WHEN Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi declared that the new media was negatively spinning issues about the government, perhaps he was referring to examples such as this YouTube video by nasilemak2020.
I’m certain the Umno vice-president, who is also defence minister, also had other examples in mind when he called on Umno cybertroopers to actively countervail the “issues played up by the online media”. Zahid Hamidi was likely echoing his boss, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who is also Umno president. Najib had on the same day talked about the need for Umno and the Barisan Nasional (BN) to strategise on improving the people’s perception of the government. “In politics, what is important is perception, not reality and this is exploited by the Opposition,” Najib said.
What exactly are these Umno leaders, who are also cabinet members, saying about the current realities of Malaysia? And what proof do they provide that the government is being unfairly portrayed in the battle over perception?
Reality vs perception
Underscoring Najib and Zahid Hamidi’s statements is the claim that the rakyat have a mistaken perception of what’s going on in Malaysia. Hence, the need for strategies to improve public perception of government including through the use of Umno cybertroopers.
Now, what are these political leaders really saying? If we think about it, they are actually saying that Najib’s administration has performed poorly in keeping the public apprised of all the government’s successes. Either that or they’re suggesting that the online media and the Opposition are only capable of lies and deception. Or maybe they’re saying both.
Apart from that, both Najib and Zahid Hamid are definitely declaring that the current reality in Malaysia, under BN’s leadership and Najib’s premiership, is for certain better than what the public perceives it to be.
But are these claims true? Can they stand up under scrutiny? And if they are true, what should we be doing about it?
Let’s address each one of the premises to find out. If Najib’s administration has been performing poorly in keeping the public informed, shouldn’t that be just cause for the rakyat to be critical? After all, the executive controls the traditional media, and through political parties in the ruling coalition even owns the main media outfits in Malaysia. On top of that, the government has access to tax payer’s money for all kinds of public service announcements and development projects. Through ministerial portfolios, BN leaders also have ample opportunities to publicise government successes.
So, if the government machinery isn’t doing a good enough job at publicising its own achievements and convincing the rakyat, doesn’t that tell us that we have an inefficient and unintelligent government? And if that were the case, then shouldn’t Najib and Zahid Hamidi be revising government operations instead of blaming the online media and the Opposition for spinning and misinformation?
Also, if we wanted a more efficient and intelligent government than one that can’t even get its own public relations right, shouldn’t we then pick a new government in the next elections instead of sticking by this one?
Lies and deception
Then, there’s the claim both leaders are making about the online media and the Opposition being untrustworthy, and hence causing the government’s reputation to suffer. Zahid Hamidi, for example, declares that the new media has negatively spun many issues, causing the public to receive wrong information.
However, if we watch, for example, the nasilemak2020 video, we’ll find that the events the political satire allude to — from corruption to vote-buying to the mysterious deaths at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency — aren’t fictitious. They actually occurred under the BN’s watch.
And let’s remember that Zahid Hamidi himself has faced censure for giving out wrong, even malicious, information. For example, when he publicly stated that DAP’s Tony Pua had previously been arrested and charged in Singapore, and then asked to be a Singapore agent.
On top of that, hasn’t the Umno-owned and government-controlled media themselves demonstrated a lack of credibility by spin-doctoring, sometimes to the point of threatening the peace? Wasn’t it just last month that Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia inaccurately declared on its front page that there was a Christian plot to turn Malaysia into a Christian state?
Even more curious is Zahid Hamidi’s argument that Umno cybertroopers are more trustworthy than the online media and the Opposition. Forgive me, wasn’t it pro-Umno bloggers who started the rumour about Christians plotting to take over the country?
And in several instances, isn’t it the government that has demonstrated the inability to be transparent and honest, whether over toll, water or electricity contracts which affect public interest? Or over the use of tax monies for the unnecessary1Malaysia e-mail addresses? Or for hefty arms expenditure?
Is the reality better than the public’s perception of the Malaysian government today? That’s what Najib and Zahid Hamidi are saying, but is that true? One way to measure how good our reality is would be to look at our international ranking in several areas.
Unfortunately, the rankings — from human rights to corruption to economics — do tell us that the public’s perception may not be so off-the-mark. For all the projects and programmes that Najib has launched since he became premier, whether it’s 1Malaysia or the Government Transformation Programme or the Economic Transformation Programme, Malaysia is still lagging behind in several key areas.
Our foreign direct investments are low compared to other Southeast Asian economies. Our graft index has not improved. Our press freedom index remains dismal. And our human rights track record leaves much to be desired. On top of that, the government has little respect for non-Muslim rights. It has little interest in upholding public interest over private interest especially if it can get away with it. And it has no respect at all for human rights as evidenced by the continued detentions without trial under the Internal Security Act.
And instead of paying attention to the demands for free and fair elections, the BN administration is conversely demonising Bersih 2.0 for organising a peaceful march on 9 July. You know the reality is bad when the police and government of the day start labelling those who want free and fair elections a “threat to national security” and threatening arrest.
So, really, who is it who has mistaken perceptions about Malaysia? Is it the rakyat who cannot be trusted to be intelligent enough to discern truth from fiction when confronted with the online media and the Opposition? Or is it BN leaders whose arguments don’t stand up under scrutiny?
Jacqueline Ann Surin believes the BN can win the battle over public perception if it would only respect all citizen’s rights, uphold media freedom and independence, and commit to a Freedom of Information Act.