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Watch out for the BN ad agencies’ election media blitz

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine, a pensioner, received an unusual phone call from a woman he didn’t know.

From the way he described it, it sounded like someone from a market research agency was trying to gauge public opinion and sentiment. The woman asked him if it was okay if she took 20 minutes to ask a few questions.

Among the questions:

  • What do you think of the Northern Corridor Economic Region plan?
  • Are you happy with your recent pension increment? (He replied no, he still finds it hard to cope with the rising cost of living.)
  • What do you think of Penang Chief Minister Dr Koh’s performance?
  • Who do you think would make a suitable successor?
  • What do you think of Keadilan?
  • What do you think of Anwar?
  • Would you be comfortable with Pas ruling the country?
  • Do you think Visit Malaysia Year will help the economy?
  • Who do you normally vote for?

Now, my guess is that this phone call has something to do with the coming general election.

We know that during the 2004 general election campaign, two of Abdullah Badawi’s aides – an ex-banker and a political scientist – coordinated a media blitz that used the creative input of three or four advertising companies. The media campaign covered television, radio, print media, billboards and even direct mail.

They used the ad agency Leo Burnett to come up with television commercials.

The landslide BN victory was actually a triumph for these advertising agencies as well. The media campaign was designed to promote the “feel-good” factor, to market the BN “brand” image and to portray Abdullah Badawi in the best possible light.

The message and approach use varied depending on the target audience. They also used the “soft-sell” approach because they didn’t want to put off the target audience through a “hard-sell” approach, which would have been “overkill”.

Before coming up with this media campaign, I am pretty sure these ad agencies would have done their homework to find out what issues are important to which target audience. You know, focus groups, random surveys, cold call interviews with voters, opinion polls – that sort of thing. The idea is to find out what appeals to voters and what puts them off. In the minds of these agencies, it’s all about perception and how it can be moulded.

One ad agency director said after the last election that his television commercials focused “just on Malaysians talking about what they like to do, what they believe in about this country and their life, rather than politics.”

“Because Pak Lah talks about everyday things, not mega-projects,” he said. (Try telling Malaysians that today!)

“Things like education, better service from the government, improving the police, anti-corruption, dealing directly with the public.” (We know all about that now, don’t we?)

“We were successful in selling the BN’s brand and the principal product, Datuk Seri Abdullah, well. If people ‘felt good’ towards the BN I feel it was validated.”

Those quotes were from a Bernama report after the 2004 general election.

As the Malaysian Media Monitors’ Diary observed back then:

In this advertising and marketing game, voters are reduced to unsuspecting consumers whose minds should be moulded and manipulated into buying the “product.” In this game, the BN is the brand, the dacing is the brand logo, the tag line is “Excellence, Glory, Distinction”, and the emotion they are trying to create is “feel good”. The principal “product” is of course, Abdullah Badawi, and the product attributes highlighted are the images of him as an anti-corruption crusader fighting against formidable odds, a man who listens to the people, etc.

It worked, didn’t it?

Now I am wondering who first thought of those tag-lines “Work with me, not for me” and “Cemerlang, Gemilang, Terbilang“. And was it any wonder that Abdullah focussed on combating corruption and reforming the police as the main planks of his programme.

I wonder if the Barisan Nasional has already appointed its ad agencies for the coming election and if they have already begun their “market research” to find out the issues that matter to you and me so that they can better mould public opinion through their next election media blitz.

Unable to access Malaysia Today; Keng Yaik warns bloggers

What’s going on? I am unable to access Malaysia Today, the website that has shaken up Malaysia, from up here in Penang at 7.30 pm today. It’s been like that for a few hours now. (It was back online when I checked at 10.45 pm – but downloading pages inside is still kinda slow.)

Meanwhile, I caught Minister Lim Keng Yaik, wearing his Multimedia portfolio hat, on the 8 pm news issuing a stern, blustering warning to bloggers. I didn’t quite catch what he was warning them about, but he looked suitably serious. It all looks ominous enough.

Anyway, Mustafa and I have released a statement on the implications of the interrogation of Malaysia Today webmaster Raja Petra:

Charter 2000-Aliran is deeply disturbed by recent developments that could restrict the space for freedom of expression over the Internet and curb the democratic right of bloggers to air their opinions. It is especially worrying because the Internet is one of the few avenues left for concerned Malaysians to freely express views and gain access to information that is normally not carried in the mainstream media. Full statement: Raja Petra’s interrogation: Striking fear among bloggers?

