It looks like grass, it feels like grass, but is it really grass? It’s all too easy to make the mistake with AstroTurf, the synthetic product that’s so convincing, so compelling, it’s been replacing actual grass in school grounds and stadium pitches and public lawns throughout America. Laying it may be expensive, but for fans of AstroTurf, it’s well worth the investment. All you need to do is pay for the one-time setup cost. Get it professionally installed. And off you go. There’s no watering required. No trimming. No maintenance. From day one, AstroTurf pays for itself, and therein lies its simple brilliance—it’s the quintessential American product, manufactured to appeal to the hunger for a quick-and-easy fix.
AstroTurf has become so popular that it’s no longer just a registered trademark. The imagery it evokes has transcended its humble origins, and it has become a meme, a living and breathing part of the political script of modern America, and here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the subject: ‘Astroturfing is a form of advocacy often in support of a political or corporate agenda designed to give the appearance of a “grassroots” movement. The goal of such campaigns is to disguise the efforts of a political and/or commercial entity as an independent public reaction to some political entity—a politician, political group, product, service or event. The term is a derivation of AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to look like natural grass.’
The most recent and obvious example of astroturfing is, of course, the Tea Party movement. Regular moms and pops who banded together in early 2009. Pouring into town halls and school gymnasiums and public parks. Proclaiming their rage at President Obama addiction to excessive spending and deficits. Insisting that unless swift and decisive cutbacks were executed, America would be headed for complete and total financial ruin.
On the surface of it, the Tea Party seemed as wholesome as apple pie. Ordinary citizens rising up to send the lofty politicians in Washington a raucous message, ‘We are here, and we are angry, and we are not going to take it anymore.’ Little surprise, then, that the Tea Party became the NGO to top all NGOs. It spread like wildfire. Recruited in large numbers. Dominated the headlines. Whipped up a frenzy like no other.
As time went on, however, troubling question began to emerge. Who, exactly, was organising and directing the central message that was filtering down to the rank and file? Why now? Why was the Tea Party emerging only just after the Republican defeat in the congressional and presidential elections? Where had the Tea Party been during the eight long years former President Bush launched two expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Why didn’t the Tea Party speak out during the Wall Street deregulation that led to the subprime mortgage crisis?
The answers to these questions, of course, can only lead to one conclusion—the Tea Party is not the grassroots movement it claims itself to be. Far from it. The Tea Party is, in fact, a thinly-veiled guerrilla campaign initiated and organised by the Republican Party. One that has been wildly successful at reenergising its voter base, allowing them to rout the Democrats and recapture the momentum in Congress. And one that is now openly endorsing ultraconservative candidates who will try and oust President Obama from the White House in 2012.
It is, if anything, a stunning turnaround for the Republican Party. A party that seemed all but shattered in the aftermath of Obama’s 2008 victory. But today, it’s a thundering locomotive, well-oiled and burning hot. And if there’s one lesson to be learned from all this, it’s that packaging and presentation, combined with perception and narrative, is the most powerful of political tools. Even the most rational voter can be swayed and clouded by emotion, given the right impetus.
Astroturfing, of course, doesn’t only happen in America. The practice has been spread Malaysia, and political architects in both Barisan and Pakatan have proven to be enthusiastic adopters of the paradigm, applying it in ways that are surprisingly more sophisticated and adept than their American counterparts.
UMNO’s transplanting of grassroots militancy into Perkasa is a clear example. It gives its rowdy Malay nationalists a street-level platform to spew venom and organise direct action, and if push comes to shove, it provides the ultimate devil’s alternative: ‘If we can’t win through regular means, then we’ll resort to our unofficial paramilitary arm. It will be the tip of our spear.’ It’s no surprise that many members of Perkasa belong to the RELA Corps militia, 500,000-strong. They are well-trained and well-funded, belonging neither to the police nor the military, and yet, they have a ready access to arms and are ready and willing to execute violence at a moment’s notice. The normal chain of command and rules of engagement do not apply—Perkasa members are insurgents who wear no uniform.
What’s more intriguing on the political landscape, however, is Pakatan’s own foray into astroturfing—the Bersih rally. In the minds of most Malaysians, it is exactly what it says it is. A grassroots event designed to highlight the flawed electoral system and push for positive reform. People power. As wholesome as apple pie. But is it? Is it really? Lurking just beneath the surface is a troubling strain of hard-nosed subterfuge and realpolitik.
