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Umno-PAS alliance and the political placebo effect

  • Because of the placebo effect, many politicians tend to take unwarranted risks when conducting strategic evaluation, believing that what they have been believing is right.

By Jeff Ooi

After the September 14 Muslim Unity Rally, Umno and PAS have proceeded with their follow-up action of promoting their Muafakat Nasional (national consensus) concept nationwide, with the objective of conveying the content of the two parties' cooperation.

The move was meant to win over the hearts of Malay-Muslim voters in order to unseat the Pakatan Harapan government through their combined residual political forces. So far, the strategies they have been adopting have only highlighted their arrogant and opinionated attitude.

Indeed, the official tie-up of these two parties has managed to trigger some responses from the ruling PH coalition. Apparently, the depth and aspects of the reactions from the four peninsula-based PH components have differed according to their respective political structures and cultural backgrounds.

So far the mainstream leaderships of PPBM, PKR and Amanah have adopted a wait-and-see approach, while Parti Warisan Sabah is hardly perturbed knowing the limited strength of Umno and PAS in East Malaysia.

In the end, DAP's veteran leader Lim Kit Siang has become the only man coming up with some incoherent knee-jerk reactions.

Umno-PAS have intended to bag the majority of Malay votes through its Muslim unity call to advance their ambition of toppling the PH federal administration. Internally, they are enlisting and reassembling Muslim supporters and externally, they slam DAP for pulling the strings of Putrajaya behind the scenes while surreptitiously promoting the belief that Christianity is the specific target of the Holy War all Muslims must strive to destroy.

In the meantime, PH appears to lack substantial counter-measures to tackle such a development, with the notable exception of Lim Kit Siang and his son Guan Eng who have issued several statements on behalf of DAP to blast the Umno-PAS alliance as exclusionary racial and religious extremists detrimental to the nation.

Here comes an interesting question: will the arguments on both sides be able to penetrate deep into the minds of ordinary Malaysians in creating a “brainwashing” effect in the voters?

Moreover, Umno and PAS have gone down to the grassroots level to directly promote their Muslim grand unity concept to the masses. By comparison, Lim Kit Siang's “armchair critic” style of conventional political statements are distributed solely to Chinese media and independent English online media. So, who do you think commands a more immersive political penetrability?

To put things more forthright, which side is more approachable and persuasive to the Malay-Muslim electorate?

Judging from the current circumstances, I am afraid those on both sides of the political divide are suffering from political placebo effect.

The 2015 book Placebo Talks: Modern Perspectives on Placebo in Society jointly authored by Amir Raz and Cory Harris, highlights the mentality of many politicians who often drown themselves in self-created feel-good illusions, fantasizing that they are the best and most righteous.

The term “placebo effect” was coined by Danish anesthetist Dr Henry K. Beecher in 1955. He discovered that as many as 80% of patients injured at home asked for painkillers from doctors during World War II, while only 25% of soldiers seriously injured at the battleground would do so.

Beecher later gave this phenomenon a psychological interpretation, believing that people under different mental states would have very different anticipations for the outcome.

To seriously injured soldiers, being injured at the battleground means they could be taken off the war front for medical treatment, which also means their lives would be spared. As for civilians injured at home, they insisted an analgesic prescription as they might confront social and financial pressures later.

To explain Beecher's “placebo effect”, although a patient is given an inert substance or treatment designed to have no therapeutic value, his or her condition is relieved because of anticipation for the treatment's effect. However, due to different levels of anticipation in different individuals, the perceived relief does not imply actual improvement in the illness. As such, it will produce either of the mutually contrasting non-specific or subject-expectancy effect in a particular individual.

Of course, the theory Beecher put forward 64 years ago has been negated by newer clinical studies. Having said that, the same theory has in recent years been applied by US political scholars in analyzing the prevailing political ecosystem.

As a consequence of the placebo effect, many politicians will tend to take unwarranted risks when conducting strategic evaluation, believing that their own personal will or belief will eventually prevail, often dismissing scientifically proven truths. As such, the deductions and actions of politicians are often made out of the belief that “I personally believe in it, and therefore my belief is correct.”

In 2012, New York's online library of digital academic journals JSTOR published the thesis The Power of Beliefs: The Concept of Placebo and Placebo Effects in Politics and History by Karin Meissner and Carlos Colorado Seidel, which thinks that applying medical metaphors to political ecosystem is always a proven rhetoric strategy. While at times such metaphors may clearly explain the political ecosystem, sometimes they simply camouflage the truth.

Pages 27 to 32 of the thesis are dedicated to the expounding of using “political placebo effect” to interpret the ideologies of a politician or political party with the purpose of revealing their hidden motives when maneuvering specific political antics, in an attempt to spare the public from the calamity of being exploited.

Consequently, I will need to get some figures first in relation to the Umno-PAS alliance and Muslim unity:

1. How many among Umno's three million registered members are Malay civil servants? Are they still influential as ever?

2. How many among all the mosque and surau council members across Peninsular Malaysia are PAS' solid supporters whose endorsement will eventually be manifested at the ballot box?

3. How many among first-time voters above the age of 18 in the 2023 general elections are diehard fans of Lim Kit Siang and his DAP?

I strongly believe that if the voters continue to vote ignorantly and deliberately, the placebo effect will continue to manipulate the voting trend as psychologists have demonstrated.

(Jeff Ooi is former Member of Parliament.)


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