Incoming Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s maiden speech should have been highly anticipated by a nation grappling with multiple crises over the past 18 months.
His maiden speech on 22 August about the Malaysian Family would have received accolades had it come at the end of a general election where his party had secured a democratic mandate.
The positive lines in his speech, in normal circumstances, would have reignited hope among the people.
But the political events over the last 18 months that led to his appointment as the prime minister have inflicted far too many wounds for his words in a single speech to serve as a balm.
His Umno party president Zahid Hamidi increased the political trust deficit on the same day Ismail Sabri delivered his speech. Zahid reminded the party faithful of Umno’s purpose, which was “none other than for the religion, race and nation”.
It appears that the new PM and his party, Umno, have their hands full.
The PM’s proclamation that the “transitions in our political landscape within a single term (are) a loss for the people and country” and that the nation should move forward should have inspired hope.
But Ismail Sabri said, “Let us stem this grab for political power.”
Many wondered aloud, “Who grabbed who’s power?”
After all, Zahid claimed the plan to reclaim Putrajaya, as stated at Umno’s 2018 annual general assembly, four months after the defeat of Barisan Nasional, “has finally become a reality”.
The burning question is, was the new prime minister an integral part of this plot to regain the power to form a government without having to go to the polls?
Ismail Sabri added: “I would like to appeal to all parliamentarians, whether within or outside of government, to work together to help our nation recover.”
But many are asking why he or his party president did not say the same thing in 2018. Instead, as Zahid now confirms, they went ahead with a plan to not work together with the incoming government that the people had elected.
Did all the parliamentarians who defected to their ranks also have a hand in the plot to unseat a democratically elected government last year?
We need honest answers. If fundamental moral conduct is questionable, then no amount of promises to save the nation and appeals to work together will gain traction.
Ismail Sabri ignited newfound hope when he made it his priority to inspect the flood ruins in Yan, Kedah the following day, 23 August.
Amid the pandemic, the victims of the floods that tore through Yan district deserved reassurances from Putrajaya.
This public relations effort, however, was a total flop.
Public relations is an art, even a science, employed strategically to communicate to varied audiences and stakeholders and attain understanding and goodwill.
Unfortunately, PR was butchered during the prime minister’s first call of duty as the new leader of a nation embroiled in political turmoil.
Foremost were the photos circulating of the unusually large entourage accompanying him on a government jet for the crisis trip. This did not go down well among netizens, who noted that the politicians and wannabees on board the plane had no direct link with the PM’s distress visit.
Next came the fatal public relations outcome. When you are visiting a crisis area where people have lost their homes and even loved ones, where many are paralysed by damaged roads, bridges and farms, a mega-billboard congratulating and welcoming you to that misery-stricken area is completely out of place.
The prime minister’s PR team should have advised him. They should have had complete control over how he was to be welcomed at the disaster site.
But it is also worrying: if these are the advisers and experts handling his image and reputation, their failure to win the support of the people is a forgone eventuality.
These were not the only boo-boos. If the PM had brought with him electricians, engineers, architects and relevant local authority top guns to review the situation on the ground first hand, it would have sent a strong message that this leader knows what to do and he means business.
By having a hands-on team with him on his first mission as prime minister, he would have earned the trust of the affected communities at Yan. He would have stood out the same way as a US president who flew right into hurricane-wrecked New Orleans in denims and rolled-up sleeves and stretched out his hands to comfort a distraught black woman with a child. No billboards. No welcoming cheers. No rombongan (entourage).
Unfortunately, that is not what Ismail Sabri gave us. This was not the right image to start with.
Still, Ismail Sabri’s stewardship took on a promising turn when he inked a joint statement with Pakatan Harapan leaders on 25 August. Some Umno members even welcomed this development.
The PM and PH leaders agreed to prioritise an independent judiciary, institutional reforms and good governance as key goals. This is most reassuring in a climate of gloom left behind by the previous leadership.
The spirit of mutuality is what will ensure that the PM can take the nation forward during these turbulent circumstances.
The prime minister must remain vigilant: his stewardship rests not on a bed of roses. He needs to be mindful of the thorns along the path.
The opposition parties are no outcasts and should not be treated as second fiddle. PKR, the DAP and Amanah are legitimate players in the destiny of this nation.
As much as Ismail Sabri’s government desires to tackle the social, health and economic rut the people are trapped in, the role and capabilities of the opposition are critical to his success.
While we should embrace Ismail’s start with the “Malaysian Family” concept, his acceptance of the legitimate role and rights of the opposition could well determine his success.
All easier said than done. We must give the PM room to navigate the ship in distress. He must let trust be the compass for the journey.
As we celebrate Merdeka and Malaysia Day, let us have sound reason to step forward with optimism and mutual trust.