MALAYSIA Tanah Tumpah Darahku


Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Don't play defence, fight smart

 It’s natural to be defensive when people attack you. That doesn’t mean it’s the best strategy.

Being defensive means you are playing out a script that your enemies have written out for you.

And if you’re not careful, calling the cops whenever people say something you don’t like is going to look a bit like calling your mum every time someone tries to bully you in the playground.

In 2018, then-prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had a window of opportunity to clearly define what Malaysia’s first non-BN government was going to be all about and create a new narrative for Malaysia.

He refused to do so. Without a new narrative, and a clear definition of what ‘New Malaysia’ meant, we fell back all too quickly on the Old Malaysia script - where we are all consumed by fighting what is essentially a racial fight.

The thing about this script is, it works even when the actors swap roles.

Between 2008 and now, we seem to have gone through almost every imaginable combination of the following actors: Umno, PAS, PKR, DAP and Bersatu.

And through it all, the script hasn’t changed one bit.

Firstly, whoever is politically opposing DAP will accuse whoever DAP is allied with of being vehemently anti-Malay and anti-Islam - and will do it strong and hard, ad nauseam.

Secondly, whoever is in the opposition will be yelling at the government, and whoever is in the government will be yelling at the police to go after the opposition because of whatever they’re yelling.

Within days of Anwar Ibrahim being sworn in as prime minister, PAS is now seizing the initiative to bring the Old Malaysia script back to the fore - guns blazing, full throttle. And it’s playing out word for word according to that script.

I imagine many people within Pakatan Harapan are getting tired of backseat-driving keyboard warriors like me, but for whatever it may be worth, this article will look at some context and propose alternative strategies for Harapan to set the right tone, right from the start.

Paradigm shifts

In the absence of a new paradigm, we fall back on old paradigms.

In this old paradigm, when people attack us, we let stress get the better of us and we enter into a siege mentality, where we are nervous, afraid and defensive.

We pen long statements, or make long videos, to ‘counter’ and ‘answer’ the accusations levelled against us.

Now that Harapan is in the government, we see Harapan representatives banging the table and calling for police investigations. At least one Harapan MP even called for people to be investigated under the Sedition Act.

Last I remember, most Harapan people were (wisely) calling for the abolition of the Sedition Act.

Former prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob

I wrote previously that former prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob should not be directing the police to investigate former attorney-general Tommy Thomas.

Similarly, the current PM probably should not be directing the police to investigate accusations that he is a Jewish agent - surely the congratulatory phone call from Hamas should take care of that.

What happens when trolls smell blood

I can’t say I’m proud of having once been something of an internet troll myself, back in the days BN reigned supreme. I can say the experience did provide some valuable, relevant lessons.

The first and most important is this: Every single time I saw a ‘target’ get angry, defensive and threatening over anything I said, this meant I had struck troll gold.

It was like smelling blood in the water - the biggest, surest sign for me to intensify my attacks on the exact same topic, and to just keep hitting the same spot harder and harder.

Surely many of us remember how this works.

If you threaten police action, you will scare off a few of the more amateur, low-level trolls into hiding - but never their bosses. You will win a few battles here and there, but it really doesn’t mean you are winning the war.

The presidents of PAS or Bersatu and their closest supporters do not fear persecution at all - any more than Harapan leaders and their supporters did back in the day.

And the moment you use the law on them, you will make them martyrs - prison could very well have the same effect on them as it did on Anwar himself.

Being defensive will backfire

In the face of PAS’ relentless attacks, Harapan leaders are producing a plethora of ‘debunking’ or ‘countering’ tweets, videos, explainers, clarifiers and threats of police or legal action.

This will result in the following:

First, PAS and friends will attack them even harder and stronger, using even more racist, incendiary and divisive rhetoric - because the way Harapan is getting defensive shows PAS that their attacks are really hurting Harapan, and because they can see that these attacks result in Harapan platforming PAS, and amplifying PAS’ attacks.

Second, PAS is now controlling the narrative. Harapan is responding defensively to PAS and the agenda that they are putting forward, instead of PAS responding defensively to Harapan’s agenda.

Third, Malaysian society will once again polarise, following the exact lines of the good old Old Malaysia script. People will take positions based on which politicians they support, not based on what is right and wrong.

Following the example of their leaders, everyone will be screaming all over the internet about race and religion - shouting in fear and anger against one another, instead of talking to one another.

Ridicule the ridiculous

It is not necessary to sit absolutely silent when people attack you. But if your response and ‘debunking’ requires anything more than one image and seven or so (preferably funny) words, I can guarantee you are losing the battle.

PAS and their supporters are making any number of ridiculous claims. The right response is to ridicule the ridiculous, not to break out in self-righteous anger.

You don’t disarm a lie by screaming at it (or worse yet, by throwing the police at it) - you disarm a lie by making fun of how untrue it is.

When BN was in power all those years ago, we said, time and time again, that they relied on the police and the ‘law’ to shut us up because they could not prove us wrong or silence us otherwise.

That will be the perception, regardless of who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

Surely, Harapan leaders haven’t forgotten this. You were right there with us, back then. Learn from BN’s mistake and set the right tone, right from the start.

What should Harapan do?

One of the most important rules of political communication is to make sure the opponent is marching to the beat of your drum, not vice versa.

PAS will desperately try to shift the focus back to the Old Malaysia-style racial and religious incitement. They are trying to force you to go there.

Don’t go there. Force them to come to you.

Create a strong New Malaysia narrative where the discourse is all about how the economy is improving, and how Malaysians are now united instead of fighting one another (and back it up with real work, of course).

Even better, find a way for co-opting PAS. They are kicking and screaming not because they must inherently do so (remember, these guys were allies with DAP less than a decade ago), but because they are paranoid about their political survival. Guarantee them that, and they’ll sing a different tune.

Anwar obviously has a lot on his plate. His headline-grabbing move on having a meeting regarding the cost of living crisis on a Sunday was all well and good.

His predecessors made the mistake of underestimating the importance of communication. It’s no longer just about the good you do - it’s about how to optimise the packaging of what you’re doing for public consumption.

Past leaders treated communication as a secondary afterthought. Smart leaders put smart communication at the front and centre of everything they do.

Waging a communication war as the opposition is, in many ways, easier than doing so from within the government.

None of the recent prime ministers truly understood how this war is played out today, and how much it determines. If they did, maybe they might have actually survived a full term in power.

Hopefully, Anwar will represent a new generation of thinking in this matter. Hopefully, he can bring together the many, many people who are already doing good communication work for free, and set up the right infrastructure to make the most of their talents.

The return on investment could well be the future of Malaysia itself. - Mkini

NATHANIEL TAN is a freelance strategic communications consultant who works with Projek #BangsaMalaysia. Twitter: @NatAsasi, Email: nat@engage.my.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of MMKtT.

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