Pollsters and Propagandists


As we, evidently, rapidly approach ‘crunch time’ for many politicians, in the shape of the 13th Malaysian General Election (GE), various tactics come into play to ‘sway’ us into making the ‘right’ decisions.

The tactics of the ruling administration have been rather obvious for the past three decades or so, given that they are in almost total possession of three of the most crucial elements in our general elections, the 3Ms – Money, Machinery and Media.

So, just based on Saturday’s news, we hear of million ringgit government allocations suddenly being made for, among others, the renovation of schools. While we all know that such allocations come from our taxes, nonetheless, we are asked to appreciate (and possibly reward) the person(s) dishing out our money.

At the same time, of course, because some veteran ruling party politician, an ex-minister at that, had recently revealed that vote buying had been rampant in the past, current politicians would have to be dragged out to dispute such comments.

Hence, you get one English daily with the headline ‘Umno VP: Govt gives money to help rakyat, not to garner votes’. And, of course, we all believe that.

So, yes, much money will flow in this GE, as they have flowed many, many times before. And much of that is, of course, actually ours in the first place – through the various taxes we pay very diligently, day in and day out.

Most people simply associate ‘taxes’ with income tax, but, really, let’s not forget that there’s the road tax, government sales tax, property taxes, the many tolls we pay and so on.

So that’s a pretty penny that we cough up daily and, when it’s time for the GE, we are given our money back as if it wasn’t ours in the first place. Nice.

Machinery, of course, is all about the machinery of government. Some see this very simply as the misuse of stuff such as government buildings and transport vehicles (cars, helicopters) for party campaigning purposes.

Others, of course, see it as something bigger where, for example, certain public institutions and even civil servants somehow, crawl out of the woodwork and, ever so coincidentally, take centre stage, even for a brief moment. Their role, mainly, is to help uphold the status quo.

Our public colleges and universities, of course, are a good example, whatever they may say about being neutral or non-aligned.

Indeed, come election time, partly given that we don’t yet have independent, scientific pollsters like Gallup to gauge what the rakyat is thinking, we have our universities suddenly playing that role.

And I’m pretty sure it’s just a coincidence that the results of surveys are released at about now, when jostling for the GE is hotting up. Such as the one by Universiti Malaya’s Centre of Democracy and Election (CEDEL) which was quite widely reported last week, I have no problems with these surveys, even if conducted by centres which have not really established a solid track record for credible research (CEDEL was established less than 2 years ago, in April 2010). Nonetheless, it does become a trifle annoying though when, upon looking at parts of its website related to the survey findings (http://umcedel.um.edu.my/images/umcedel/doc/PERSEPSI-MSIA%20PDF.pdf), you find non-existent words like `cames’ being used more than once as English words.

That aside, virtually all of the media reports one reads about this survey appear to simply transcribe the figures and comments given. Not one report thus far has attempted any basic questioning of the study’s concepts and assumptions.

Indeed, you will notice how these studies often are treated as pristine and devoid of bias and lack of rigour.

The CEDEL questionnaire, for instance, had a couple of questions on 1Malaysia, one of which being: In your opinion has the 1Malaysia concept managed to increase the support for the Barisan Nasional?

Given the uncertainty over the very meaning of 1Malaysia, did any of the reporters, I wonder, bother to ask whether the respondents knew what 1Malaysia entails before they were asked that question?

In this regard, in the run-up to the elections, rather than unproblematically showcasing these studies, surely reporters (journalists?) ought to play a more pro-active, questioning role and not remain mere transcribers?

As one popular news portal’s reader rightly put it, when commenting on this study, ‘The devil is in the details. Too many shoddy studies based on skewed sampling and engineered assumptions are floating in the market without the required technical details.’

Another put it more bluntly: ‘These kinds of polls are mostly for propaganda purposes only. In Malaysia you can hardly find independent pollsters. The pollsters usually want to look good in the eyes of their financiers. The people who answer polls are also not honest because they would not trust the pollsters as they are afraid their answers are not confidential.

Which brings us nicely, I think, to the third ‘M’, ‘Media’.

It has become a truism now that the bulk of the mainstream media organisations are owned and controlled by the ruling political parties and/or their friends and associates.

Nonetheless, lately, new discussions have emerged in the Malaysian public sphere about the roles that reporters and journalist can still play to negotiate such controls.

In this context, when survey reports are suddenly released at this stage – even by ‘independent’ sources – surely these should be treated with some caution, if not skeptism, before they are released as news reports?

This caution is necessary, especially now, when there are suddenly attempts to revise not only Malaysian history, but also the history of the human race. Attempts leading to our being told, most recently, that the ‘Malays are the origins of the human race’, and other fanciful notions such as that.

Indeed, when the researcher then adds that she hopes the ‘findings’ reignites the “Malay spirit …so that people will be proud to be Malays”, red flags should really be raised and such probable silliness criticised.

After all, election year or not, there is really just so much of this ‘ketuanan’ nonsense that we can – or want to – stomach.