Year of publicity stunts, slogans and spin

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Genuine people-centred reforms and greater respect for human rights and civil liberties in Malaysia remain an illusion. Instead what we see are publicity stunts, slogans and spin, says Martin Jalleh as he takes us on a tour of the major areas of concern in the country.

Last year, 2010, was a period of public relations, publicity stunts, political rhetoric, populist slogans and pure propaganda puff by Prime Minister Najib Razak and his BN government. They put up a perfect ‘performance’ of “1Malaysia: People First, Performance Now”, with the rakyat being offered a pipe-dream and a pie in the sky!

Najib’s flagging image was re-engineered by Apco Worldwide, a global public relations consultant. He was portrayed as a premier who was ready and raring to redeem Bolehland with his purported radical reforms and to “transform Malaysia through a comprehensive innovation process”.

Surely Apco would not have to contend with the fact that as a former Defence Minister Najib had left a “disgraceful” legacy of financial mismanagement, irregularities in procurement, wastage and even serious allegations of kickbacks, bribery and corruption. Public amnesia paved the way for public relations.

Their publicity blitz included the PM in a pleasantries-and-photo session with the US President (arranged by lobbyists reportedly costing RM25 million). Najib’s image was further propped up with his “First Lady” receiving an obscure award there, highlighted in a very costly advertisement in the New York Times, paid by taxpayers.

Najib was continually cast as one who was confident, competent and even courageous in reviving the country’s comatose economy with his slew of acronyms, showcase of plans and pledges, and spate of potential privatised projects costing trillions!

For spinning illusions, Apco is paid RM77 million of taxpayers’ money a year. Malaysia is the consultancy’s highest paying client. The government think-tank ‘Performance Management on Delivery Units’ (Pemandu) was set up at the price of RM66 million, with RM36 million going to American consultancy firm McKinsey and Co.

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The Pemandu operating budget for 2011 will be as high as RM729 million – Pemandu (RM40 million), National Key Result Areas (RM334 million) and National Key Economic Areas (RM355 million). (Subsidy cuts were expected to save about RM750 million in 2010 – more than enough to pay for Pemandu’s operating budget?)

Out of Pemandu’s labs came a plethora of projections, programmes, powerpoint presentations, persuasive charts, paraphernalia and promising plans that “will position the nation on the right path towards attaining developed nation status by 2020”.

But it did not take long before Apco’s plastic public relations and the PM’s pretence began to peel off. The Opposition posed very pertinent and pointed questions at his grandiose proposals. They even presented alternatives, for example, the DAP’s Budget! Bloggers poked fun at the piecemeal initiatives.

Najib wanted to be a spinmaster himself: he insisted that 1Malaysia was his very own creation; it is not political but merely a tool to foster unity! His logic spun out of control when faced with the fact that it is a concept propagated by a government that promotes a race-based party system, which is the main obstacle to our unity!

Further, as was pointed out by Lim Kit Siang, 20 months since the introduction of Najib’s 1Malaysia, the reverse has taken place. There has been an unprecedented rhetoric of irresponsible politicking, racist extremism and religious bigotry emanating from Perkasa and within Umno, in particular Umno-owned Utusan Malaysia.

By the end of 2010, Najib, who fancied himself as the Father of Transformation, had this to show – farcical changes, fantasised figures, flip-flops, a frail economy, failing institutions, flawed policies (like the New Economic Model (NEM)) and a fraudulent Perak government.

An illusion

Najib gave himself away when whilst staunchly defending Malay rights at the 61st Umno Annual General Assembly, revealed that ‘crushed bodies’, ‘lost lives’, ‘ethnic cleansing’ if the status quo was not kept! 1Malaysia has nothing to do with unity but with Najib keeping his “throne” in Putra-jaya, no matter what!

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Najib’s political masquerade came off again when, at the BN convention in early December, he made a vicious attack on Pakatan Rakyat calling it “anti-national”, “evil”, “very dangerous” and “despicable”. Najib proved to be as superficial and shallow as his reforms, and this is the man who wanted to teach Obama moderation!

As the think-tanks churned out more transformation programmes and the judiciary played its part in the sodomy case, Najib and a “transformed” Umno continued on with their scare tactics, saber-rattling tricks, sinister theatrics, scandalous political thuggery and silly “traitor” and “treason” labelling.

Najib’s 1Malaysia dream was reduced to an illusion each time it became glaring that the PM and his deputy were in collision and were far from being of one mind when it came to issues such as the economy, inter-faith or ethnic relations or whether to continue courting Pas in the name of Malay unity.

In December 2010, the PM betrayed himself when he chickened out of reforming the NEP, which according to CIMB Group CEO Nazir Abdul Razak has been “bastardised”. Najib relegated the NEM to merely a “trial balloon” and backtracked from his commitment that affirmative action would be implemented based on need and not on race.

Alas, 2010 was a year when the rakyat especially the poor, had to struggle with soaring prices and a senseless high cost of living as a result of being shortchanged by the government’s charade of change, whilst corporate giants and cronies escaped subsidy cuts and bled the country dry.

Reforms and greater respect for human rights and civil liberties remained an illusion last year. The Najib administration continued to display intolerance towards dissent and free speech. The proposed cyber-sedition law signalled the increase in further crackdowns on the freedom of expression.

Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) released its Civil and Political Rights Report 2010, which warned that the country’s human rights record worsened in 2010 and that Bolehland was returning to “Mahathir’s era” – a period known for its intolerance of dissent. According to Suaram, they were “signs of a closing society”.

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Najib and the BN continued to make use of the mainstream media to the maximum to spin its illusory world of magic and make-believe, and to manufacture the so-call truth to serve its political manipulations and maneuverings especially through the BN-owned newspapers.

With the media muzzled, Bolehland plunged 10 notches to 141 in the 2010 World Press Freedom Index – the lowest in nine years – putting it firmly in the bottom quarter of 178 countries. The government also got into a books-banning-binge, ignoring the fact that such a ban to media freedom will only lead us into a political backwater.

Lesser people were buying the BN’s mouthpieces’ muck, malice and morass. For example the Utusan Melayu, the company which publishes UMNO’s and its right wing offshoot Perkasa’s mouthpiece, Utusan Malaysia, recorded a pre-tax loss of RM10.682 million in the first nine months of 2010.

Najib took the country to great “heights” and depths in 2010. Our 2009 national debt rose to 53.7 per cent of GDP, its highest level in five years. There was an exodus of money from Malaysia on a scale which surpassed that during the Asian crisis. Malaysia’s FDI plunged 81 per cent, and we were the only Asean country to experience negative FDI flow in 2009.

Malaysia was seen to be more corrupt than ever by Transparency International (TI) in its global Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2009 launched in Nov. 2010. Paul Low, president of the local branch of TI, laid the blame on the federal government, singling out its lack of political will in enforcing tight anti-graft measures.

While Najib and the BN were kept busy building an illusion with the help of their spin doctors, the Opposition, the PKR in particular, were brought down to earth to face the reality that if they do not get their own hou   se in order soon they might as well forget about controlling Parliament House.

Thus goes the story of this sick country and a sham democracy in 2010.

Martin Jalleh, a well known political commentator, is a regular contributor to Aliran.

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