How The Star watered down my water article

When I was invited by The Star to write a piece on water in June, I hesitated. Knowing how steeped The Star was in promoting corporate interests, I wondered whether the article I would write would emerge unscathed (without cuts).

My concerns were not unfounded. When I submitted my completed article, the first thing The Star editor asked me was whether he could drop the bit about YTL Corp. No reason given. I was dumbfounded. What I had said about YTL was public knowledge and had even been reported in the business press.

I was disappointed but reluctantly agreed, as I thought three lines wouldn’t make much difference to the overall thrust and tone of my article. In fact, it wasn’t the most critical of articles; it was rather tame, I thought. Still, I wanted to get the message across that corporations were attempting to profit from water and that water – the resources, related infrastructure and management – should remain firmly in public hands.

When the tame article was finally published, to my horror, I found that more bits and pieces had been left out to water it down further. Anything remotely critical of corporations had been left out. I expressed my displeasure to The Star’s editor in an email:

“I was a disappointed that more bits were left out than just the few lines on YTL that you had indicated. In particular, the reference to the comparison between Thames Water and the Sri Lankan water authority was important, I felt, to show that state-managed water authorities could do just as well, if not better, that private firms.

“So too the mention that civil society resistance had helped to slow down the water privatisation agenda, especially in the Malaysian case, the Coalition Against Water Privatisation.”

The editor apologised and tried to explain:

“I only took out the YTL part but the subs removed these paras because of space constraint. they had to fit into that hole. i hope u understand as a journalist that it is just not possible to use in full as much as we want to. possibly the subs could have taken out the less relevant parts and in this case a matter of judgement.”

I don’t buy that argument about space constraints.

From the way The Star edited (or rather chopped) my piece, I can deduce the following:

  • Anything remotely critical of corporations will not see the light of day in The Star.
  • You can talk about general stuff, but it is a big no-no to give specific examples that cast particular corporations or the private sector in a negative light.
  • You cannot talk about how civil society protests – such as the campaign organised by the Coalition Against Water Privatisation – forced the government to back off on its direct water privatisation efforts.
  • You cannot talk about how corporations are now adopting the indirect approach to water privatisation – away from the gaze of the public eye.
  • You cannot give examples of how the public sector can actually perform more efficiently than private corporations if they are given the right resources.
  • It is not polite to remind readers that the over-riding goal of corporations is profit maximisation at all costs.

There is a common thread in all this. Basically, The Star relies heavily on advertising revenue. And thus it would not want to do anything to upset potential advertisers. More than that, The Star is a channel of corporate propaganda and very much part of the system that is increasingly entrenching corporate power and influence in our land.

I reproduce my article in full below with the omitted sections in bold. You be the judge.

Opinion


by Anil Netto

Water is essential for our survival. It is also a gift from God. Water resources therefore belong to all of humanity and no group or organisation can claim that it belongs to them, much less use it to seek profits at the expense of the people.

There was a time when no firm was interested in water. Those were the days when water was plentiful, relatively unpolluted, and not seen as a “commodity”.

But as “development” degrades catchment areas, as rivers become polluted and as industry consumes ever greater quantities of water, clean water has become increasingly scarce. With greater scarcity likely to lead to higher water tariffs, private corporations have been eyeing water as a potentially lucrative industry”.

Notice how the corporate sector has changed the terminology: water has now become a commodity vulnerable to the profit-motive.

But water is still a public resource belonging by right to all humanity. It is still essential to our survival.

What has changed though is that private firms have gone into the “water industry” – and many of them have got their hands burnt. Major multinational water companies suffered spectacular losses and failures in places such as Manila, Jakarta and Buenos Aires.

They now realise that the only money to be made is from water treatment and contracts for the supply of infrastructure. There is little money to be made from the distribution network. Many firms now realise it is not easy to make quick profits while keeping tariffs low and improving the management of water resources.

Certainly the water privatisation agenda has slowed and Malaysia has proved to be no exception. This is also due to civil society’s anti-privatisation movement – the Coalition Against Water Privatisation, in the Malaysian case – which has resisted the takeover of water management by private interests.

