Cowgate, ‘jambu’ and the changing political ground

Kapil Sethi (TMI)

It is entirely possible that Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil and her family are innocent of any wrongdoing in the RM250 million National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) scandal, and will be exonerated by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) after investigations are complete.

But what has been at times bewildering are the reactions to the exposé by the main actors in the controversy. First, a prolonged silence followed by a bare denial. Then as more details of the alleged wrongdoing were exposed, press conferences where only “friendly” media were invited and only bits and pieces of answers were provided.

As the situation heated up and talk of bribery of the investigators surfaced, the minister tried to separate her job from those of her family members’, filed a defamation suit against her accusers, apparently went for the umrah three times in the last two months for spiritual solace, while taking leave from office for three weeks to facilitate investigations.

But the most astonishing was her characterisation of one of her accusers, PKR’s Rafizi Ramli, as a pretty boy (“jambu”) who wanted to become the head of Wanita Umno as he was jealous of the power of the Umno women’s wing. Swinging wildly between general incoherence and inchoate defiance, this descent into schoolyard taunt has taken the dispute to new lows of political debate.

From a public relations (PR) perspective, this could be a textbook case on what not to do when faced with such damaging news. Since a senior government minister is involved in what is widely speculated to be an election year, it would be reasonable to expect a media blitz defending the main players in the mainstream press. So why the shambolic defence of what may just turn out to be a storm in a teacup?

The answer may just lie in the mindset of the central actors in this drama. Having held power from the time of a pliable media and populace used to presenting and accepting only one side of the story, having to reply to detailed accusations with a detailed explanation was probably an alien concept. Secondly, used to stories such as these having a limited shelf life, the ability of the opposition to employ a piecemeal exposé PR strategy using the alternative media to prolong the life of the scandal seems to have caught the powers-that-be by surprise.

In the PR war for votes, the NFC scandal has been a major debacle for Barisan Nasional (BN). A more appropriate government response in case they were confident of the innocence of the accused would have been a detailed rebuttal of each of the allegations as they arose. Alternatively, if there was any doubt, it would have been to order a thorough investigation whether through the MACC or through a royal commission of inquiry (RCI) into the NFC while ordering the minister to proceed on leave for the duration of the enquiry.

This would have projected the government as having nothing to hide and unafraid to let the chips fall where they may, in the interest of probity and transparency in the workings of the administration.

Instead, the response was not unified, all the players had their say which was at times contradictory, and protestations of innocence were issued followed by freezing of the assets of the NFC and a MACC enquiry. All of it portrayed a government on the defensive.

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