Rewriting Reality: The Phenomenon of Political Gaslighting

Rewriting Reality: The Phenomenon of Political Gaslighting

A disconcerting culture of gaslighting has firmly taken root in Malaysian politics, weaving a web of deception that manipulates perceptions and erodes the trust of the people.

‘Gaslighting’ is a term many of us are at least somewhat familiar with. In fact, It became the Word of the Year for 2022, according to Merriam-Webster, following an astronomical surge in searches for the term on their website.

We usually have no trouble recognising gaslighting in the context of interpersonal relationships. We hear and read about it on social media; we discuss it in conversations; and we see it manifesting itself in the people around us. But, when it is played out on a mass level in the political arena, it is not always as easily identifiable. Think politicians who denounced news reports as slander because it did not fit their narrative, who tied corruption to race and religion, or the non-commitment to eradicating political appointments, the backtracking on reforms, and the denial of election promises inscribed in their manifesto.

Political gaslighting, more often than not, is subtle and insidious, making it difficult for us to distinguish deception from genuine information. And like it or not, our personal biases, emotions, and preconceived beliefs do us no favour by clouding our judgement and rendering us even more susceptible to this form of psychological manipulation.

Gaslighting is most effective when the victim already holds the perpetrator in high esteem, or attributes power to them. By leveraging this dynamic, the gaslighter capitalises on the victim’s goodwill and exploits the power imbalance to their advantage. Let’s consider how political bigwigs like Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim sometimes seem convinced that they can backtrack on things they said moments earlier without consequences. Initially, Anwar had asserted that he had not considered keeping the portfolio of finance minister for himself; and, in the past, highlighted the importance that a Prime Minister should refrain from holding the post of Finance Minister. He eventually performed a one-eighty and claimed the post for himself. Rather than expressing a sense of contrite, he would vigorously deny any wrongdoing on his part, fully aware of his advantageous position within the power dynamics at play.

The essence of gaslighting lies in the deliberate distortion of truth. By creating false or alternate narratives, the gaslighter sows seeds of doubt and undermine the victims’ confidence in their perception of reality, leading to the questioning of their own sanity or memory, subverting of their judgement, and becoming increasingly dependent on the gaslighter’s version of events.

On Sunday, Minister of Economy Rafizi Ramli told reporters that there is no plan to revise economic projections and suggested that the current downward trajectory of the ringgit has its benefits. This marks a notable departure from Rafizi’s previous narrative on the negative implications of a weakening ringgit prior to GE15. He further argued that the higher the oil price and the weaker our currency, the more money ‘we’ get. It should be noted, however, that while the concept of higher oil revenues contributing to national coffers is generally understood, a depreciating currency would not directly benefit small-medium business owners, let alone the working class. In fact, the devaluation of ringgit could worsen several persisting issues in Malaysia, including reduced purchasing power, increased inflationary pressure from imports, widening income disparities and heightened economic uncertainties.

Gaslighting is undeniably a favored tactic of ministers who oversold lofty expectations and impossible formulas, but ultimately fail to deliver on their promises. Gaslighters find it difficult to take responsibility for their own limitations and frustrations, preferring instead to project negative narratives onto others. Take Rafizi on matters of inflation. From blaming consumers and eateries, to making an analogy by comparing the Malaysian economy to a fat person; he often oversimplifies the economic challenges faced by the country, which undermines the need for nuanced analysis and thoughtful solutions, and distracts the public from scrutinising his role in ensuring better enforcements.

Reluctance to accept accountability is not a trait unique to Rafizi alone within the current administration. A recent example of this is Minister of Youth and Sport Hannah Yeoh who refused to offer an apology for Malaysia’s most underwhelming performance ever in the history of the Sea Games, instead attributing it to political instability. I think Yeoh missed the point here. No one reasonable would have had expected her to alter the course of history in the matter of months. As a minister, she embodies not only herself, but also her entire ministry and the government of Malaysia. Therefore, when an apology is extended, it is never indicative of an admission of shortcomings in her personal capacity, but rather on behalf of the collective entity (the government of Malaysia) she represents; and as a verbal affirmation to improve and strive for better results next round.

Dear Malaysian leaders, the pursuit for a strong and united Malaysia requires a newfound dedication to replace political gaslighting with a genuine commitment to the betterment of our nation. Transparency and honesty must be the bedrock of our political discourse. Respect the dignity and intelligence of the rakyat by presenting them with accurate information, even when it challenges your own narrative. Prioritise the needs and aspirations of the people over political expediency. Embrace a culture of accountability, where promises made are fulfilled, and where the concerns of the people are listened to and addressed with sincerity.

At the end of the day, true leadership is not measured by the the accumulation or preservation of power; it’s measured by the size of their legacy of progress and unity they leave behind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *