State your plans, not excuses

Don’t use ‘deep state’ to rationalise the lack of achievements. Tell us how you plan to attain them, and when.

Nathaniel Tan, The Star

WE got treated to quite the smackdown in the most recent Democratic Presidential Debate in the United States:

Elizabeth Warren: “Democrats win when we figure out what is right, and we get out there and fight for it. I am not afraid. And for Democrats to win, you can’t be afraid either.”

John Delaney: “So, I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises, when we run on things that are workable, not fairytale economics.

“Look at this story of Detroit…. This city is turning around because the government and the private sector are working well together.

“We need to encourage collaboration between the government, the private sector and the nonprofit sector.”

Warren: “You know, I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for. I don’t get it.

“Our biggest problem in Washington is corruption. It is giant corporations that have taken our government and that are holding it by the throat, and we need to have the courage to fight back against that. And until we’re ready to do that, it’s just more of the same.

“Well, I’m ready to get in this fight. I’m ready to win this fight.”

What a zinger. To quote a line from my favourite video game: Brutal. Savage. Rekt.

Watch the video clip if you haven’t. It’s the type of fireworks that make and break political careers – a textbook lesson in political communication.

How might it apply to Malaysia?

This last week, Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah stated once again that the “deep state” is out to undermine and sabotage the Pakatan Harapan government.

This was reported on a Tuesday morning, and by evening of that same day, DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang published a statement backing up this claim, writing: “The deep state is, in fact, an important reason why institutional and political reforms for a ‘New Malaysia’ are not as rapid as they should be.”

I’m going to guess that a lot of people had a strong emotional response to these two headlines before reading the articles in full – if they bothered reading them at all. To be honest, I wouldn’t blame them if they didn’t.

The lesson from Warren, Delaney, Saifuddin and Lim is simple: People don’t want to hear excuses.

Let’s do a simple test. Let’s say you hear the following sentences from someone:

“I can’t do my job because of A”; “The only reason I can’t accomplish this is because of B” or “C is preventing me from accomplishing my goals”.

Even without knowing anything else at all about that person, what perception have you formed about them?

This experiment applies especially to elected representatives. Malaysians elected you to do a job, and constantly hearing excuses about why the job isn’t being done invariably makes people perceive you as weak, someone who isn’t responsible or leading well.

Now this does not mean that we are unreasonable people. Nor does it mean that we should hold politicians to impossibly high, inhuman standards that we ourselves would not want to be held to.

What this means is that our leaders still have a long way to go when it comes to communication strategy.

Let’s take a look again at Delaney. Wasn’t what he was saying kind of reasonable, if you look very closely at it? Was it just a little bit of an overreaction by Warren? Maybe.

Will these facts ultimately help redeem Delaney in the least though? Absolutely not.

If you want to dive deep into the details, what is happening here is that Delaney is trying to position himself as being friendly to the private sector and big corporations. I imagine he’s the kind of guy that huge companies would love to get cosy with, and who knows, maybe even donate large sums of money to.

He even used all the nicest words in trying to get that message across – basically saying: Hey guys, everyone has a role to play in coming together for a united America; we shouldn’t step on anyone’s toes or promise the moon, let’s be reasonable here.

Warren on the other hand, has long been campaigning on a platform of “Let’s completely smash to pieces the chokehold big corporations have on working class America; let’s not cower in fear of losing, but stand up for what we really believe in, and bravely fight the good fight.”

Who do you think is likely to gain more traction?

When I say the answer is Warren, I’m not saying there is no place for moderation and having one’s feet planted squarely on the ground when it comes to policy. I’m saying that that’s something for policymaking tables and think tanks – not something front-facing for the electorate.

Diving into the Malaysian details, here are two main things I think that are worth saying about the “deep state”.

The first concerns the term itself. I would invite Saifuddin, Lim and the rest of Pakatan Harapan to tread extremely carefully around the usage of the term – or better yet, avoid using it completely.

I associate usage of the term “deep state” most closely with diehard fans of Donald Trump – think anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers and neo-Nazis.

In my experience, the term “deep state” is most often used by fanatic, right-wing conspiracy theorists to describe an entrenched bureaucracy and shadow government that is standing in the way of Trump making America great again.

The same goes for the term “fake news”, which has also been used by Malaysian politicians. Given how frequently, consistently, and untiringly Trump uses this term, there is almost no way to avoid being mentally associated with Trump if you use it too.

Just because these terms are gaining some traction in mass media, it doesn’t mean that that traction is good traction – or the kind of traction you want to be associated with.

Secondly, while my background is more in communications than in policy or research, this does not make me blind to the actual details of the matter.

To be perfectly frank, I think that technically, the claims by Saifuddin and Lim may not be terribly off the mark. I find it perfectly plausible that there are indeed elements in an entrenched bureaucracy and civil service that are working against Pakatan Harapan’s interests.

I’m not saying this isn’t something politicians should be attentive to and working on. From what I’ve seen, different ministers have had varying degrees of success in engaging the civil service, and these ministers should learn best practices from one another.

What I am saying is: Nobody is interested in the deep state being used as a “politically fashionable” excuse for why things aren’t being done.

If you really must comment on it, let me humbly point out that saying “We are failing because the deep state is undermining us” is vastly different from saying “We are now taking steps X, Y, and Z in order to engage the civil service and get them on board as stakeholders in realising government policies that are designed to help the rakyat.”

Nobody wants to hear why you can’t do something; we only want to hear how you plan to do it, and when it’s going to happen.