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Do celebrities make good politicians?

August 6, 2012

Is it possible for them to understand the struggle of the people and get their hands dirty working in his or her constituency?

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By Khoo Ying Hooi

With the general election looming, more and more celebrities are joining either Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat for their own reasons.

Many questions have cropped up regarding celebrities turning into politicians. Can their popularity influence the voters’ behaviour? Do they add value to a political party?

It is natural to raise doubts about the competency of celebrities as politicians. It is commonly understood that celebrities live in a world far different from the ordinary people.

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 because they seemed to think that if the party remains in power, Malay unity could be strengthened. Others who have jumped on the Umno bandwagon are AC Mizal and wife Emylia Rosnaida, Afdlin Shauki, Harun Salim Bachik, Jins Shamsudin, Jamal Abdillah, Zed Zaidi, and Adam AF.

Pakatan is also pulling in some celebrities such as Bob Lokman, Aishah and Dayangku Intan. Abby Abadi is affiliated with PAS judging from her frequent appearances in PAS events, while recently, Hairie Othman and Zulkifli Ismail have both joined the Islamist party.

All these developments have had some impact on our political scene as they had to a certain extent shaped public opinion.

Celebrity politicians elsewhere

On the foreign front, there are many luminaries too who have left their comfort zone and entered the treacherous world of politics. Arnold Schwarzenegger comes to mind. The man best remembered in Hollywood for his roles as the Terminator was elected governor of California in 2003. Actor Clint Eastwood and cricketer Imran Khan have also become political creatures.

Ronald Reagan is arguably one of the most famous actor-turned-politicians who had successfully changed careers from a radio sports commentator to an actor (he appeared in 52 films) and eventually to a politician. He became the governor of California in 1966 and went on to become the most powerful man in the world as US president from 1981 to 1989.

The longest-serving post-war Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, began his career as a singer on a cruise ship. Most recently, Chinese NBA star, Yao Ming, was elected to political office as a member of Committee of the Chinese People’s Consultative Congress in his hometown, Shanghai.

Nearer to Asian shore is Filipino film star Joseph Estrada who jumped into the political cauldron and emerged as the president of the Philippines.

Gauging the impact of celebrities

Political parties love to “adopt” celebrities, but can the former reap any benefits from the latter’s endorsement?

When Amy Search and several other celebrities joined Umno, the party’s permanent chairman Badruddin Amiruldin reckons that their admission is a clear indication of their political awareness. Besides, it was also to repay the government for helping them with their films and performances.

“We know celebrities have lots of fans. This means they can clarify Barisan Nasional’s efforts and policies, which will, in turn, attract interest and support for Umno,” Badruddin was quoted as saying.

A celebrity’s endorsement for a politican can influence voters somewhat. In the US, TV host Oprah Winfrey endorsed the then-Senator Barack Obama as a presidential candidate in 2007.

According to Craig Garthwaite, co-author of a study on celebrity endorsements in the 2008 election, Oprah has swayed a number of voters as she is exceptionally popular.

Advantages and disadvantages

The most important question involving “political” celebrities is whether they can do justice as leaders of this country. Will they be ready to serve with all sincerity or do they simply want to accumulate more wealth and fame?

There could be a number of reasons why celebrities decide to run for public office. It could be that they are disappointed with way the government is run by conventional politicians. It is also possible that they have lost their popularity and view politics as an alternative career to remain in the limelight.

The biggest advantage that celebrities enjoy is their famous name. They can use their popularity with the general public to their best possible advantage compared to the other politicians.

Their communications ability is also their “weapon” to do well in politics. The ability to communicate is one of the most important qualities for a politician. Celebrities who are good at relating to the ordinary people stand a good chance of winning if they are fielded as candidates.

The transition from celebrity to politician is a precarious thing. Due to their status, these “stars” often attract both positive and negative coverage.

Worst still, the personal lives of celebrities-turned-politicians tend to get wide coverage. Reporters are more interested to write about their background than about their stand on substantive political issues. This can be good or bad, depending on what skeletons in their cupboards are discovered by reporters.

Even if we accept that celebrity politicians continue to search for wealth and fame, isn’t that the same for an ordinary politician?

So would you vote for a celebrity instead of a seasoned politician?

The writer is an academic staff in Universiti Malaya and a PhD candidate in the Universiti Putra Malaysia. She is a FMT columnist and can be contacted at [email protected].


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