The actor in politicians

I watched an election video clip that shows the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate Dr Mahathir Mohamad answering questions raised by a child, including why he has to continue working in his old age. It is to save the nation, Mahathir says. And he cries.

Watching it, I was reminded of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s recent description of Mahathir as the nation’s “No. 1 actor”. Najib said the Pakatan Harapan chairman was eligible for the “Best Actor” Academy award.

This was because, Najib said, Mahathir had, at one time, vehemently criticised PKR de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim and linked him to sexual misconduct, but had now made up with the latter “in pursuit of his personal goals”.

“Lately, he went to the courtroom (during a hearing) to meet Anwar. I had to shake my head in disbelief seeing his (Dr Mahathir’s) antics,” Bernama quoted Najib as saying in Jerantut, Pahang.

But is Mahathir the only actor? Isn’t Najib an actor, too? All politicians are actors, the difference is in degree.

It is impossible to miss the antics of politicians in elections, and this coming election is no different. Suddenly they become so caring, hugging an old woman here, saying “coochie-coo” to a baby there, helping to clear a clogged drain, enquiring after your health, presenting cheques and smiling, smiling, smiling. Nonchalantly, some would say shamelessly, they engage in this once-in-five-years hug or shake of the hand. However, they will be offended if you were to suggest that they are acting.

According to Merriam-Webster, “actor”, a noun, means “one that acts; one who acts in a play, movie, television show etc; one who behaves as if acting a part; one that takes part in any affair, a participant, (as in) ‘political actors’”.

It appears, then, that you cannot separate politics from acting, which could explain why some actors move seamlessly into politics.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “actor” comes from the Latin word “actor” meaning “an agent or doer; a driver (of sheep etc)”; or “theatrical player, orator”.

So, again, we can see why most people think politicians are actors. In fact, it may not be wrong to consider politicians as actors based on the etymology of the word. Elected representatives are representatives of the people and in that sense they are agents of the people who elected them to sit in Parliament. Also, most politicians have some oratory skills.

We can also connect “driver” to politicians as they are supposed to drive the country forward. If we stretch it a bit and take the original meaning of driving sheep or cattle, we may not be too far off either, as many politicians, I suspect, consider their constituents sheep. This is because voters continue to re-elect them even though they sit in Parliament and pass laws detrimental to their constituents.

Also, we can see the many sheep or cattle which follow the candidates around, especially those candidates who can hand them rewards – such as contracts, titles or positions. But, it is not nice to go that far, so I won’t.

While we are on the topic of actors, we might as well consider another word for actor: thespian. The story surrounding this word is rather interesting. Around 534 or 536BC, a character called Thespis lived in Greece which was then ruled by someone by the name of Pisistratus, who organised a public festival where people would gather to honour the god Dionysus. It included music, singing, dancing and poetry competitions.

Now, it so happened that our friend Thespis, at one of these events, jumped onto a wooden cart and recited a poem in such a manner that it seemed he became the very characters in the poem. He won in this early version of the Got Talent (as in Asia’s Got Talent) show. He did something never done before and promptly became the world’s first actor, and gave the English-speaking world the word “thespian”.

I am sure you would have noticed that even here, there is some similarity to our politicians. They don’t stand on wooden carts, of course, but they do hop onto a stage or a standstill lorry standing in for a stage, and show off their talent for wooing people with promises of a better life for the listeners, allegations about other politicians and how terrible those other guys are, and their own innate decency and integrity, if not their charm.

Then again, I am also an actor, as are you, in the larger scheme of life. As Shakespeare says: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.”

The views expressed by the writer are not necessarily the views of FMT.