It took shape during the 2004 general elections, a time when the opposition stood against Barisan National under the banner of Barisan Alternatif. It was, perhaps, the one occasion where the opposition was thoroughly honest with its supporters—this would be a loose marriage of convenience, and none of the opposition parties would compromise on individual principles. This was personified in the public and ugly tiff between PAS and DAP over the establishment of an Islamist state. But what thrilled the faithful proved to be toxic for general voters, and such a fragmented and divisive approach rubbished any chance the opposition may have had of challenging the government in key constituencies.
The outcome of the elections was a foregone rout. It was not only embarrassing, but demoralising. And it was painfully obvious what needed to be done: the opposition alliance would have to be torn down and rebuilt. But it would have to be rebuilt in a way that would be anything but conventional. It would have to take a page from America playbook of politics. Forget top-down restructuring. Focus on doing it from the ground up. Thus Barisan Alternatif was dissolved and Pakatan Rakyat arose in its place—a snappier and more media-friendly package.
Anwar Ibrahim proved to be a capable architect of this resurgence. Following his release from prison, he had gone into self-imposed exile in America and had rubbed shoulders with neoconservatives in Washington. He took great interest in the swiftboating campaign that had scuttled Senator John Kerry’s run against President George W. Bush. And he grew convinced that such gutter politics, given a Malaysian twist, would not only work in Malaysia, but could be the key to reversing Pakatan’s floundering fortunes.
By the time 2007 rolled around, all the pieces were in place. Pakatan had cultivated the right image, projected the right message and instilled discipline and compromise within its ranks. With the national elections just around the corner, it was now or never. There would be no second chances. Pakatan’s vehicle of choice to reenergise its base was Bersih. Carefully managed. Carefully choreographed. And it succeeded just as Anwar predicted it would. It galvanized the Malaysian public. Played with their heartstrings. Won them over. And, in the process, elevated Pakatan to its best ever showing at the polls. It was, if anything, an electrifying rebound. One that proved and cemented the worth of astroturfing—like its synthetic-grass counterpart, it pays for itself.
In 2011, Malaysia once again finds itself on the threshold of another general election. And, once again, the Bersih vehicle is being employed to muster the grunt work that Anwar Ibrahim hopes will pave the way for the final, epic push that finally allows him to regain his squandered position as Mahathir’s heir-apparent. The atmosphere is frenzied and emotional, and objective and balanced thought is no longer part of the equation.
For the rank and file of Pakatan, no one bothers to ask the tough questions anymore. Their focus is fanatically narrow and intense: ‘We are hell-bent on getting Pakatan into power, and we don’t care about the means, and we don’t care about the consequences. Barisan has been robbing and raping our country for years, and now it’s our time to stand up for fairness and transparency and equality.’
What’s curious about such fervour is how much it obscures rather than reveals. No one is questioning the two things that are notably absent in the Bersih manifesto: the use of royal yellow and the attempt, both symbolic and direct, to communicate with the King. No one is questioning why it has become so vitally important to rope in non-Malays to petition what is essentially a symbol of Malay sovereignty. No one is questioning the fact that King owes his comforts and luxuries to Barisan, and is unlikely to budge unless offered a better deal. No one is questioning the fact that Bersih has now dropped all pretensions at being a neutral grassroots effort.
But amidst the thorny questions, it’s the timing of Bersih that cuts deep to the heart of the matter. It comes right after the devastating outcome in Sarawak, where Barisan rigged the polls to give itself victory with a two-thirds majority, demoralising opposition supporters. And it also comes after Pakatan dangled a tantalizing carrot—that the Constitution doesn’t necessarily say that only a Malay-Muslim can be prime minister of Malaysia. Tantalizing, yes, but proof that packaging is more attractive than reality. With 29 MPs in Parliament, DAP has the largest share of elected representatives in the opposition, compared to Keadilan’s 24 and PAS’ 23. If democratic tradition is to be followed, then Lim Kit Siang should be the leader of the opposition and the prime minister incumbent.
But then again, who wants to think about such heady issues? Malaysians, like Americans, are people who hunger for black-and-white narratives. Quick-and-easy fixes. Open-and-shut realities. And if it looks like grass, and if it feels like grass, then surely it must be grass, no matter how synthetic.
John Ling is a Malaysian-born writer based in New Zealand. You can find out more about him and his work at johnling.net.