HELLO sir or madam.
Are you a three- to four-month-old minister who’s having trouble living up to high expectations following a historic election that was won based on campaign promises you knew you couldn’t keep?
Are you struggling with the transition from a rebel making fiery speeches surrounded by teargas, to the mundane life of running an actual government with real-world consequences?
Are you puzzled at your social media, and why your “Likes” and “Happy” emojis are turning into “Angry” or “Haha”, accompanied by a slew of comments on how disappointing you are turning out to be?
If you said yes to all three, then welcome to the unofficial Anthony Loke masterclass on how to not look like an incompetent minister.
Participants who have undergone this programme have received public comments such as; “Easily the best minister in the Cabinet” and “He is definitely one of the best performing ministers at the moment” and “Antara my favourite menteri ... buat kerja bukan gebang kosong” (Among my favourite ministers... doing work not empty chatter).
This is by no means an endorsement of Loke and his portfolio. Let’s not forget, this is the same minister who wiped nearly RM500mil in unpaid AES summonses and gave motorists a nonsensical, The Purge-like grace period to behave however they want on the road, for shaky reasons.
Some speculate that this was done as a “goodie” distraction from the lacklustre fulfilment of the rest of Loke’s government’s manifesto, as it was conveniently timed with Pakatan Harapan’s 100th day in office. But no one can be certain.
What is certain is that move resulted in traffic violations tripling immediately, endangering tens of thousands of lives on the road.
But Loke has hit more highs than lows and has emerged as one of the only ministers with near-unanimous praise.
What is he doing right? This masterclass will be a dissection from a media perspective on how you, a fledgling minister, can also recover from snafus like Loke and look competent at your job.
You will need:
Common sense to know when and how to speak when you are in public
If you remember nothing else from this Masterclass, YB, just remember this: Rita Moreno.
Yes, this 86-year-old Hispanic American actress is the closest embodiment of Loke. Rita Moreno is one of the few actors in the world to have won every major showbiz award -- Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony.
She is notorious for choosing film roles that are minor but memorable.
In her most famous role in West Side Story, Moreno won an Academy Award and was only in five scenes. She comes in, she hits an acting home run, and she leaves. The audience is fixated and is left wanting more.
How does Moreno relate to Loke? Well besides slick hair, he too seems to be careful with the times he allows himself to be seen in his role as minister. His Facebook posts are few and far between, averaging one a week.
But in each post, he is either live-streaming himself riding in the LRT with sweaty commoners, not accepting free smartphones, issuing lifetime bans on deadly drivers, and tightening control on VIP lanes in airports to curb corruption (and smuggling).
Each time he appears in public, he is doing something that is popular and of tangible substance that the public can support.
Whether or not these measures get followed through is immaterial. People have a tendency to think that something was done if they see or hear about it. Loke appears sparingly, he hits a home run, he leaves.
The false conception among politicians is: “The more I am seen in public, the more I am seen doing work.”
That is not true. Not every bathtub photo, selfie with a controversial human rights abuser, and passing thoughts on sock colours needs to be announced to the world.
Limiting the number of public appearances to ones that you can be in total control of, means you reduce the chances of you looking foolish in other spontaneous, ad-hoc scenarios.
Before you hit that send button or call that press conference, think about what you have to offer, how it could look, and why you are doing this.
Control your appearances and you control your image.
Now let’s talk about damage control.
Sometimes you will find yourself in a position in which whatever you say or do will negatively impact some camps.
A child is married off to a much too eager man. Laws and religion say yes. Ethics says no. You were caught employing an LGBT staffer and you are now being asked to fire that person. Ethics says no. Religion says yes. You have staunchly religious and liberal voters. What do you do?
While Loke has yet to find himself in such scenarios, he and his ministry offer some pointers.
When you are in a position where you don’t have an answer to a question or when you know whatever you answer is going to come out wrong and make you look bad, it’s always good to have a scapegoat standing next to you to throw under the bus.
A lower-ranking ministry official, who no one knows, is recommended.
Need to explain how the new convoluted demerit system is going to work but don’t want to be the one in the line of fire? You could have your Road Transport Department (JPJ) guys do it instead.
Another notable case study can be seen in Loke’s predecessor, who promised daily press conferences on MH370, which ended up being done by his Department of Civil Aviation officer.
This method allows you to escape potentially disastrous situations that may leave you vulnerable to public questioning.
The best thing about this method is your subordinate can never say no, and only incurs a temporary backlash because they have no public image to lose in the first place.
But there are situations where saying nothing at all is best.
And Loke is masterful at this too. The key is to weigh out the issue threatening you and the risk it presents. If your threat is low risk, like a group of unlikeable cab drivers calling your resignation, remaining silent is of little consequence.
You have a few reporters questioning your decision to cancel hundreds of millions in summonses? Identify that what you just did is an irresponsible, but populist move, and that refraining from engaging those questions will allow the issue to die more quickly and pass out of memory.
There you have it, YBs. A masterclass on how to not look like an incompetent minister.
Employ these tips now and see just how quickly public perception of your work will change!
And to the curious reader who may be wondering why it is so important to appear competent to the public; creating the illusion of capability can be effective in raising public trust in the government.
And that trust is important as the World Economic Forum has reported that countries where governments were seen as competent saw more citizens spending and investing in the economy.
Government policies are also likelier to work in countries with trusted governments because people are more likely to pay taxes, comply with regulations enforced by officials they trust, and are more willing to agree to sacrificial austerity measures for the common good – like a Tabung Harapan.
Sometimes the illusion of strength can do wonders in assuring citizens that their country is in safe hands.
And with a little common sense and tighter lips, it’s actually pretty easy to achieve.
PS: Under no circumstances should these guidelines be published to the public. Doing so will make people aware of how politicians build and maintain images and divert attention away from their weak points!
Nicholas Cheng is a former journalist who has only a strictly platonic admiration for Anthony Loke. He can be reached at: