Why there is robust debate in Malaysia's parliament over a move to revive the government's 'propaganda unit'
SINGAPORE: Among the hotly debated issues in Malaysia's proposed budget for 2021 is an allocation of RM85.5 million (US$20.7 million) to revive the government's public relations arm - the Special Affairs Department (JASA).
The department, which is under the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia, handles government communications and disseminates information to the public.
According to the Finance Ministry's website, the purpose of JASA is to develop the community at the grassroots level through communication between the government and the people.
As part of budget 2021 which was tabled by Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul Tengku Abdul Aziz on Nov 6, the government has proposed two allocations for JASA: RM4 million under the strategic communications budget and an additional RM81.5 million allocated to the government’s new policies.
However, the decision to resurrect the department has been criticised by many members of parliament (MPs) during the ongoing budget debate.
The opposition has said that JASA is a propaganda tool by the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, to promote partisan messages.
The Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, under then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, disbanded the department when it came into power in 2018.
Here’s why reviving JASA has become a key point of contention:
WHAT JASA CAN DO FOR THE PN GOVERNMENT
Observers have noted that historically, JASA has been utilised as an agency to spread information for the government.
The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, when it was in power before 2018, used JASA to promote “pro-government messages” and “painted the opposition in a negative light”, said Universiti Utara Malaysia political analyst Associate Professor Ahmad Martadha Mohamed.
“Opposition have labelled JASA as a propaganda machinery, but I don’t like to use that term,” he said.
“It’s a public relations machine to showcase to the people that what the government was doing was good, and what the opposition was doing was destabilising the country and economy,” he explained.
Assoc Prof Ahmad Martadha noted that JASA would organise events and campaigns, involving students, civil servants and members of the public, during which the messages would be disseminated.
Besides that, he noted that JASA was utilised heavily by BN to dominate the online space through “so-called cybertroopers”, and with talk that the next general election could be called soon, Mr Muhyiddin’s PN government could also want to adopt a similar strategy.
“The government knows that the only way forward to garner support for the elections is to establish a social media presence,” said Assoc Prof Ahmad Martadha.
“Mediums like television and radio are traditional ways of consuming information. Now, Malaysians turn to social media. This is reflected in the amount of money allocated to JASA in the budget this year, the government could be keen to lean on the department when polls are called,” he added.
READ: Malaysian opposition will only support budget 2021 if it really helps the people, says Anwar Ibrahim
JASA ALLOCATION IS "TYRANNICAL": ANWAR
JASA has been widely criticised by the opposition, including PH's top leaders – Mr Anwar Ibrahim and Mr Lim Guan Eng.
Mr Anwar, who is president for Parti Keadilan Rakyat, has described the allocation for JASA, along with another allocation for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, as “tyrannical”.
“At a time when the rakyat (people) is in distress, it is tyrannical for you to take money, RM85.5 million and another RM8.6 million for (the Ministry of Housing and Local Government),” said Mr Anwar during his budget debate speech in parliament on Monday.
He added that the move was “unprecedented” and was done to safeguard the needs of the ministers to use it as propaganda.
Meanwhile, Democratic Action Party’s chief Lim Guan Eng has urged Mr Muhyiddin to withdraw the funding for JASA if he wants to pass a “unity budget” that is accepted by the opposition.
In his speech in Parliament on Tuesday, Mr Lim urged the government not to politicise issues by setting up JASA.
“This should be rejected. And we (in PH) are ready to stand together with all MPs who want to reject the revival of JASA,” said Mr Lim.
Assoc Prof Ahmad Martadha noted that the opposition is familiar with how JASA operated during the BN era, and hence, will not be keen for it to be resurrected.
“The opposition is trying to prevent JASA from being used as a political tool, which operates for the incumbent government coalition rather than the people,” he said.
However, the PN government have rejected such claims.
In an official statement, the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia said that it has been assigned to revive JASA "as the agency to disseminate information" based on the needs of different segments of the community.
"This responsibility is very important and critical, especially since the country is facing the COVID-19 pandemic presently," the statement said.
The ministry added that the agency's purpose is to counter the spread of fake news which threatens to divide the community.
Information chief for Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) Wan Saiful Wan Jan, has maintained that JASA is not going to be revived as a propaganda unit, like how it was under BN.
Bersatu, led by Mr Muhyiddin, is a component party of PN.
Mr Wan Saiful explained that the new JASA will act as a vehicle to gather feedback from members of the public.
“Its role has changed with the current situation. I understand that the intention of the government so far is to ensure that it always listens and understands the grievances of the people, and at the same time the people can also get accurate information from the government,” said Mr Wan Saiful in a Facebook post.
“It will not be for propaganda like before. That era is over.”
READ: BN's support for budget 2021 hinges on retirement fund withdrawal, loan moratorium extension, says Najib
UMNO SAYS ALLOCATION IS TOO HIGH
Besides the opposition, MPs from United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), a component party of PN, have also voiced concerns on the government allocation for JASA in budget 2021.
When UMNO was last the main party in the BN government in 2018, then-prime minister Najib Razak allocated RM30 million to the JASA budget.
The amount proposed by Mr Muhyiddin’s government for 2021 – RM85 million – is more than double that.
Speaking in parliament on Tuesday, Najib, who is MP for Pekan, said he supported the move to bring back JASA but he was not in favour of the high amount, particularly as Malaysia is facing a health and economic crisis due to COVID-19.
He said the people would find it very hard to accept the move. It also “courts anger”, he said.
“I can accept it if the fund is spent to buy face masks or hand sanitisers for the people (or) given to parents to replace the Supplemental Food Plan (RMT) for children denied breakfast, because schools are closed until early next year,” he said.
“But I cannot digest the suggestion of RM81 million for JASA,” added Najib, who was recently appointed chairman for BN backbenchers.
Other UMNO leaders have also spoken out on the issue.
UMNO vice-president Khaled Nordin has been quoted by Malaysian media as saying that the huge allocation required further explanation.
“If there is reasonable justification, then it is okay for the large allocation. Maybe a weak government needs a bigger loudspeaker,” he reportedly said.
However, Mr Wan Saiful defended the sum allocated.
In his Facebook post, he explained that in the digital era, technologies for effective communication do not come cheap.
“It is not strange that adequate allocation must be set aside to ensure that our government has the technology and equipment required in this era of social media.
“We have not talked about the cost of repelling fake news, which is increasingly being spread,” he wrote.
Assoc Prof Ahmad Martadha noted that UMNO could have “political motives” for speaking out against JASA as some UMNO figures are perceived to have been seeking a fairer redistribution of government positions and ministerial posts in the PN coalition.
“UMNO knows that JASA is an agency with a special purpose – relay positive information on the government does, rather than allow people to consume information from the opposition,” he said.
As such, UMNO might be wary of how JASA might influence Bersatu’s position in government, he added.
On whether the criticisms against JASA will impact the passing the budget, Assof Prof Ahmad Martadha said that this is unlikely as the government will probably revise its allocation after the debate.
“The allocation will be lower, this is quite common. The initial amount is just a proposed amount, but after discussions and debate, the number will have to go down,” added the political analyst.