Flower power: the future of political marketing in Malaysia (and Singapore?)

Malaysian Spring video still

When I covered Southeast Asia a few years back, whenever there was a slow news day – which was pretty rare – I’d call Malaysia. Never a dull moment there. And usually, though the conversation would start off about marketing or media, ended up about politics.

With Malaysia’s elections around the corner, things are getting particularly interesting as an inimitable political system faces unprecedented upheaval. But how to market your message in one of the region’s most politically sensitive countries?

The answer is, with a light touch.

Which is why I like the approach of a group called Malaysian Spring, which is calling for change to the voting system.

Yes, the word spring instantly brings up images of the uprising seen in the Arab world. And after the violent demonstrations of less than a year ago, the worst Malaysia has seen since independence, the line that can be trodden by political marketers seen to side with the opposition is thin.

But the call to action is anything but brutal.

The most radical thing the group is asking people to do, ahead of an election where corruption, discrimination and the cost of living are the big issues, is plant a flower. Well, a flag that sort of looks like one.

This reminds me of when Greenpeace protesters turned up outside the Apple store in Sydney a year ago holding bunches of balloons.

On the Malaysian Spring website, people are encouraged to plant ‘flowers’ in their neighbourhood, count them, photograph them, share them, and send them in. There is even a video on how to make them.

There is also video that features ordinary Malaysians who say they want change for reasons of hope, peace and love (although one woman does mention an end to arrogance).

As Calvin Soh, the former regional creative head at Publicis, who now runs his own social change agency Ninety Nine Percent points out in his Facebook group Future Singapore, Malaysian Spring’s approach is “simple and done with sensitivity.”

This sort of approach – combined with an understanding of social media, which is credited with almost unseating the present government in the last election – is the future of election campaigning for Malaysia, he says.

I couldn’t help but wonder how flower-planting would go down in the country I’ve just come from, Australia, where political marketing is as subtle as a baseball bat.

The Malaysian Spring movement calls the flowers “a peaceful act, which brings beauty into our streets and neighbourhoods.”

Peaceful, yes. But provocative enough for officers from Kuala Lumpur City Hall to start digging up a large garden of these flowers at a roundabout in Bangsar earlier today, the Malaysia Chronicle reported.

More videos like Malaysian Spring’s are now popping up online, featuring young people tackling hot-button political issues in a measured but emotive way.

The same style of political marketing will be seen in neighbouring Singapore, where political tensions are also running high, in the run-up to their next elections in three years’ time, Calvin Soh, a Singaporean, reckons.

“Future young Malaysians and Singaporeans seem to have an intense love for their country. But not necessarily the ruling parties. You will be seeing more of these videos because we live in the age of generation participation,” he says.

Robin Hicks


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