February may be the shortest month in the year, but 2020 has certainly packed a punch for Malaysians this leap month.

It began on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, shaking citizens up into what (even as I write) continues to be a rollercoaster ride as politicians and monarchy play snakes and ladders with the fate of a country. A new government collapses; an old Prime Minister crumbles; the stock market tanks; a nation trembles.

As the media find spotlights turned on them as truth sayers, I suddenly found myself being sought out on three occasions by our business radio station, BFM, to contribute my 2 sens on several communications related topics. Here’s a quick take of what went down with some further thought.

Feb 24: Leadership… Leadership… Leadership?

From a PR perspective, how do the events across all of Sunday (Feb 23) affect the public perception of our leaders?

Rumours are more potent than any other source of information and rumours, compounded by word-of-mouth, which in PR is one of the most important mediums of communication, can be dangerous.

As rumours gain moment, they gather more moss, clouding and distorting the initial message. Today, we see rumours being accelerated by WhatsApp, Telegram, Twitter, Facebook.

The actions by our leaders, as we saw it being played, were interestingly unified in their very sly silence and it was probably to make their (eventual) announcements about defections, resignations and new coalitions, more monumental. The timing for this however, was totally misplaced with today’s uncertain political climate, a looming potential pandemic and a very shaky economic environment. On Monday (Feb 24), following the initial 24-hour political drama, the FBM KLCI fell below the critical 1500 level in late morning trade, the lowest since 2011, clearly indicating leaders who were more focused on their own political agenda than in the economy they were supposed to stimulate. (One week later, it sits at 1,459 edging even closer to our record low of 1,444 points.)

Also, by shunning the media at the onset of this political wrangle, our government and MPs created an environment of distrust in the official channels of news and this distrust allowed uncertainty to be fuelled by what I called ‘mamak stall’ speculations. After all, it is human nature to spread rumours, which they believe in, in the absence of real information.

The game being played out by our leaders in general, sent a clear message of disinterest in the people who put them in office. These leaders created a national motion of no confidence. By not communicating clearly and timely, they lost trust and credibility amongst many voters. This early strategy of hide-and-seek by our leaders who chose to drop hints, communicate with smug smiles or not say anything at all, over coming out with a statement (even if just to buy time), put the power of information in the hands of the common person. By doing this, our leaders pretty much lost control of their messaging, while stripping themselves of any worthy image they have built.

In today’s highly connected, always-on world, the first 12 hours is the shakiest, the most vulnerable, as it is shrouded by uncertainty, anxiety and fear. It also presents a leader with the best opportunity to take the narrative into his own hands, stop the speculations and thus stand out as a leader trying to lead.

Here is what you need to know in a crisis.

  • In the 1st 12 hours, people ask what. WHAT on earth has happened?!
  • The next 12 hours, comes the who. WHO messed up, cause as regular Joes and Janes, we need to hold someone responsible and we are not opposed to burning an entire organisation at the stake.
  • 24 to 36 hours later, as the crisis sinks in, the question that arises is why. We voted you in to make things better. So why are we in this big mess? Why is this happening now? Why is no one thinking about us, the people? Why? WHY?
  • Between 36 to 72 hours, people are questioning how. HOW is this crisis going to be fixed?! They are now fed up and angry; they just want to get on with life within a stable and calm environment.
  • After that, the conversation in interrobangs surrounds when. When are you going to get your act together?! When are you going to get down and back to the real business of governing?!

Is there a way to regain public trust or improve their public image after this: 

Firstly, this trust has been very hard fought. It was a trust on trial from the last election and it was a very shaky trust. I feel that by what these politicians have done here, by not being forthright, by not coming clean over what was happening, by not sharing the processes that were taking place – that trust, that the people had given them, has been taken away. Regaining it is going to be tough, but the good news is that people generally have short-term memory.

By focusing on more pressing and monumental issues, by deflecting attention from this royal mess, the chances of framing a new image is not that difficult. It just takes a conscious effort and the right support.

