Do celebrities make good politicians? — Khoo Ying Hooi
JUNE 25 — The wave of celebrity involvement in politics is in. Recently, we have heard about celebrities joining either Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat for their very own reasons.
The participation of celebrities in politics is not new. However, the intensification of the scenario is apparent prior to the most talked-about general election in the Malaysian politics.
There are many questions that crop up in mind about celebrity turning politician. Does their popularity could influence voters’ behaviour? Do they add value to a political party?
It is natural to raise ambiguities about competency of celebrities as politicians. After all, it is commonly understood that celebrities live in a world far different from the ordinary people.
In such a scenario, is it possible for them to understand the struggle of the people and get their hands dirty working in his or her constituency?
Amy Search, Mus May and Ibnor Riza Ibrahim have joined Umno due to their dogma that Malay unity could be strengthened only if the party remains in power. Among the others who have joined Umno are AC Mizal and wife Emylia Rosnaida, Afdlin Shauki, Harun Salim Bachik, Tan Sri Jins Shamsudin, Jamal Abdillah, Zed Zaidi, and Adam AF.
Joining the opposition parties are Bob Lokman, Aishah, dan Dayangku Intan. Abby Abadi, the former member of Elite, denies any affiliation with PAS but her frequent appearances in PAS events have manifested her endorsement towards the party’s agenda.
Most recent, Hairie Othman and Zulkifli Ismail have both announced their intention to join PAS and will officially submit their membership form to party deputy president Mohamad Sabu at the PAS training centre in Taman Melewar, Kuala Lumpur, on July 6.
This development has had a profound impact upon the practice of politics, and towards the shaping of the public opinion.
Celebrity politicians elsewhere
Arnold Schwarzenegger, best remembered in Hollywood for his roles as the Terminator, was elected as Governor of California in 2003. Other examples are actor Clint Eastwood and cricketer Imran Khan, who moved from their comfort zone to the political one.
Ronald Reagan is arguably the most famous actor-turned-politician. He successfully moved from radio sports commentator to actor, to the most powerful man in the world. He served as the US President from 1981 to 1989. He made his appearance in a total of 52 films before becoming Governor of California in 1966.
Italy’s longest serving post-war prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, began his career as a singer on a cruise ship. More recently, Chinese NBA star Yao Ming was elected to political office in his hometown’s Shanghai Committee of the Chinese People’s Consultative Congress (CPPCC).
So far, no other country in Southeast Asia makes its pop idols the leaders of the country. In the Philippines, former film star Joseph Estrada opened the floodgates for celebrities who desired to be in the highest position.
Gauging the impact of celebrities
Political parties love to “adopt” celebrities. So it is with Malaysia. We might ponder, what can the political parties gain from the celebrities’ endorsement?
Umno permanent chairman Datuk Badruddin Amiruldin, in his response on the admission of Amy Search and several other celebrities, recently said that the participation of celebrities in Umno is a clear indication of their political awareness and that it is a form of how the celebrities repay the government for helping them with their films and performances.
I quote: “We know celebrities have lots of fans. This means they can clarify BN’s efforts and policies, which will, in turn, attract interest and support for Umno.”
The outcome of celebrity endorsements has in the past been a controversial issue in literature as it is tricky to make a measurement.
In the US, TV host Oprah Winfrey endorsed the then-Senator Barack Obama as a presidential candidate back in 2007. All the while, Winfrey has not publicly backed a candidate except for Obama.
According to Craig Garthwaite, co-author of a study on celebrity endorsements in the 2008 election, Winfrey has affected the number of votes Obama received during the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination as she is exceptionally popular, with a wide sphere of influence.
Advantages and disadvantages
The most intriguing question of the involvement of celebrities in politics is whether they can perform as leaders of this country? Will they be ready to serve with sincerity, or do they simply want to accumulate more wealth and fame?
There could be variety of intentions when celebrities decide to run for public office. It could be out of frustration with the way the government is run by the conventional politicians. It is also possible that they have lost their popularity and subsequently view politics as alternative careers to remain in the limelight.
The biggest advantage that celebrities have is name recognition. They can use their popularity with the general public to their best possible advantage.
Their communication skills are also their “weapon” to do well in the politics. The ability to communicate is one of the most important qualities in political success because they can overcome the lack of issue familiarity easily. Celebrities who are good at relating to the ordinary people have a bright opportunity if they are fielded as candidates.
The transition from celebrity to politician is a precarious thing. Due to their status, they often attract both positive and negative coverage.
The worst part is celebrities tend to get very personal coverage. Reporters are more interested in writing about their background and personality rather than the substantive stances. This can be good or bad, depending on what things in their past are uncovered by reporters.
Even if we accept that celebrity politicians search for continued wealth and fame, isn’t that the same for an ordinary politician?
So would you vote for a celebrity instead of a seasoned politician?
* Khoo Ying Hooi is an academic with Universiti Malaya. She can be contacted at [email protected]
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.