It is in this light that we should view the recent announcement by Minister of Energy, Water and Communications, Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik, that no more water concessions would be given out.

The government says it is now open to the idea of state governments entering into joint ventures with those who have the expertise to improve water services to provide better services.

We should be wary this does not merely cater to corporate interests who are still eyeing the water “industry” and trying to enter through the back door – a sort of quiet “back-door privatisation”.

To be sure, multinationals and private corporations are now focusing on more stable markets with less risky contract arrangements. They are going into joint ventures with local partners and keeping a low profile to avoid public resistance to the takeover of water resource. New players are entering the field through private equity funds and water infrastructure contracts.

The big money is now in the infrastructure development and even the preservation of the eco-system. Notice how YTL won a RM1 billion contract to clean up Malaysia’s polluted rivers – with the first phase focussing on a 7 km stretch of the Klang River – without an open tender.

In the first place, before cleaning up the rivers, won’t it make more sense to go after those who are polluting them? Do we really need YTL to tell us who the main culprits are and can the firm really solve the problem of river pollution in the country?

There is little evidence to show that private firms are any more efficient in providing clean affordable water to the public. If anything, the record shows that publicly managed water resources can be just as efficient – if not more effective – than private corporations, if they are given the necessary financial and human resources and powers backed by political will.

A couple of years ago, the British-based Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU) revealed in a study that the greater city of Colombo in Sri Lanka, where water was publicly managed, had a water leakage level of only 23 per cent compared to a leakage level of 35 per cent for the area of London covered by Thames Water plc, a huge multinational involved in water privatisation projects in developing nations.

The government now says it is planning to combine water supply and treatment to lower the cost and tariffs. This is nothing new. Weren’t the state water authorities doing this all along – combining water treatment and distribution – before the private firms came along and hived off the profitable water treatment part of the network?

We should also question the move to “corporatise” state water authorities. Running a water authority like a corporation has its plus points. The managers become more cost conscious and they will try to plug leaks as the bottom line will reflect on their performance.

But there are serious drawbacks. The over-riding goal of a corporation is profit maximisation. Apart from cost reduction, the other way to increase profits is boosting revenue. And the way to boost revenue is to try and get more people to consume more water.

But how to boost profits and conserve water at the same time? In a corporatised water entity, there is no incentive to promote water conservation among the public for that would eat into the bottom line and reduce profits. In the end, we end up with only lip service to water conservation.

This is a major reason why water authorities should not be run as corporations. Shouldn’t we be actively encouraging water conservation even if it results in reduced profits for the state water authorities?

A UN planning document is now trying to implement a Water Operators Partnership, which stresses transparency and accountability.

Instead of focusing on public-private partnerships, we should strengthen the public sector by exploring public-public partnerships. There is plenty of expertise in the public sector, even in Malaysia, where many state authorities can learn from the experience of successful authorities such as the Penang water authority, for instance. Communication among these state authorities should be improved and these partnerships should operate on a not-for-profit basis.

Unions and experienced water utility workers and managers must be involved and consulted in the quest to improve water resource management. People’s participation in water authorities must be encouraged through a participatory decision-making model before any major investments are made.

Public sector water authorities could also partner or enter into twinning arrangement with their foreign public sector counterparts to exchange ideas on best practices.

To reiterate, water is a gift from God, and the supply of this increasing scarce resource should be seen a as public service with all that entails, with no room for profiteering.

Anil Netto is a freelance writer and social activist based in Penang

Minimum wage more effective than NEP equity targets

As we all know, the two main prongs of the New Economic Policy are to wipe out poverty across the board and to restructure society so that no one ethnic group is stereotyped with a particular occupation – which in effect largely meant lifting the bumiputera community above the poverty line and into the ranks of the middle class.

Now, wouldn’t it be great if there was a policy measure that could kill both these “birds” with one stone? Well, there is – but it is the one measure that the government is loathe to introduce and has dismissed out of hand. It is a minimum wage for all workers.

A minimum wage would do wonders to reduce the poverty rate. Low-income workers would have to be paid wages that are above the poverty line. In fact, a minimum wage would be a far more effective tool in redistributing income in favour of the poor.

