Time for Pakatan to Go Guerilla

by Kee Thuan Chye, Malaysian Digest  

A LARGE part of politics hinges on perception. And the public perception of Pakatan Rakyat, especially of its component party PKR, is currently negative or one of skepticism. This is due in part to Pakatan’s own doing – as is evident in recent instances of major in-fighting among party members – and in part to merciless mainstream media spin.

Pakatan itself cannot counter the spin. It does not have a well-organized spin machinery of its own, and it does not have its own newspapers, radio and TV stations that reach out nationwide. Countering spin is also something that needs to be done on a daily basis. If a spin is not nipped in the bud and is allowed to grow instead, it will be that much harder to debunk it later.

In Selangor, Pakatan has been bringing out Selangorkini, a weekly rag in Bahasa Malaysia that is supposed to provide some profile to the Pakatan-led state government’s activities and achievements, but this is not well-distributed. Many Selangorians are not even aware of its existence. In late November, the English-language Selangor Times was launched, but its target readership is mainly urbanites. Pakatan needs more than the votes of the urban areas to win the next general election. In fact, it needs a lot more to win the next general election. As it is, it cannot match what the BN Government is touting – a brighter future, a Malaysia with high-income status by 2020, through projects under the Economic Transformation Programme. Never mind that this is actually still a dream, an illusion; BN has been selling it on a grand scale to make it seem real. And the irony is, people are actually buying it.

As we know, the key to persuading buyers is marketing. It is just as important in politics as public relations, and BN is savvy about this. That’s how it manages to hoodwink the masses into buying its product. Pakatan, on the other hand, hasn’t done much by way of marketing and public relations. And that’s putting it mildly. When the last general election came around, the electorate was faced with a BN government that was bereft of marketing ideas to take the country forward, and allegations were flying about of BN corruption and malpractices. As a result, many gave their votes to Pakatan. Even though BN is still associated with corruption and malpractices, Pakatan cannot merely bank on this again at the next general election. This time, the electorate will also want to see Pakatan’s performance record.

Talk to anyone with sense in their heads and they’ll say they want to see Pakatan fulfill the promises they made prior to March 8, 2008. Quite a number will say some of these promises have so far not been made good. Just the other day, someone said to me he was unhappy about the low number of scholarships given out by the educational arm of the Selangor government to non-Malays. He felt the Pakatan-led government was no different from its predecessor. I had to ask him why he was emphasizing the issue so much when non-Malays by and large had not got federal government scholarships for decades. Why make a big case of this now just because it happens to involve the Pakatan-led Selangor government when the BN-led federal government has been doing it for far much longer?

I also had to point out that we should cease looking at the issue from the perspective of race, and that the overriding criterion for giving out a scholarship, apart from scholastic merit, should be need. It doesn’t matter which race the recipient of the scholarship belongs to as long as he needs financial help to attain further education. This does not deviate from the economic agenda that Pakatan has been proposing, which, admittedly, is a logical and sensible one. Only a person who is deliberately contrarian would say it’s not.

But is Pakatan going around explaining to the disgruntled that they should not be harping on an issue that has actually been with us for decades and instead accept that we should look at needs rather than race when it comes to welfare considerations? If it is, how effectively is it doing so? Is its counter-spin done in a concerted manner?

There may not be much time left before the next general election is called. Until then, Pakatan not only has to undo the damage wrought by its internal bickering and the allegations of PKR’s party elections fraud; it also has to make the public feel confident that it is first of all effective and united as an alternative political coalition, and, more importantly, that it has the ability to govern the nation. So what can it do to pull this off in the short time it has? It is not in a position to hawk dreams and illusions like BN can because it doesn’t have a whole government machinery behind it to launch massive programs and public relations exercises. It doesn’t have the mass media as an ally. It cannot tell Malaysians how efficient it can be as the next government and what its policies will be. What are its options?