This column first appeared on The Malay Mail Online on January 22, 2015. The link is here.
JANUARY 22 — The year is 22 days old and already the prime minister has changed the Budget — and a third of a million of Malaysians are trying to get back on their feet after they were forced to swim from their living room to the kitchen if they wanted to make tea.
Malaysia is — tragically perhaps in most cases — filled to the brim with endless possibilities.
And Pakatan politicians, old and new, have returned like gunslingers to score fresh points to chip away at the Barisan Nasional juggernaut.
It would be amiss for this column not to offer them insight/tips/jokes to them to add to their arsenal.
So here we go, like the kick of a new football season. Last year’s points don’t count.
Stay on message
“We have a message?”
YB, that would be the wrong start. The biggest handicap every BN member of parliament/member of the state legislative/local councillor/ youth parliament member has is that they have no message to carry except that the prime minister is right.
What he said before, is saying presently or will be saying in the future. Time is not linear for BN folks, and sycophancy a religion.
That’s why having your own public opinion is a sure way of failing as a BN politician, unless of course you are prime minister.
Which means, Pakatan has the amazing opportunity to have a message for the country, and to stay on message.
But you have to stay on message.
Which means staying consistent. While politicians are expected to be having an eye on politics around the clock, the people don’t have that luxury.
They buy or rent homes, make babies in them or outside (you really can’t dictate these things), feed the babies till they cry like babies when they have break-ups in secondary school, go to work so they can feed various occupants in that home, buy the latest exercise machine to show an interest in their growing waistlines and watch plenty of TV when their homes are not flooded.
So they need easy to follow ideas in a world inclined to chaotic noise, not the least provided by politicians. Not a labyrinth of intrigue.
For instance: “Pakatan wants to form the government in 2017 or 2018 at the latest, and voters should want that because the present administration is spending the country to bankruptcy, without fresh ideas to reinvigorate the economy. Pakatan will overcome the triangle challenge of education, universal healthcare and new economy jobs.”
Of course your strategists can come up with better ones. The point is whatever is the message, stick to it. Don’t keep changing because you had fresh eureka moments. Messaging is all about consistency. It requires time for millions to go along with you.
Plot twists are good for novels, not for politics
Pakatan politicians love to give lengthy five-streets long diagnosis of problems facing the country.
They think more the twists and turns, the juicier it gets.
There is a reason the newsstands have more novels than actual news publications. The Malaysian public is already consuming salacious guilty pleasures that have enough turns in the plot with sexual guilt central to the premise.
If they want multi-layered stories, they’ll read them. Politicians have to quit competing with fiction, they can’t generate the same amount of sexual peccadillos — though they do try!
If you are flagging a scandal, if you want broader reach and not only to avid political readers cum comments page experts cum your already hardcore voter/sworn enemies, keep the narrative basic.
If listeners or readers can repeat your expose inside a minute then your scandal capture the public’s imagination.
Scandals have expiry dates
Today’s scandal is tomorrow’s trivia question. While they are great to get the unknown known to the larger reading population, relying on them to keep you relevant is always a losing battle.
The people are well aware of Pakatan leaders having access to information showing the excess of those in power. The rakyat, cynical as any Malaysian is expected to be, by large feel it is easier to poke holes in any administration.
And they want “whistle-blowers” to keep those in power in check, even if keeping them honest is impossible.
But that can be a bad thing for Pakatan.
The rakyat repeating that there needs to be a strong opposition in Parliament to watch over Barisan Nasional is a double-edged sword, it can be read as meaning a permanent place as a vital opposition for Pakatan. Not in the rakyat’s collective mind the future government.
So soak up the excitement of scandals, but if they ask you how you will do it better, please don’t just assure them you won’t be corrupt.
A company breeding cows might have gone astray to the wrong pasture, but food security is monumental especially when your currency nosedives along and import prices inflate. What would you do different?
Can you get the rakyat their beef rendang while cracking cattle gags?
