September 28, 2022

What politicians say, versus what people hear

5 min read

THERE are times when a politician speaks, and you feel as if you’re listening to nails scratching across a chalkboard.

Let’s analyse some of these instances by looking at what they say, what they think they’re communicating, and what people actually hear.

In our first example, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was recently quoted regarding the upcoming Tanjung Piai by-election:

“For Tanjung Piai, we will come up with a more effective strategy […] and we might need to explain some issues which the rakyat do not understand.

“There are certain issues, policies and (Pakatan) Harapan programmes which have been misunderstood. We will explain these, ” he said.

Muhyiddin probably thinks: The people don’t like us simply because there are some things they don’t understand. When we explain things fully in detail, they will change their minds and love us, and everything will be better.

What people probably think: Is it we who don’t understand, or you who don’t understand?

There is nothing worse than being condescending to your voters, and treating them like kids who are still failing to understand the basics of trigonometry despite your “perfect” teaching.

Statements like these only demonstrate that the person saying them truly does not understand political communication in the least.

If there is anything the people at this point do not “understand”, it is why politicians either spend all their time and energy either infighting and arguing about who the next prime minister should be, or standing around in some confused state being unsure what they’re supposed to be doing.

If there is truly any lack of understanding about Pakatan’s issues, policies and programmes, it likely stems from the simple fact that one cannot understand that which is itself incoherent and incomprehensible.

It is not as if there is a clear, thought out plan from the government that is too complex for people to understand; there is clearly no plan at all.

Every policy and programme seems to be some ad hoc initiative thrown about at semi-random intervals by people desperately praying something will stick.

If anything, this is what people in power clearly do not understand.

Secondly, the use of the term “confused”.

The authorities love to say that certain statements are dangerous because they can “confuse” the rakyat; or that this statement or the other is seditious because it can create “confusion”.

Such individuals probably think they are using a “light” word – a euphemism almost, about social tensions.

What people probably think: Are we so stupid as to be so easily “confused”?

Once again, there is a severe underestimation as to the intelligence of Malaysians. There are things that make them angry, upset, uneasy, anxious, bothered, frustrated, and so on; but I can nearly guarantee that there is barely a sliver that feels “confused”.

It’s best to call a spade a spade.

Third (though this perhaps is more of a pet peeve), the phrase “the issue does not arise”.

The speaker probably thinks: I’m obviously communicating that this issue is a non-issue.

What people probably think: This issue is obviously an issue. If it were not, it would not warrant a dismissal.

While this is potentially nitpicking, semantically speaking, this statement is arguably entirely self-contradictory.

The fact that the issue is being addressed and commented on, clearly means that the issue has arisen!

Our fourth example is a little different in that it is a little more substantive in nature than emotional or semantic.

People seem to often say that Pakatan’s problems can be solved if only we focus on the economy.

I imagine such people feel they are promoting an approach they believe is universal and morally sound.

They are of course not entirely wrong. Far from it.

In terms of public reaction though, it is useful and important to remember that in this era of Donald Trump and Brexit, elections are not won or lost on economic issues.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the economy is a key factor; when bread and butter issues are at either extreme (where people are really suffering or really prospering economically), then the economy is unquestionably front and centre.

When the economy is not at either end of the spectrum, or when there is little to no potential for a government or a government-in-waiting to enact drastic economic changes, the economy tends to play second fiddle to more emotive issues.

In the run-up to the 14th General Election (GE14), Pakatan could play on two big ticket items: the Goods and Service Tax (GST) and 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

The former, somewhat ironically, appears to be back on the table.

As the government today however, if they had a magic card to play, they would have played it by now.

Equally, another line that is obviously a no-no by now is: Barisan Nasional messed everything up so badly, we just need more time.

Perhaps the speaker thinks: we have the same goodwill we had in 2018, surely this will remind them and inspire them to cut us some slack.

What the people probably think: excuses, excuses, excuses.

As a government, you need to focus people’s attention on something. If you decide that’s the economy, fine. But unless you’re really overperforming and hitting it out of the park, occasionally throwing unimpressive numbers at the people will not achieve the desired effect.

At the end of the day, there still needs to be a story – a narrative, as has been repeated ad nauseum by now.

Our fifth and last example involves the Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

For decades now, Dr Mahathir has been peddling variations of the line that Malays are lazy.

He loves to compare them disparagingly to other races in Malaysia. I think after becoming premier most recently, he had a jibe about what a Malay, Chinese and Indian would do if they suddenly received RM1mil.

Perhaps Dr Mahathir thinks: I am being a responsible father figure, merely speaking the truth, so my “children” can learn and improve.

What some people probably think: I’m working my butt off day and night just to make ends meet, while your horses eat better than me, so please be quiet, old man.

I’m not sure if there ever was an era where being disparaging to the people you lead made them perform better; but I can say for sure that if such an era existed, it has been over for a long, long time.

If Dr Mahathir does not stop repeating this line, he may single-handedly ensure that Pakatan becomes a one-term government.

At 94 years old, it’s not hard to understand why Dr Mahathir can be set in his ways. Many of the communication gaffes described above, however, have been uttered by leaders less than half that age.

Moving away from archaic terminology and severely outdated communication strategies is part and parcel of leaving behind bad culture, and creating a robust new culture that maintains the best values of the past, while being responsive and respectful to the realities of the present.

In short: words matter, choose them wisely.

NATHANIEL TAN is a communications consultant specialising in identifying the right goals, and using the right tools for the right job. He can be reached at The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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