The results of the recent by-elections in Kedah continue to haunt Umno. Veteran party leader Muhammad Muhd Taib has rather frankly and gentlemanly admitted to malaysiakini that the less-than-satisfactory performance of Umno was also due to the party's "internal weaknesses", including the fact that some Umno members had voted for PAS.

It seems to confirm a July 20 commentary in the Singapore Straits Times that quoted party sources as attributing the weaknesses specifically to the "paralysis of Kedah's election machinery", "ineffectiveness of the chief minister" and "unwillingness of older candidates to make way for new blood".

The seeming 'soul-searching' has also spread to an Umno-controlled newspaper, Utusan Malaysia which published a letter from a reader who identified herself as 'Ai Lin' on July 25, criticising the state-owned Radio Television Malaysia (RTM) and the private but pro-government channel, TV3, for "media overkill" that has bored and angered the people.

According 'Ai Lin', the coverage of the Kedah by-elections by RTM and TV3 was so biased that people tended to switch off their TV in protest against the "cheap tricks".

'Ai Lin' noted that while no PAS candidates or leaders were invited to take part in the discussion session conducted by TV3, a local academic who is "more Umno than Umno leaders" was invited to comment on the electoral results, and the commentary was telecast live.

On a more positive and constructive note, 'Ai Lin', who called him/herself a "supporter of the government", called on the television stations to change and invite both the ruling and opposition candidates to debate because Malaysia is "mature enough politically" to hear both sides of the political divide.

Zainuddin to the rescue

On July 26, Utusan Malaysia published another letter from one 'Zu Mat Ail' from Kuantan reminding the television stations to "before broadcasting something, think first whether it benefits the government or the opposition".

'Zu Mat Ai' also pointed out that while the television stations alleged opposition members had shown obscene gestures, he was reminded of a government leader also doing the same during the Sanggang by-election in Pahang.

Although 'Zu Mat Ail' refrained from naming the government leader who 'also' showed obscene gestures in the past, it is no secret that the person is the Menteri Besar of the state of Pahang, Adnan Yaakob, who was widely photographed in the act.

As always, it was the parliamentary secretary to the Information Ministry, senator Zainuddin Maidin, to the rescue of RTM and TV3. An online Malay newspaper, Agenda Daily , quoted him on July 26 as saying that the televisions did give "fair" coverage to both Umno and PAS.

However, a day earlier, he was quoted by the state news agency Bernama as saying that the coverage was effective and created an awareness among the people on the opposition 'fanaticism' which represented a 'threat' to the people.

Zainuddin, who is also a former editor-in-chief of Utusan Malaysia , hails from Kedah, the home state of Umno president and Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

In his biography of Mahathir, The other side of Mahathir (Kuala Lumpur, 1994), Zainuddin revealed that he admired and respected Mahathir since he was a child because the doctor who would be premier once gave his poor family free medical treatment.

Attack boomeranged

However, in the early 1990s, Zainuddin incurred Mahathir's wrath when he was suspected to have organised a media campaign in Utusan Malaysia , where he was still the editor-in-chief, criticising the prime minister for speaking English to Indonesian journalists. Zainuddin was 'promoted' to a less influential position as punishment for allegedly stabbing his boss in the back.

After the 1999 general election, Zainuddin was enlisted by a besieged Umno president and prime minister to 'manage' the official media which seemed to have lost popular credibility in the aftermath of the sacking and arrest of former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. Zainuddin was also appointed a senator then.

Widely believed in some Umno circles to be eyeing for the Merbok parliamentary seat in Kedah in the coming general election, Zainuddin has been hyperactive in organising attacks against Umno's arch rival PAS, especially in Kedah. The Merbok parliamentary constituency is now held by former finance minister and ex-treasurer of Umno, Daim who was once a confidant of Mahathir.

However, Zainuddin is also believed to have incurred the secret but intense wrath of some top Umno leaders earlier this year when his relentless dare to ex- imam of the National Mosque and PAS member of parliament, Taib Azamudden, to reveal an alleged sex-scandal 'secret' about a former Umno leader, boomeranged. Instead, Taib revealed 12 such cases ranging from sex with a minor to extra-marital affairs, involving (unnamed) top Umno leaders including a serving senior minister and two ex-menteris besar.

On the eve of the World Press Freedom Day this year and not too long before Mahathir visited the White House, Zainuddin attacked journalists of the alternative media and journalists 'influenced' by Americans and Westerners, calling them "dogs of imperialism".

Zainuddin was once widely tipped to be the Umno propaganda chief following the resignation of Mustapa Mohamed who is also the Kelantan Umno chief, but the post was later filled by another confidant of Mahathir, Megat Junid Megat Ayub. Megat was a former minister defeated in the 1999 general election.

Reform or shadow-boxing?

Given these backgrounds, it is difficult to ascertain if criticism of RTM and TV3 published by Utusan Malaysia is a genuine reflection of the spirit of democratic reform within the Umno establishment or merely shadow-boxing among different factions of Umno's propagandists to position themselves in the post-Mahathir period.

However, it seems that, given the diversity of factional and personal interests within Umno, it is now more difficult to coordinate propaganda than those 'good old days' of anti-Malayan Union movement, anti-communist Emergency, patriotic campaign against Indonesian Confrontation and even the spy-catching years after the death of the second prime minister, Abdul Razak Hussein in 1976.

Time has changed but the worldviews of some people have not. This dichotomy is the key to understanding the gap between the intentions or strategies of the propagandists on one hand, and the actual effects or outcomes of their works on the other. It also provides the dynamics of the boomerang effect in Umno's propaganda.

JAMES WONG WING ON is chief analyst of Strategic Analysis Malaysia (SAM) 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 (MPI) for 1998 and 1999.

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