KUALA LUMPUR,. With Pakatan Harapan (PH) still struggling to frame its narrative nine months after it wrestled power from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) regime, the ruling coalition now finds itself mostly on the defensive as it attempts to win a perception war against its critics.
One of PH’s fiercest critics is none other than former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak who has revamped himself into an Internet sensation to win the hearts of the Malay working class after his fall from grace in May last year.
Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia strategist and supreme council member Datuk Rais Hussin admitted that PH was losing the edge it once commanded in social media as the reality of governing a country seeps in.
“We do not have the luxury to constantly engage intensely as we used to because we have shifted our resources towards administering, rebuilding the country and cleaning the mess left behind by the previous regime.
“Despite having a lot of good narratives to tell, we are simply not telling them enough and repeatedly,” he told Malay Mail.
Instead, PH Cabinet ministers and aides spend most of their time rebutting claims made by Umno-BN and Najib, with this coming across as the coalitions swapping roles — as PH takes on a reactive role against the latter’s proactive nature.
An independent month-long survey by communications firm Citrine One Sdn Bhd also revealed that almost half of its respondents chose “inconsistent” and “confusing” to describe the government’s or ministers’ communication strategy.
Pointing out PH’s strategic communications shortcomings, Rais said it must be addressed immediately and improved upon so the people’s perception could be readjusted.
“Narratives must be crafted to be easily understood by the people and conveyed to the right recipients. It must be explained proactively and not reactively.
“For now what people (Opposition) are saying is that we are not doing enough and that is the narrative they have created but I think people are a lot more intelligent these days,” he said.
Senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Oh Ei Sun said PH’s defensiveness was exacerbated by the emphasis on meritocracy and their relative lack of administrative experience which has resulted in repeated political faux pas that has further eroded their support among the Malays.
PH has already backed out of ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) following major protests and rallies by conservative Muslim groups, in what was seen as a symbolic victory for Umno and PAS.
With the Opposition being allowed to shape the political narrative of defending the interests of the country’s Malay-Muslim majority, Oh said PH may find itself being relegated to a one-term government as the support among Malays diminishes.
A recent survey by think tank Ilham Centre released in January showed close to two-thirds of Malay respondents disapprove of the PH government because they believe minorities were in control.
In June 2018, independent pollster Merdeka Center had cited that only 25 to 30 per cent of Malays voted for PH in GE14, with 35 to 40 per cent of Malays voting for BN while 30 to 33 per cent supported PAS.
Rais pointed out that in reality, PH was working very hard to fulfill its election promises and would have had a much easier time if they had inherited a country with minimal problems, citing the RM1 trillion debt Malaysia was carrying.
“Now is the time to explain, deliver and constructively engage with the people but you have to understand we inherited a country with so many problems.
“The most important fact is that we are slowly delivering but surely. We have been given a five year mandate to fulfill our manifesto and the effort is evidently manifested in some of the first time ministers like Anthony Loke, Yeoh Bee Yin and Gobind Singh Deo,” he said.
As the Opposition mounts daily ‘offensives’ against PH, Oh agreed that BN stood a chance of winning a perception war both inside and outside cyberspace with the help of its newfound ally in PAS post GE14.
“BN and PAS combined in a sense actually ‘won’ the last GE, having captured almost 75 per cent of the Malay vote. It is only due to the ‘first past the post’ electoral system here which handed the technical victory to PH.
“And now Umno and PAS coalesce with each other through their respective political support.
“So what is happening online and offline now is simply the manifestation of such overwhelming Malay (and exclusively Malay) support for Umno in general and Najib in particular,” he added.
BN secretary-general Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz said despite the ongoing perception war, he wants BN to win because people preferred the party as compared to the government of the day.
Using the Semenyih by-election as an example, he said he does not see the perception war in cyberspace as a determinant of BN’s chances because the target audience may not be a native Semenyih voter.
Asked to elaborate on the current narrative that BN has latched on as noted in the recent by-elections, Mohamed Nazri said it was more than just unfulfilled promises and dissatisfaction voiced against PH by the people.
“Of course when you do not deliver your election manifesto, it becomes an issue but it was the people who raised these matters before we did and they will decide themselves because they know better,” he told Malay Mail.
Despite the hiccups faced by Umno-BN during the earlier by-elections, the Malay nationalist party has seemed unfazed by the ongoing hardcore political maneuvers with a number of its lawmakers switching allegiance post-GE14.
The party has since transitioned from a defeatist into one that seeks to rebuild itself for the sake of political survival and is seen to have comfortably embraced its new role as the Opposition.
“We may not be as good as them (PH), who have sharpened their skills for six decades but we are doing our best to highlight the weaknesses of the government, that is why it is called a check and balance,” he said.
However, Mohamed Nazri disagreed that BN was comfortable being part of the Opposition, saying that its hands were tied.
“How can we be comfortable if we do not have the necessary allocations to help the people. As someone who is part of the government once, I do not feel comfortable at all,” he said.