CAN someone please send Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin for image consulting? Or for some prepping on the art of answering reporters’ questions? Maybe the deputy prime minister ought to have a daily practice session with aides who should throw him trick questions on race and religion. He should learn to either deflect difficult questions skilfully, like former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, or not answer them at all.
For all the millions the Malaysian government is paying Apco Worldwide to pretty its image, personal coaching for key members of the federal administration doesn’t appear to be in the consultancy package. A pity, because after all those public funds spent, the toil of Apco’s hard work is lost on those who are waiting to be impressed the most: the citizens.
Unless Muhyiddin and his boss, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, are really playing “good cop, bad cop” — one each to placate Malay and non-Malay Malaysians — what should we make of Muhyiddin’s gaffes?
Foot in mouth
Muhyiddin has always been a blunt straight-talker. I am not senior enough to have had the experience of covering him when he was Johor menteri besar, but I do recall that his press conferences while he was agriculture and agro-based industries minister (2004-2008) were as dry as deadwood and straight to the point.
Muhyiddin tackles questions so narrowly that I’m guessing he doesn’t think about how his answers are perceived by a larger audience. Of course, the consequences are different when talking about agricultural subsidies and padi output, than when responding to a dare to state whether one is Malay or Malaysian first.
Lim And so, into wily Lim Kit Siang‘s trap the deputy premier fell, and provided the opposition just the soundbite it needed to go to town with: “I am a Malay first.” And Muhyiddin‘s reason for not prioritising being Malaysian? “All the Malay [Malaysians] will shun me and say you’re not proper.”
May I suggest what Muhyiddin could have said? If he really could not bring himself to say he is Malaysian first, he could have said any of the following:
a) “My race is Malay, but I am a Malaysian.”
b) “All citizens are Malaysians, although we are of different races.”
c) “I will not entertain Kit Siang’s challenge. There is no need for me to respond directly just to show I support the 1Malaysia concept. The proof will be in the government’s policies and actions.”
Any of the above would have sounded more nuanced than a flat-out declaration of his racial identification. While the above responses would unlikely score Muhyiddin extra points with Malay Malaysian ultras, it is unlikely they could have earned him the demerit points he seems to have secured from other Malaysians.
Muhyiddin seems prone to verbal blunders when he’s on the defensive; “I am a Malay first” being a case in point. In an earlier incident, he was trying to defend the indefensible — the Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate, disbarred lawyer Rohaizat Othman, in the August 2009 Permatang Pasir by-election. Muhyiddin likened the Bar Council‘s fines slapped on Rohaizat to parking tickets.
Assets and liabilities
In comparing disciplinary action by the Bar Council to parking tickets, Muhyiddin betrayed either arrogance, or a lack of respect for professional ethics, or a lackadaisical attitude towards traffic offences.
In that cornered situation, Muhyiddin should have simply acknowledged that the Bar Council, as a professional body, had the right to act against its members. Instead, he accused the Bar of an anti-BN agenda. Muhyiddin may be thinking of the adage “the best defence is a good offence”, but unless he can master it, he only comes out looking desperate.
Muhyiddin’s forthright, no-nonsense style of talking, a possibly good trait under other circumstances, will become a liability if he doesn’t pause to ponder his responses before speaking.
As it is, Muhyiddin’s image seems to be getting more damaged by the day. And this is a pity, because he has strength of experience, knowledge, and leadership on his side. Yet, he’s chosen to show his stripes as a Malay-Muslim supremacist first and foremost, when, as second-in-charge of the country, he should be a leader for all citizens.
Unlikely Apco can do anything about this, though. This is public relations advice that politicians can only get from the public, not a consulting company.
Silly arguments about whether Apco had a hand in designing the 1Malaysia concept, or whether it is based on a similar Israeli campaign, are a waste of time. Instead, we should be questioning the real value of spending millions on public relations to shore up Malaysia‘s image abroad while leaders at home continue to stupefy citizens with their obtuse remarks.
Deborah Loh doesn’t expect politicians to be sincere, but does expect them to manage society’s different expectations without offending anyone, and without sounding stupid while at it.
Read previous Sideways columns
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