On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Treat the verbal diarrhoea

MALAYSIA is spending millions of ringgit trying to repair its image overseas but plenty of taxpayers’ money can be saved if our politicians exercise some self-restraint with their statements.

The foot-in-the-mouth disease seems to be rampant and many of us wonder why they even make these statements in the first place.

We are talking about politicians from both sides of the political divide whose astounding statements often make world headlines for the wrong reasons. Little do they realise the serious implications involved, including loss of foreign direct investments.

Ordinary Malaysians travelling overseas are often confronted with questions about such events that are widely reported, putting us in a tight spot and having to explain the circumstances behind these cases.

In an attempt to keep the national flag flying and national pride intact, we often explain that they should not read too much into these news reports.

But deep in our hearts, we all wish that our politicians would stop shooting themselves in the foot and spare us from these costly international embarrassments.

Unwanted publicity

At the Asia News Network Editors Meeting in Beijing recently, this writer was asked by a conference sponsor from Europe about an issue that was being highlighted in Hong Kong. This was the decision by the Home Ministry to relax the rules on gay characters in local films.

The move included allowing local movies to have gay characters as long as they repented and understood the consequences of their sexual preferences.

This is a huge step forward in Malaysia for local film makers, especially when the Govern­ment has to deal with conservative and religious groups like Perkasa, Jakim and PAS.

But the reports about the decision and a proposal by Malay producers to shoot the country’s first gay-themed movie made headlines from Hong Kong to the United States. As part of the background story, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s ongoing sodomy trial was included.

When Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarnor was ordered to be caned six times by the Kuantan Syariah Court last year for consuming beer at a hotel in 2008, she was page one story in the United States and Europe.

Taking a taxi ride in London after the international media broke the story, this writer spent the entire trip explaining the case and pointing out the likelihood of the punishment not being meted out. She ended up doing community service but I am sure news of this would have been just a small item, if it was reported at all.

It was the same with the case involving three women being caned after they were found guilty of having illicit sex. Was there even a need to make this known in the first place?

It created a controversy that led to the Prime Minister being questioned about it at every business meeting with investors and journalists.

But that’s history now and we should learn from these incidents.

It’s the same with PAS politicians who love to issue statements protesting against concerts being held in Kuala Lumpur.

From Avril Lavinge’s to Beyonce’s concerts, their attempts to stop these shows became world news and Tourism Malaysia officials must have cringed as they watched the results of their hard work being torn down across Europe because of these narrow-minded politicians.

Likewise, although the Red Shirts’ protests are only confined to a small part of Bangkok, the dramatic reports portray the whole country being plunged into political chaos and have caused serious losses in tourism dollars for Thailand.

There is a perception that Malaysia is not progressive, which runs contrary to Tourism Malaysia’s multi-ethnic sell.

Image is everything. With Malaysia losing its attractiveness, the Government is renewing strategies to fight back but all this will be in vain if our politicians and officials keep up with their verbal diarrhoea.

They must understand the damage inflicted on Malaysia’s image each time they utter some outrageous remarks.

Last week, the Terengganu Mentri Besar said Pulau Redang should be turned into an exclusive island for the rich and famous.

It is the sort of announcement that would make Malaysians angry, and even if he meant well, we now have to deal with the repercussions.

International public relations do not come cheap. We would have read that Malaysia has paid RM77mil to Apco Worldwide for its work at government and country levels.

Local public relations agencies would surely be outraged by the huge fees paid to Apco but at the same time, we have to admit that Malaysian agencies would not have the connections to open doors in the United States and Europe.

From the powerful lawmakers to the media, we need to get these international personalities on our side.

Malaysian lawmakers hate the media for comparing them with their Singaporean counterparts. No doubt, the Singaporeans are a journalist’s nightmare but their lack of colour and news value also keep them away from unwanted controversies.

They would never make premature announcements, for example, and would only make their decisions public after taking into account the implications and putting in place the mechanism to make them work.

From their flip-flop announcements and silly remarks to going on about outdated political issues that should have been buried in the 1950s, it’s time our lawmakers stop putting their foot in their mouth.