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A time for truth, civility in heat of battle

US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Michigan on Sept 30, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Laid low by an infected knee during the 1960 presidential race, Republican Richard Nixon received a "get well" message from his rival, Democrat John F. Kennedy. Between that election and the current one, much has changed in the way politics in America, and indeed elsewhere, is conducted. The courtliness of old has given way to a new, jagged and unsparing edge. Minority communities are often fair game. Name-calling is frequent. Even women's looks are not spared.

Asia has not been immune either. Two years ago, India elected Mr Narendra Modi, who eschewed the restrained ways of his party predecessors to mount acid-dripping, sneering attacks on the Gandhi family that had dominated Indian politics. This year, the majority-Catholic Philippines projected to power a hard-swearing man who has even insulted the Pope. It stands for the record that both Mr Rodrigo Duterte and Mr Modi were spectacularly successful in their elections. One might ask if outrageousness, the trademark of shock jocks, is to be accepted as the new normal.

Lack of civility is but one issue. A more dangerous trend is disdain for truth and veracity. While it is not uncommon for candidates on the stump to exaggerate and make wild promises, the deliberate construction and distribution of lies on an industrial scale is a more glaring development. Worryingly, many accept such malevolence if it fits their own predilections, even as they suspect it is all a lie. A recent example, aside from the inaccuracies flowing from Republican candidate Donald Trump, was the lead-up to the Brexit vote in Britain. Not only did the leavers lie about Britain's financial commitments to the European Union, but they also projected visions of a migrant flood from Turkey swamping England, knowing it was improbable. Since these lies worked, the danger is that others may follow their dishonourable lead.

Politics is, by definition, a contest for power and influence. No quarter is given, none is asked. However, in democratic societies that are distinguished by diverse interest groups, there is a danger that politics will heighten divisiveness at a time when people need to be brought together. Extreme language and attitudes can set one community against another and leave irreparable damage. Some have suggested strict laws to punish candidates who blatantly cross the line. But enforcing these might be controversial and could spark more strife. Yet how low must it go before society takes action against such misconduct? Voters could, of course, stop it in its tracks by punishing loose cannons. Unfortunately, it's rarely that simple. Raising levels of political discourse at the hustings goes hand in hand with the nature of legislative deliberations (whether hyper-partisan), debates in mainstream and social media (whether polarising), and responses of people (whether based on facts) to difficult questions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2016, with the headline 'A time for truth, civility in heat of battle'. Print Edition | Subscribe