The danger of being tone-deaf

ONE of the most significant challenges for any government is communication.

In a paper, the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre of the University of Birmingham argues that good communication is a component of good governance.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states that public communication “can play a fundamental role in bridging the divide between governments and citizens".

It adds that this is because it allows the public to gain access to relevant information and represents an avenue for citizens to engage with their public administration on issues that matter most to them.

Having served in government, I found communication to be one of the biggest problems.

In May 2015, soon after the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST), a man was so frustrated with the implementation that he ingested poison and attempted suicide. It happened in Teluk Intan, and I was the political secretary to the Member Of Parliament.

The media went to town with the story.

It mainly was reported in the Chinese vernacular press but was subsequently picked up by the English media.

I received countless WhatsApp messages asking me what had happened. The Opposition left no stone unturned in claiming GST is lethal.

It caused a few sleepless nights, but it taught me a few crucial lessons: do not be defensive; explain the issue the best you can; always show empathy and sympathy; and do not talk down to anyone.

About two years later, a family in Teluk Intan perished in a fire purportedly caused by an electrical fault.

A father lost his wife and children. It was a painful experience to visit the father, and I offered my condolences. I did not have any words to offer comfort. I entered the house, paid my respects, and sat on the floor.

The distraught father could not talk; he leaned against my shoulder and cried, and I thought that no parent should ever have to go through such an ordeal.

As I left, some relatives cornered me and complained that the fire was preventable and that heads had to roll. Some of them passed sarcastic remarks about what was the use of visiting after their relatives died.

I did not have an answer, and I did not know if it was even anyone's fault.

I remembered the GST incident, apologised, appealed for calm, and said I would investigate the matter. The relatives were not happy, but it did not escalate matters. I did not talk down to or argue with them.

Fast forward to 2022, when inflation and price increases are the order of the day.

People are suffering. Prices of food items have gone up despite all the subsidies. Malaysians, still recovering from the trauma of Covid-19, must deal with less money in their pockets and paying more for food.

The government has responded by claiming that close to RM80bil has been spent on subsidies. I understand the government must spend this money and tell Malaysians it is spending this considerable sum.

However, the government must not be tone-deaf to the suffering of Malaysians because the effects of the massive subsidies have not reached everyone.

Deputy Agriculture and Food Industries Minister Datuk Dr Nik Muhamad Zawawi Saleh initially said rising food item costs were not a significant problem but later backtracked and claimed he was misquoted.

The government has formed a committee to battle inflation. The chairman of that committee, Tan Sri Annuar Musa, has asked Malaysians to shoulder the burden of price increases with the government.

It is not wrong, but it is not the best thing to say when Malaysians expect the government to act on price increases and not peddle empty rhetoric.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob is right to point out that inflation and price rises are a global phenomenon, but it does not help Malaysians to know it is a worldwide problem because it does not lessen the pain many are feeling.

The media is often accused of misreporting or misquoting politicians. Still, the politicians tend to make off-colour remarks, and after being criticised, they blame the media. It is wiser for leaders to think before they speak because the last thing we need is a government that is out of touch.

Also, with the political temperature heating up, the blame game has started, putting the government on the defensive. The government must not be distracted by politics and act quickly and decisively to combat inflation and communicate its efforts more effectively.

Besides specific actions like subsidies, the government needs to show it cares and is sensitive to people's pain.

A good start will be reducing the salaries of ministers and deputy ministers. It may be symbolic, but it will go a long way towards showing that politicians are sensitive.

Second, ministers must stop all non-essential travel. Ministers have been travelling freely and often unnecessarily since borders have reopened.

Third, the government must increase the Bantuan Keluarga Malaysia like the extra cash handouts by the Singaporean government.

Fourth, the government must also help businesses affected by rising borrowing costs. The high oil price provides the government with increased revenue, which can be used to offset the effects of inflation and price rises.

Lastly, we do not need inane statements. We need action. The government must act.

Ivanpal Singh Grewal is an advocate & solicitor. He was formerly political secretary to the Plantation Industries & Commodities Minister.

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Ivanpal Singh Grewal

Ivanpal Singh Grewal

Ivanpal Singh Grewal is an Advocate & Solicitor. He was formerly Political Secretary to the Minister of Plantation Industries & Commodities.


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