Monday, 27 January 2014

Kangkung? Watch it fry in cyberspace

In the new landscape created by social media, reverence for leaders is not the default setting
By Carolyn Hong, the Sunday Times, 26 Jan 2014

First, it was kangkung, then came sotong. And together, these two cheap food items made for an unfortunate two weeks for Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak.

It began when Datuk Seri Najib lashed out at critics two weeks ago for blaming the government when food prices go up but not praising it when prices come down. He made the argument that the government could not control market forces, and used kangkung to illustrate his point.

It was an unfortunate choice that immediately stirred a backlash on social media. Kangkung, or water spinach, is seen as a cheap vegetable that grows in unappetising places like drains.

Mr Najib's message was soon lost as netizens invented a huge range of jokes - from McKangkung burgers to kangkung-fuelled cars - to mock him for apparently asking them to downgrade their lifestyle.

Last week, sotong came into the picture as he sought again to explain market forces. Speaking at his monthly address to the Finance Ministry, Mr Najib reiterated that the government could not control the price of every food item.

"When it is the monsoon season, prices of fish go up and even vegetables," he said. "I had used the kangkung as an example of the supply-demand principle. My favourite foods are kangkung and sotong (squid)."

This addition of sotong to the dish proved irresistible to netizens as "sotong" is colloquially used to refer to a person who is confused or weak, triggering a second round of jokes.

But jokes aside, the kangkung- sotong saga illustrates just how much social media has changed the political dynamics between the people and the country's leaders. Reverence, or at least some level of deference, is now no longer the default setting.

The social media has created an entirely new landscape that is making it increasingly imperative for politicians to up their game.

"The social media has rapidly reduced the aura surrounding politicians and leaders," said analyst Ibrahim Suffian who runs the pollster Merdeka Centre. "It was once easy to create and maintain a political image but that's now no longer the case."

He noted that social media has eliminated the barriers for people to join the debate to point out inconsistencies, flaws and doublespeak. And as the kangkung episode showed, they can do it very quickly and effectively.

One rib-tickling joke spawned another, and soon, the saga took on a life of its own. In the pre-Internet past, a similar kangkung campaign would have taken such a long time to gain momentum that public interest would have fizzled out but the social media works at lightning pace.

This has changed the game significantly for politicians. Mr Ibrahim noted that it has heightened the need for "authentic leadership" that goes deeper than a carefully crafted image and well-written speeches.

"If it's all about projecting an image, your guard will slip at some point," he said.

The kangkung saga was a sharp reminder of this.

It had all the elements to capture the imagination as the cost of living is an issue close to people's hearts. Many spot a stark disconnect between what the government expects the people to do and what it is itself doing, thanks again to the social media.

While he talked ostensibly about kangkung, Mr Najib's underlying message was that Malaysians will have to grin and bear fluctuating prices as the government has to reduce the annual subsidies of RM40 billion (S$15.4 billion).

But while this message is not without merit, it did not go down well because the social media also provided a context that made it seem insincere. The Internet media was buzzing with stories of alleged ostentatious spending by his Cabinet ministers even as the government called for cutbacks.

Agriculture and Agro-Based Industries Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob had hosted a wedding for his daughter at the former Istana, while Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi reportedly had a birthday bash in a luxury hotel in Kuala Lumpur. The Prime Minister himself came under fire after it was revealed that the government spent RM180 million a year to operate two private jets.

Further, a well-read blog "Syed Outside the Box" listed a whole range of items, from cars to baby formula, that are expensive due to import controls. The blogger wrote that it was not kangkung that people were complaining about. Rather, they were angry at the high prices of items that are subject to government control.

The Internet campaign was remarkable in the way it gave the kangkung saga a life that it would not have enjoyed in earlier days.

This is something that many Malaysian politicians have yet to truly understand, on both sides. Even the tech-savvy Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who heads the opposition Democratic Action Party, stumbled badly earlier this month when he came under fire for buying a Mercedes- Benz to replace a two-month-old Toyota Camry as his official vehicle.

He defended the decision as being value for money. Yet, that was not the real issue; it was about perceived insensitivity to the difficulties faced by many ordinary Malaysians who cannot make ends meet, let alone change their car after just two months.

The social media has changed the game so much that politicians run the risk of ridicule and mockery if they say one thing and do another, or craft different messages for difference audiences.

Or as Merdeka's Mr Ibrahim puts it, there is a growing imperative for politicians to forget about being politicians, and become real leaders instead.

"The kangkung saga was a manifestation of the growing erosion of reverence towards politicians," he said. "And it highlights the heightening demand for authentic leaders."

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