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Date: 07 Dec 1999
KL Media Soul-Searching
Voters did not accept BN's adverts knocking the opposition and sought a more balanced picture, say politician
BY BRENDAN PEREIRA
in KUALA LUMPUR
IT IS soul-searching time in Malaysia. Not just for Umno politicians, but also for the brains behind the most expensive advertising campaign in the country's election history and the people who control media organisations.
Anecdotal evidence and comments from politicians suggest that saturation coverage of the Barisan Nasional's track record on television and in the press as well as attempts to portray the opposition as a motley crew of nobodies did not sit well with many Malays. Datuk Hasan Harun, a corporate figure and former Umno Supreme Council member, said: "We keep assuming that Malays are still the same."
He was especially critical of the multi-million ringgit advertising campaign that ran from Nov 21 until Nov 29.
Initially, voters were told to "say no to violence" with images of street demonstrations providing the backdrop.
Later, the attacks against the opposition became more pointed.
One ad, showing the picture of Datin Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, was headlined: "Even she can't trust her husband. If she can't trust him, can we?"
Noted Datuk Hasan: "The advertisements on the TV and in the papers were just too condescending for the younger generation."
A great deal of the campaign was premised on assumptions about a generation fast overtaken by new attitudes and thinking.
A common complaint was that the advertisements were insensitive to the psyche of the Malays who generally do not like to put down people in public.
Some BN politicians also complained behind the scenes that the media blitz was too focused on non-Malay voters, creating two damaging impressions: that the Malay vote was "unimportant" and the ruling coalition was cocksure of support from the community. But even if the messages had been more refined and less offensive, it is debatable if the media campaign would have been successful.
The mainstream media lacked the necessary clout and credibility to be the government's information vehicle.
People either switched off the television or read the newspapers and discounted 50 per cent of what was written as propaganda.
Mr Ahmad Lutfi, editor of a Malay current-affairs magazine, said: "People may buy the mainstream newspapers and read them, but they will also read the other papers and compare. You cannot just tell one side of the story."
The "other papers" are Harakah, the mouthpiece of PAS, several weekly Malay tabloids top heavy with articles on the Barisan Alternatif, magazines and Internet newsletters. Opposition politicians have complained for some time now of unfair treatment at the hands of the main English and Malay dailies, alleging that their statements were distorted.
Another common grouse has been that the ruling coalition is projected as popular and faultless.
At least one politician has stopped singing that song since the ballot boxes were opened.
Kelantan Mentri Besar Nik Aziz Nik Mat believes that the BN believed its own propaganda.
He reasoned: "With the help of the media, they felt that they were in a comfortable position and could sleep soundly during the campaign period."
The constant attacks against PAS also upset voters, he said.
Over the past few months, the Kelantan Mentri Besar has been portrayed in the media as a simpleton and a loose cannon.
But on the ground, people view him as a clean-living spiritual leader.
An Umno veteran once warned his colleagues against using the tough approach against the Kelantanese politician.
He said: "You must not try and cut jelly with a knife."
His advice went unheeded.
An examination of the media campaign will be part of the overall post-mortem on the elections that will be conducted by the BN.
But sources say that, apart from improving its reach and influence with the electorate, the government will also look at curbing the proliferation of publications that spread hatred against the national leadership.
The 300,000-circulation Harakah can expect to come under closer scrutiny from the government.