Malaysian lessons from Bolivia
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 23 Dec 2011
At the Centre for Independent Journalism’s Human Rights in Outer Space series of events last week, I was asked to speak on a panel analysing the Our Brand is Crisis documentary and draw comparisons between issues arising within it and the Malaysian context.
My fellow panelists were Hishamuddin Rais (also known as Tukartiub) and Ray Lagenbach, both esteemed in their own right. What little I had to contribute came in the form of experience working within a state government, and my observations of the Malaysian political and electoral system.
The documentary, in short, shows the intimate behind-the-scenes action of the Bolivian presidential election campaign, specifically that of Goni’s (Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, presidential candidate) team.
An American political consultant, Greenberg Carville Shrum, was hired to conduct a series of focus-group discussions to ascertain the needs and wants of the local Bolivians.
Following this, the Goni team had to craft political campaign messages that reflected what the people most wanted to hear.
The role of consultants
There were four themes that I highlighted during my presentation. First, the role of consultants. In the documentary, consultants were presented as Western, young and English-speaking, juxtaposed visually against the Bolivian team, who were depicted as relatively older and Spanish-speaking.
The latter group was placed in an awkward position of having to begrudgingly follow whatever instructions were given to them by this foreign consultant, presumably placed upon them by Goni himself.
The moral question that emerged was whether it was possible to export an American-style politics into a country like Bolivia, and whether the consultants were able to provide relevant and suitable advice given the varied political conditions. For example, at the end, when Goni admits that his campaign did not go as successfully as he expected, he says: “Only in the US can you believe that you can change people with information.”
In the Malaysian context, we have had our fair share of foreign consultants. One need not be reminded of the criticisms befalling the federal government upon the exposure of its utilising Apco as a public relations consultant, and its alleged Jewish connections. Secondly, the Pemandu outfit under the Prime Minister’s Department has freely employed the services of consultants under its ETP and GTP programmes, oftentimes paying a significant amount to conduct workshops. Whether or not this is justified is left for another debate.
Marketing and branding
The second theme was on the world of marketing and branding, and how it has been absorbed into that of politics, as the theme of the documentary suggests. The consultants immediately launch into how to position the economic crisis; in their own words, they say “we must own crisis” and therefore, “we must brand crisis” to their electoral advantage, as spin doctors.
Capitalism, in its purest form, is based on the belief that human beings are perfectly capable of forming their own decisions based on a set of incentives, usually economic. But the fact is, material and non-material consumerism is now a lot less dependent upon the content’s value as it is on the marketing and branding associated with the content.
This notion has spilled over into the spheres of politics, where it is now the flashiest of campaigns, the most beguiling of politicians, the most emotional of messages that hits home in the supermarket culture of capitalistic politics.
Hence, similar to the commercial world, the tools and methodologies used have also been absorbed and adopted into the political world. Focus-group discussions and opinion polls are often used within the market-research industry to test all sorts of things, including advertisements, packaging, pricing, products, and so on.
These days, companies are also observing acutely any movements and trends emerging from social media and social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and any online chatter.
Let’s face it. Market research does work, simply because when brands find out how their consumers tick, it makes it all that much simpler to craft messages along those lines. In fact, there are numerous examples in which companies did not conduct research and then failed miserably when their new products were launched.
In this case, the product in question is a candidate. And without a doubt, politicians would want to have their ears to the ground, detecting any likes or dislikes of their image. This is only natural, and the political polling and research industry is ever growing, including within Malaysia, where political stakes are high.
One of the unfortunate elements about this, however, is that it is easiest to appeal to one’s emotions. In Malaysia, we are not alien to the game of emotional politics, and indeed, parties have played into the sentiments of fear and insecurity, very often irrational in nature. Umno within Barisan Nasional knows perfectly how to tug at the heartstrings of the Malay Muslim, for example. But in order to move towards a more inclusive society, surely all parties have it in their interest to have a different sort of branding exercise altogether.
Popular vs effective leadership
There is a disparity between doing what is popular, and what is actually effective for the country. For example, the people in the documentary stated upfront within the focus groups that they did not want drastic measures that would affect their income. They also said they did not want their country to sell gas (especially through Chile, for historical reasons), but Goni, upon becoming president, immediately instituted these two measures. When asked, he replied by saying: “I don’t have time to meet the people; I don’t want to be popular, I want to be a good president.”
So there you had a president who was willing to push through policies that the majority of the people did not support – in our analysis, perhaps one who is either stubbornly foolish, or confident, or both – resulting in his eventual fall.
The trick is balancing between popularity and doing something unpopular but necessary for the country. In Goni’s case, he felt that selling gas was important to increase national revenue, although the people considered this to be selling away the country’s natural resources to the corporates. Note that Goni was already known for liberal economic policies, and had to defend himself for bringing in foreign companies at the expense of local jobs.
In Malaysia, the government has a tough position in removing subsidies for oil and essential items, as well as the still-frozen Goods and Services Tax (GST), which it considers necessary to fill government coffers.
These are undoubtedly unpopular measures, and the latter would be impossible to implement just before a general election.
Promise vs implementation
There is a danger of overpromising at the campaign level, which leads people to overwhelmingly reject the politician in question if no such change takes place within the first year of administration. Goni promised local jobs to a degree that was unrealistic. In Malaysia, we have seen the example of former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi promising to rid the country of corruption, but whose ratings fell all too quickly.
It is clear that in the lead-up to the next General Election, there will be much activity and hype, research, polling and focus groups similar to what was observed in the documentary. Malaysians will see the political battle played out in real life, and if there are lessons to be learnt from Our Brand is Crisis, it is that despite the wonderful advantages of branding, communication, and consultancy work, nothing can bear down the will of a people frustrated with their government.
Goni was forced to step down less than one and a half years into his presidency. We hope Malaysian leaders will learn to read the right signals and messages from the voters who are also increasingly frustrated with their government.