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Friday, March 21, 2014

LOSING THE PERCEPTION GAME

By Salleh Said Keruak

Politics is a game of perception and since the 1980s Malaysia has been a victim of bad publicity. For 30 years Malaysia and the Barisan Nasional-led Malaysian government has been the target of attacks by the western media -- and since the 1990s by Malaysia’s alternative or social media.

This state of affairs came about soon after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad took over as Prime Minister and is the result of Dr Mahathir not willing to bow or kowtow to the west. In fact, Dr Mahathir was openly very critical of Britain, the United States and Australia.

Malaysia’s GDP per capita is of over US$10,000, roughly twice that of Thailand and three times that of Indonesia. But the western media insists that the economies of Thailand and Indonesia are better managed than Malaysia’s. This is one example of biased western reporting and reporting not based on statistics.

Dr Mahathir was never popular with the west or with the western media. And this is because he called a spade a spade and exposed the hypocrisy and double standards of the west. And the west did not like this. Hence Malaysia could never do anything right. Everything it did was wrong.

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has inherited the legacy of the Dr Mahathir era -- the western media’s hatred for the Malaysian government. Hence anything that Malaysia or the Malaysian government does is never right even when the country’s GDP per capita is twice that of Thailand and three times that of Indonesia.

That is good news. The western media does not like good news regarding Malaysia or the Malaysian government. They want to focus on only the bad news and if there is no bad news they can always create bad news regarding the country.

The Najib administration must take serious note of this. For 30 years since the 1980s Malaysia and the Malaysian government has been the favourite punching bag of the west and the western media. And the Najib administration does not have an effective perception management team to counter this.

Malaysia has failed to correct this negative perception regarding the country. To be fair, Dr Mahathir never cared much about what the west thought of him so he did not bother to do anything about it. But in today’s era of the alternative and social media, the Najib administration can no longer ignore this. This matter needs to be addressed.

It becomes worse when even the government-friendly mainstream and social media jump onto the bandwagon and take pot shots at the Prime Minister. Saying nice things about the government does not attract readers. Saying bad things does. So they prefer to carry negative rather than positive stories regarding the government.

Even the most powerful country in the world, the United States, is very sensitive about public opinion. And they go to great lengths to explain government policies to the world. Malaysia cannot ignore the world like what Dr Mahathir used to do. That was 30 years ago and 30 years ago public opinion was not crucial. Today, it is.

The result of the 2008 and 2013 general elections is proof that the opposition won in the court of public opinion. If Barisan Nasional wants to see an improvement in the next general election expected in 2018 or so we need to wake up to this reality and address the matter.

The media, in particular the social media, is very crucial. President Obama used the Internet to run his entire campaign and fund raising exercise. In many countries, the Internet can make or break the government. One example is regarding what is currently happening in Thailand. The Internet was fully and effectively used in the Thai political crisis. The same for what happened in Egypt. The Internet played an important role in the Arab Spring as well.

There is enough good news regarding Malaysia. The only problem is the social media (the pro-government portals as well) spins only the bad news (and sometimes fabricated bad news on top of that) while the government does not respond effectively to these attacks.

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