Politics and Policy: The PH government, its low ratings and ineffective communication

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 6, 2019 - May 12, 2019.
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LAST week, just as Pakatan Harapan (PH) approached its first year in power, it was told something unflattering in the form of a survey conducted by pollster Merdeka Center.

The survey shows only 39% of respondents gave the PH federal government positive ratings. That’s not all. Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s popularity dropped to 46% from 71% recorded last August.

Some PH leaders, in particular those from PKR, viewed the findings as something that was not unusual — ratings do drop in the first year of new governments in many countries.

They also said the policies implemented, especially those that are economic in nature, would take time before the people benefit from them. Apparently, the economy is one of the top concerns of the people interviewed in the survey.

But interestingly, the survey also shows 67% agreed that the government should be given more time to fulfil its election promises.

Why then give the government a low rating when they felt that it ought to be given more time? It is like saying, “yes, you need more time and should be given more time, but we want the changes to come now”. Those are the circumstances the PH government needs to deal with.

The survey also shows a mixed response to PH’s other proposed reforms, such as wanting to abolish the death penalty and lowering the minimum voting age.

For that, Merdeka Center has this to say: “In our opinion, the results appear to indicate a public that favours the status quo.” But how do you want changes but favour status quo at the same time, if I may ask?

However, it went on to say, “… and thus requires robust and coordinated advocacy efforts to garner their acceptance of new measures.”

Lack of effective communication could be the result of this confusion among the public. I have personally seen many instances of members of the public being not aware of policies or reforms put in place by the government. People do know about efforts in fighting corruption but not about others.

For example, the case of saving Tabung Haji and FELDA has been exploited by Barisan Nasional to make PH look like bad guys who have no concern or interest in taking care of Malay-Muslim-based institutions.

Who do you blame for this?

In new Malaysia, any effort by PH to “advise” the media to highlight its good performance would be seen as interfering in media affairs — something the new government has rightly promised not to do from day one. That promise has not been broken.

Therefore, the onus is on state-owned media agencies to do the job for the government of the day. Nobody will blame or accuse the government of meddling in its own apparatus as that is what state-owned agencies in many countries do.

Perhaps PH’s worry is the credibility and public acceptance of information dished out by government media agencies — as experienced by the BN government, especially in its last term. If this is the case, then it is up to the state-owned media operators themselves to come up with credible and believable presentation of news.

This is important if the state-owned media wants to win an argument in an environment where there is a lot more freedom of expression, from social media to street protests. To put it mildly, this freer environment has become a thorn in the flesh of the PH government. Opponents are taking full advantage of such freedom to attack PH — which is well and good in the name of the new-found freedom of expression — but oftentimes, these attacks are in the form of disinformation, rather than factual criticism.

Two good examples are the protests against ICERD and the Rome Statute, which were laced with racial and religious sentiments, notably on social media. Despite the government announcing that it has abandoned plans to ratify them, the criticism has not abated.

Sensing PH’s inability to communicate the government’s position effectively — even through the state-owned media — the opposition, led by Umno and PAS, is religiously whipping up the three-R rhetoric of race, religion and royalty for political mileage.

Malay rights groups are also causing doubt in the community that affirmative action policies favouring them in business, education and housing could be taken away. The appointments of non-Malays to key government positions are exploited daily to the max — even after one year of their appointments — telling them that their power and rights have been curtailed under PH rule.

I have heard of ordinary PH members as well as supporters and even non-partisan Malaysians wanting the government, in particular Mahathir, to be its “old self” and bring out the big stick and take action against those instigating racial and religious hatred in the name of freedom of expression. To his credit, Mahathir and the government he leads are having none of that.

Going back to the Merdeka Center survey, it also shows 23% of the respondents are concerned about ethnic and religious matters.

In the PH fold, there are leaders who opine that once the economy is fixed, race and religion will cease to be political selling points of the opposition. Others are insisting that is not enough, judging by the three consecutive losses in the Cameron Highlands, Semenyih and Rantau by-elections where a substantial number of Malay voters rejected the government. The race and religious issues, they say, ought to be dealt with on their own. Others caution that efforts to over-appease the Malays will frustrate the non-Malays.

PH needs to get the right formula for the good of all Malaysians, but this is no easy feat.

Veteran journalist Zin Mahmud has an interesting take on the findings of the Merdeka Center survey. To him, the decline in support for PH does not mean support for BN or PAS is increasing.

I must say I agree with my old friend, but still, the findings of the survey must not be brushed aside by PH while the antics of the Umno-PAS combo with regard to the three Rs must be seriously looked into.


Mohsin Abdullah is contributing editor at The Edge. He has covered politics for over four decades.


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