Umno/BN has no answers, no communications strategy, and much less money

Umno/BN’s communications and social media strategy fell apart on that fateful Tuesday when Najib was sent to jail.

Ibrahim M Ahmad

Despite the dissolution of Parliament on Oct 10 and the prospect of elections taking place anytime between now and Dec 9, it comes as no surprise that the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is as unprepared as it has ever been.

Remarkably, information chiefs Shahril Hamdan and Wan Agyl Wan Hassan have candidly admitted that the once mighty ruling coalition lacks proper social media infrastructure and a communications strategy, a problem exposed by political analyst Romen Bose to FMT earlier this week.

According to Bose, the same people who led Umno/BN to defeat in 2018 using “disastrous branding and election strategies” are still at the forefront of its efforts this time around.

Bose says that Umno/BN’s “old school politicians” still believe that social media is just “hype”, and that winning is simply a matter of “meetings with the grassroots, organising dinners and dishing out aid”.

Although unexpected, that 2018 defeat did not propel Umno/BN into any coherent action in a bid to win back the hearts and minds of the rakyat.

It did not look to innovate its communications machinery and strategy. Instead, Umno/BN was content to simply piggyback on Najib Razak.

Ousted as prime minister at the 14th general election (GE14) and forced to relinquish the party’s top post in the days that followed, Najib successfully maintained his relevance in the public eye by rebranding himself as “Bossku” and morphing into a one-man publicity machine.

He toured the country extensively, mingled with ordinary Malaysians, attended events and met with dignitaries and other leading figures. He also challenged government policy and articulated opinions on a gamut of issues affecting the nation and the lives of ordinary Malaysians.

He even went to the ground during by-elections in Johor and Melaka and, as admitted by Umno deputy president Mohamad Hasan, played a leading role in securing victory for Umno/BN in both states.

His every move between 2018 and 2022 was captured, curated and published using an elaborate social media strategy, ensuring that his every thought and action became quickly known to the entire nation.

For their part, Umno/BN leaders were happy to let him do all the heavy-lifting, content to ride his coattails for any spillover success his hard work might generate for them.

They showed no foresight or concern for what was bound to happen and did not have the presence of mind to imitate or build on the work of their de facto leader.

As a result, Umno/BN’s communications and social media strategy fell apart on that fateful Tuesday when Najib was sent to jail.

Today, Umno/BN has no coherent formulation of answers to the numerous issues plaguing the nation and, even if it did, it has no social media infrastructure and strategy to communicate those solutions to the electorate.

Its politicians are still expecting to win the upcoming 15th general election (GE15) in the traditional way – by returning to their stomping grounds with nothing except “band-aid” solutions for their community.

On arrival, they will expect to see oversized banners, posters and buntings displaying their mugshots. A lavish kenduri will be hosted. They will strut around with chest protruding to greet well-wishers, handing out token gifts along the way. Nearby, a steamroller will pave a freshly tarred road or two.

After all, to them, elections are about enhancing their personal branding, not about making a meaningful and lasting impact in the lives of those who elect them.

And, if they can help it, their candidacy will not cost them a single sen.

As always, Umno/BN politicians will expect the party and coalition to hand them allocated election funds (known in Malay as their “peruntukan”).

They will be careful not to use the entire allocation on their constituents, though. Instead, they will retain a large portion of it in their personal war chests to be used at the next party elections.

Unsurprisingly, party insiders are bracing themselves for a repeat of what took place at GE14.

They say that at many of the election meetings held in the run-up to the 2018 polls, the only question many candidates wanted answers for had nothing to do with properly planning for the elections. All they were interested to hear was how much they could expect as their allocation, and when.

The demands were said to have frustrated then deputy president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who told candidates – much to their annoyance – that such matters were for the party president to determine but that, in any case, they were also expected to stump out their own cash.

When funds were eventually made available, many were said not to have used them for their campaigns, leaving suppliers and grassroots party workers underpaid or even unpaid.

Like it or not, the 2022 election campaign promises something very different for Umno.

No longer the party with a stranglehold on government, it will not have access to state-owned media to disseminate its election propaganda.

In any case, that would be a futile endeavour. The traditional mainstream media of state-owned television stations and newspapers have long lost their captive audience.

Instead, the internet generally, and social media specifically, make up the new real estate where Malaysians of every age, race and social standing now reside.

That change was first set in motion by Hindraf/Makkal Sakti at GE12 in 2008 and was driven up a notch by DAP’s UbahTV at GE13 five years later. It has eaten into Umno/BN’s popular vote in large bites ever since.

It is bewildering to think that despite their 2018 defeat, Umno/BN continues to ignore this reality till this very day.

Perhaps, that is due to complacency resulting from six decades of uninterrupted power. Maybe it is due to a failure to attract young talent capable of thinking differently. Or else, it is due to a failure to harness powerful media resources already available in the market.

With substantially less funds expected to be available this year compared to any previous general election, Umno/BN’s struggles are bound to intensify.

The truth is that Umno/BN is wholly unprepared for GE15. They have no answers for the rakyat, no communications strategy and much less money.

On top of that, they will also not have Najib to cling to or hide behind.