And who are these poor? Many of them are economically disadvantaged Malays, who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of NEP affirmative action policies aimed at reducing inter-ethnic disparities. A minimum wage would not only help to alleviate overall poverty, it would also uplift genuinely poor Malays across the board instead of concentrating wealth in a smaller group of bumiputeras who are the prime beneficiaries of the 30 per cent equity target.

As the academic who spoke to me in my article for IPS below said, ”If the government is really serious about closing the inter-ethnic income gap, an effective way to do so would be to see that those at the bottom get a better income (through a minimum wage) — not screaming and shouting about shares in companies and ownership of commercial buildings, both of which are out of reach of the vast majority of the people.”

Based on the law of supply and demand, we would have expected wages to rise as we neared full employment and as labour grew scarce. But there was a deliberate move to subvert the so-called “free market” by bringing in migrant workers, who are paid a pittance and who are more vulnerable to exploitation. You see, the so-called “free market” is only allowed to operate when it suits the interests of the corporate class.

So why hasn’t the government introduced a minimum wage? Could it be that it is more interested in protecting the interests of investors and the corporate elite? But the academic also raised the following pertinent point: “Why is the government so concerned about the views of foreign investors on this matter, but not when it comes to, e.g., mandated shares in companies? Why is the government so solicitous over the privileges of the few, but not of the millions. Plus, what evidence is there that foreign investors come here because of wages – if low wages were a major concern, how come foreign investors are not rushing to Indonesia in droves?”

He also pointed out that the share of wages in value-added in the manufacturing sector has dropped from around 30 per cent to around 20 per cent. “This means that workers have not gotten their share of the increase in productivity as measured by value-added per worker. This is one reason for the increased in inequality in the country.”

But will a minimum wage affect small enterprises in the country?

To this, the academic responded that we need to ask:

(a) Does the government know how many small enterprises there are and what proportion of the total employed are in them?

(b) Do we really want such low productivity-low wage enterprises in the sense that do they really contribute to the country’s development?

(c) If it is deemed necessary to protect these small enterprises, couldn’t we design legislation to exempt specific categories on justifiable grounds (after all, there is the ICA, there are the turnover limits on the sales tax, etc.)?

But will a minimum wage jeopardise the country’s economy? “The evidence that is in is that it won’t, if combined with policies that encourage a shift to higher productivity sectors and with training programmes for workers in these very low-wage jobs,” said the academic.

Well, here is the article I wrote:

PENANG , Jul 17 (IPS) – Malaysia’s umbrella trade union body is pressing ahead with its campaign for a minimum wage despite the government’s stand that such a benchmark would put off foreign investors seeking a low-cost environment.

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) has stepped up its eight-year-long campaign, which would mainly benefit private sector workers, after the government awarded hefty pay rises to civil servants in May that lifted junior-ranking staff above the official poverty line. Full article: Forget investors, fix minimum wages – unions

Sir Humphrey, the OSA and Nathaniel Tan

There is a line in the hit political satire series “Yes, Minister” where the pompous Sir Humphrey explains the real reason for the archaic Official Secrets Act in the UK: “The Official Secrets Act is not to protect secrets, it is to protect officials.”

Well, they say truth is stranger than fiction but sometimes satire has a ring of truth to it.

And the way the Keadilan webmaster Nathaniel Tan was arrested – including the cat-and-mouse game the cops played with his lawyers – reminds me of another group of on-screen characters: the Keystone Cops.

I have never met Nat before but, for the life of me, I can’t imagine what secret he might have revealed that could so endanger the security of our nation. I wonder what ol’ Humphrey would have made of it.

So, come on guys, have a heart, let Nat go…

And while you are at it, free all those ISA detainees in Kamunting unconditionally – there are close to a hundred of them, some of them in detention for almost six years – or charge them in court. They have suffered enough.

And don’t forget all those others detained without trial – including migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees held in immigration detention camps. Release them or charge them in court and allow them full legal representation. And for God’s sake, stop caning these poor people.

Show us you have some sense of decency and fair play, some respect for basic rights.

Otherwise, some people might think that Nat’s detention is, among other things, the opening shot in a larger crackdown against bloggers ahead of the coming general election. Not good at all for a government purportedly promoting a moderate approach to Islam.