Scrap long meetings
Pakatan is three parties, but more than that, it’s three parties on a slippery slope coalition ever under the cosh of an unrelenting incumbent government inclined to using all its tools to hinder it any traction.
All the issues are complicated, but long meetings don’t help. They just drag things. Try this, get staff to sort the knucklehead stuff and use the meetings to only resolve the critical argument impasses. And also recognise when those issues cannot be resolved, over-talking about a difference does not dissipate the difference, it might just increase the gulf.
Lastly, follow what my old boss in sales used to say, don’t take a no from someone who cannot say yes. Often those without the mandate to agree are sent to meetings to represent, not decide.
Get the right people in the room and don’t turn around and overturn things after the fact. It’s time Pakatan leaders accept that it is a large country and those below have to make decisions too — and part of leadership is to accept the wisdom of others.
Don’t be a know it all
The typical Pakatan leader has wafer-thin staffing and hardly get the next Fulbright or Rhodes scholar — the prime minister’s department, “three-piece always” consultancies and multinationals have first dibs on them.
Which results in Pakatan politicians to be jacks-of-all-trades and to assert domain knowledge on almost anything. They kind of have to.
But be wary enough to press the brake at times.
Being a know it all, all the time is almost like a trapeze act without a net. Pick your moments, and realise you can fall. The sound you want to avoid is splat!
From small tents in villages to private auditoriums in the city, Pakatan leaders believe they live and die on ceramah (gatherings or rallies).
Ceramah are organised by party down-liners using volunteers. The volunteers reach out to friendlies.
These events can mislead Pakatan leaders on their actual support. Strong supporters always attend, but their votes you already have.
Time to reach out to larger Malaysia, wherever it is. Being parochial like BN leaves Pakatan in the same place. In convenient echo chambers.
Women, they still vote
Talking about reaching places and masses not in your radar, try to remember women still vote in Malaysia.
Pakatan’s Achilles Heel is not Sabah and Sarawak, it’s women. Women don’t know Pakatan enough.
While seats in Borneo outside urban-mixed seats — which means most of the 57 (much more after the delineation exercise) — are at the mercy of economic might in the hands of BN, almost all the seats in Semenanjung are in play if Pakatan courts women more.
Angry politics and antagonising posturing does not draw interest among women. And before I get accused of saying what women want, getting more women in Pakatan and giving the ones in power positions more voice might help Pakatan outflank BN. More female candidates won’t hurt in the least.
Give ways forward on bread and butter issues
As said above, the people can tell when an idea is original, and not just reactive.
Telling what BN does wrong is reactive, telling how Pakatan will change the course of our common history — without resorting primarily to statements on reducing leakages — would entice the people.
They understand more than politicians give them credit for.
Don’t hit under the belt
When my football teammates make jokes about any politicians or their family members, and the jokes are crass and without fail over the top, everyone in the locker room cracks up.
And so are the tasteless shares on Facebook.
It’s banter among friends.
When politicians get on stage and start to pick on politicians and their relations in a crude way, they lose more people than they win. And those they win, they already have them on their side.
It’s obvious, but somehow those in the Pakatan leadership ranks cannot resist the temptation.
If your opponent is easy to ridicule, why should you a better leader and one with really smart ideas and superior gags need to pick on them? Your followers and the general public are already playing up those gaffes.
Show some class.
Stay on message
And yes, again and again, stay on message.
While it is cute to alter the core message to look original, the game is not about random acts of individualism.
Fight tool and nail on what the message is, internally Pakatan leaders. Once decided, stick to it like your life matters on it. It does.
Good night and good luck
Of course these lines will be ignored. But I have got them off my chest. Don’t say you were not warned and do not feel unnecessary frustrated at year’s end sensing Pakatan has not picked up enough votes to increase its chances to be in Putrajaya come 2017 or 2018.
Change the game, not tire the players, or worse the spectators.