Feb 25: Does Malaysia Need An Injection Of Fresh Blood In Our Leadership?

What would fresh blood bring to the table and if so, why does Malaysia need this?

The way we function as a government is basically by rehashing the old ways of doing things.

Ideally, fresh blood should bring in new ideas of how to communicate, how to create a new image for the country, a better knowledge of what the people want as opposed to what they think the people need.

This new situation that has been created, should not be looked at with fear, but as means to a fresh start for the country (remember, in Malaysia, a second chance to form a new government within 24 months has never happened). There is so much distrust for the old guards. An equal amount of distrust for the ex new guards. We have already witnessed first hand that this country is not ready for too many new faces, let alone a complete overhaul. As a society, it appears that we need to hang on to as much of the past as possible – almost a necessary crutch for the majority of the population.

However, fresh blood, which not necessary means younger leaders, will definitely make a difference even if it means only 20% of the government. It is a start; so I think if there are more Hannahs, Dzulkeflys, Anthonys, Gobinds (even a KJ and a Saddiq thrown in) – we are on the right track.

We need to start transitioning into a more youth inspired government, while keeping some stalwarts for continuity, instead of the reverse.

Feb 26: Managing Crisis & Change With Communication

For the successor of this very chequered legacy, how would you advise them to reinvent the brand image of Malaysian politicians and politics?

In any crisis there are opportunities; that’s what we say in business, and the incoming government is actually being given a very clean slate to rebrand itself and they should see it as a gift to make a change.

People are so confused and exhausted that you can shape a compelling narrative.

If we go back to the Malaysian Coat of Arms, it actually reads, ‘Unity is Strength’ and I think this is a great place to start. It is time to play up this motto and actually showcase it by going back to the people and engaging with the people; exactly like what PH did to win the elections in 2018 in the first place. It is a chance to tell Malaysians that there is a place and opportunity for each person.

When this whole incident blew up, a question to ask is how many MPs reached out to their constituents and attempted to allay growing anxiety and fear, and told them that, “Things are going to be okay”.

With today’s technology and social platforms, MPs should have access to their voters to communicate with them. It is time for voters to really know who their representatives are and not solely during campaign trails, but after and always. MPs need to continuously engage with the people and not only when they need them to cast a vote. Malaysian politics needs to build a fresher image of being more involved, more caring, more transparent. They need to project an image of altruism.

If you were to develop how future politicians communicate, especially in terms of crisis, what would you say?

I am a very firm believer that in a crisis you must take charge of the narrative and to communicate as honestly as the law allows you to. When the core of the crisis are people, one of the most important action is to actually apologise for the confusion and fear that had been caused. In this case, apologise for not having said anything for so long. (Agree to disagree about Tun Dr M, but he knows PR. He apologised for his silence live on TV and many felt a little teary; you know who you are.)

Forget about politicians feeling betrayed; the people of this country are nursing a bigger betrayal from an entire government, from leaders they trusted to take them into an era of change and betterment. The immediate focus is to regain some measure of trust and my suggestion is for the interim government to be clear and bold – enough of politicking! Let’s get down to dealing with our economy and the COVID-19 infection; these are pure survival issues for our nation right now. Communicate boldly that the government has a plan (i.e the budget stimuli that was announced on Feb 27) and that it will manage these issues.

People need to feel safe and since they cannot trust in politics, then make them trust in the economy and healthcare.

So, definitely, a higher level of commitment must be exhibited; an honest concern for the people should be emphasised on. It is really time to be more vocal about the job these leaders are chosen to do. Just doing it is no longer enough. Bring attention to it and be sure that you are not going to be known as a one-hit wonder Minister or worse, a complete miss. Call it idealistic, but The People are tired of self-serving politics. It is time to undo the politician skin and wear a civil servant one.

Feb 27: It has been over 72 hours and political fatigue has set in. I, like every other Malaysian is asking HOW are you going to fix this!

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Written by Janitha Sukumaran, Founder of Rantau Golin