to follow through – has the potential to impact on the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people.
But more fundamentally, a continual stream of political lies and quarter-truths corrodes our most precious asset – our democratic system. And the cost of that to our society and way of life is incalculable.
And those who seek to defend our political Pinocchio’s will argue that lying has always been part of political theater. But above heightened community expectations about truth-telling, they also conveniently overlook how the political lie has now gone into hyper drive.
So with politics no longer the art of the possible, but, the art of the dissemble, the problem of the political lie will only get worse.
And our democratic system and the trust needed to sustain it will continue to corrode to a point of no return. So drastic, punitive action must be taken. The question of course is how would it work?
Like a corruption commission, political truth-telling would be overseen by an independent integrity body (let’s call it the Truth in Politics Commission) with special powers to investigate and summon witnesses. To ensure it is not bogged down with the trivial day-to-day evasions of political speak, the standards of evidence and culpability would need to be high. Only the big lies would be fingered.
Its biggest challenge would be to establish whether a politician knowingly lied.
But the real point of the commission, would be the threat of criminal sanctions, as much as the sanctions themselves. Knowing there is a watchdog with a big “truth stick” would make politicians think twice before embarking knowingly on a lie. Of course, they could resort to denial that they knew they were lying.
But given the stark choice of admitting dishonesty and incompetence, how long would any politician last in the court of public opinion?
Certainly, the Truth in Politics Commission would have its hands full in its early days.
But once new honesty standards were enshrined and new accountability benchmarks made clear, the political world would find its balance.
Open and honest discussion – not the current unaccountable circus of spin and doublespeak – would become the new benchmark for political skill. This would be quickly rewarded by voters who would fall over themselves to reward honesty and plain speaking.
Did you know that there was a proposal to make lying to Parliament by politicians illegal was floated in Britain prior to national elections there this year.
And to date, more than 20,000 citizens have signed up to an online petition supporting the idea. It is early days but it’s an indication that the days of the political lie might be numbered.
An inconvenient truth for our politicians perhaps, but a very welcome truth for the rest of us.
May the ALMIGHTY save us from lying Politicians and their cronies!