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According to the always discerning and sharp-eyed DAP chairperson and seasoned opposition leader, Lim Kit Siang, the Barisan Nasional has already launched its political propaganda campaign against the Keadilan-led opposition front for the upcoming Indera Kayangan by-election in Perlis.

As the former parliamentary opposition leader pointed out on Jan 4, television ads with images and footage suggesting that the opposition is out to set up an Islamic State besides creating riots and social unrest and weaken the country so that 'foreign powers' would takeover and re-colonise us have been aired by the government-controlled television stations, namely RTM1 and RTM2.

"The short fillers broadcast during the prime time 8pm news bulletin is biased, tendentious and a most unfair political broadcast calculated to paint the BA in the worst possible light," said Lim.

As expected, Deputy Home Minister Chor Chee Heung denied that the short films were part of a BN propaganda campaign. Chor is not only an MCA central executive committee member, but one of the most prominent and passionately loyal members of the Team A in MCA, led by president, Dr Ling Liong Sik.

Indeed, the Indera Kayangan by-election will be a classic case study for those who are interested in how propaganda is conducted by the ruling coalition and its operation of party machinery in Malaysian politics, especially after the terrorist attack in Washington DC and New York on Sept 11 last year.

Endless repetition

Typically, there are two broad types of propaganda, namely one a theme based on 'love' and the other on 'fear'. The 'love' theme mobilises and utilises resources, both state and private, to induce the voters to 'love' and be 'grateful' to the BN by staging cultural shows for the numerical minorities like the Chinese, Indians, Sikhs and Thais, and by the granting of subsidies to vernacular schools and other religio-cultural organisations.

Billboards, leaflets and TV footage show the relatively weaker children, women, female students and elderly citizens rallying smilingly around the more powerful figure of the prime minister, whose posture suggests a 'magnanimous' protectorship.

Besides inducing 'love' and 'gratefulness', the 'love' theme in the propaganda also appeals to the psyche of the psychologically weaker segments of society, especially minorities like the Chinese or other non-Muslims. It contrasts its own projected 'moderation', 'stability' and 'peace' with the images of 'extremism', 'instability' and 'chaos' on the part of the opposition.

To complete the yin (negative) and yang (positive) of the propaganda campaign, fear has to be created or contrived through images, sensitive symbols, footage, printed words and by word of mouths, so that the 'love' is 'appreciated'.

Thus, we can expect an endless repetition of images, sensitive symbols, printed words and word of mouth suggesting directly or insinuating indirectly that Keadilan is a 'violent party controlled by mad mullahs in PAS', and that their Chinese candidate for the Perlis by election is somehow a 'secret' Christian or Muslim.

In the 1990 general elections, for example, Umno's propaganda department circulate widely during the last few days campaigning a photo of then opposition leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah wearing a Kadazan headgear allegedly with the Christian cross embroidered on it. The message was intended to suggest that this Malay opposition leader was a traitor to Islam.

Rogue speculators

The Anwar Ibrahim saga has also afforded Malaysians and the world the opportunity to understand how 'black propaganda' is conducted and worked in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious society.

In the Malay-language media, Anwar Ibrahim was said be an 'American or Western agent' and his wife, Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, a Chinese. But in the English media, which also caters for Western diplomats and the business community, Anwar was projected to be an 'Islamic fundamentalist'.

For Chinese and Tamil audience, Anwar Ibrahim was a 'Malay extremist and Islamic fundamentalist' who would instigate Muslim mobs to create trouble for non-Muslims.

And for all Malaysian businessmen and infantile left-wing academics, Anwar Ibrahim was portrayed as an IMF agent who conspired with Western capitalists, especially rogue speculators, to destroy local industries and businesses.

From studied records, it is evident that the designers of the anti-Anwar propaganda are knowledgeable about the 'love' and 'fear' sentiments embedded deep in the collective psyche and historical memories of different cultural, religious, ethnic and sectoral groups. Hence, the customisation of the media in different languages.

The anti-Anwar propaganda campaign in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis has not escaped serious studies in the wider world.

For example, a Singaporean academic and security expert, Chin Kin Wah, calls it a 'demonisation' or 'bogey-making' process, comparable to the propaganda of the Suharto regime in Indonesia. (see Chin Kim Wah, Reflections on the Shaping of Strategic Cultures in Southeast Asia , in Derek de Cunha (Ed), Southeast Asian Perspectives on Security , Singapore, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2000, p.15)

'Unmitigated disaster'

However, in the observations of this writer, the anti-Anwar propaganda, though powerful and comprehensive, has not produced the desired results. It could even be argued that, at least in the Malay/Muslim and Western worlds, it has seriously backfired. For example, almost immediately after the Al Ma'unah incident, it was widely believed, in the Malay/Muslim community, rightly or wrongly, that it was a sandiwara (staged drama) staged by agents provocateurs.

The circulation of newspapers associated with Umno interests like the New Straits Times, Utusan Malaysia and Berita Harian dropped drastically.

It is no wonder another discerning secular mind, namely that of Singaporean Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, called the Anwar saga an 'unmitigated disaster' during his first visit to Kuala Lumpur after the upheaval.

Lee might not be questioning whether Umno was doing the right thing but he certainly cast doubt onto whether it did the things right. Hitler-ite intention unmatched by Germanic efficiency and efficacy has always produced hilarity and laughing stocks, for instance the semen-stained mattress carried in and out court by Special Branch officers.

The key lesson to be derived from the episode is that of the loss of credibility on the part of Umno's propagandists. And one of the key reasons for the 'unmitigated disaster' is that more and more Malaysians and friends of Malaysia are now multilingual and are willing to double or even triple check claims, allegations and accusations made by politicians and their scribes and scriptwriters.

JAMES WONG WING ON is chief analyst of Strategic Analysis Malaysia which produces the subscriber-based political report, Analysis Malaysia. Wong is a former member of parliament (1990-1995) and a former columnist for the Sin Chew Jit Poh Chinese daily. He read political science and economics at the Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. While in Sin Chew , he and a team of journalists won the top awards of Malaysian Press Institute for 1998 and 1999.