SEPTEMBER 7 — Former Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob has been in the news lately for the slogan she has chosen for her Elected Presidency campaign: “Do good, do together.”
Responding to public criticism of the technically ungrammatical phrasing, Madam Halimah explained that she chose the phrase as “it’s catchy, it’s easy to understand, easy for everyone to relate”.
In general, the advertising world would concur. It has long been understood that the best slogans — or memes — need not be grammatically correct, just memorable.
Journalist Malcolm Gladwell recounts that, in 1954, when the American tobacco company Winston introduced filter-tip cigarettes, it marketed them via the ungrammatical tagline “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”, rather than “Winston tastes good as a cigarette should”.
He notes that, within months, “on the strength of that catchy phrase”, Winston became the top cigarette brand in the country. Thus, an effective slogan must be colloquial and memorable to work — not necessarily grammatical. Mr Gladwell hence argues that whatever we are urged “to read and watch, we simply don’t remember”. It is precisely why modern actors — whether advertisers, political parties, governments and even terrorist groups — must fight hard to achieve information dominance over a target audience.
This is because only through such control can the actor attain the ultimate goal of capturing the hearts and minds of the constituency in question. Hence the various slogans that comprise a wider overall narrative simply must be “catchy, easy to understand, easy for everyone to relate”.
This is certainly no less important in the domain of countering violent extremism, or CVE. How then can one employ such slogans to achieve information dominance over the likes of the Islamic State (IS)? Four factors are important: The message, the messenger, the mechanism and market receptivity.
First, the message encoded in the meme and wider narrative must be “sticky”. That is, it should be simple to grasp and memorable.
In rural Java, for instance, the most popular traditional Muslim preachers have potentially great CVE utility because their messages, which contain familiar examples derived from daily experience, enable them to connect with the public deeply.
They are said to be able to transfix their listeners for long periods of time with their skilful use of allegories and stories, transforming Islamic messages into humorous anecdotes made up of highly recognisable material. In short, the intrinsic attractiveness of the message sticks in the minds of the audience long after the messenger leaves.
The messenger himself must enjoy significant personal credibility with the target audience. This commodity, the top Allied propagandist in World War II and future Labour Government Minister Richard H S Crossman observed, was all-important.
Selecting credible interlocutors is very audience specific, moreover. Some Southeast Asian counter-terrorism officials, for instance, concede that globally famous progressive Muslim scholars are often dismissed by violent Islamist militants as “working for the government”.
Hence, while such scholars may be effective in communicating with the wider community, former radicals may have relatively greater traction with the militant constituency.
For instance, during the 1950s, at the height of the British colonial counterinsurgency campaign against the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), while Government Information Services churned out publicity material to educate the public, surrendered Chinese guerrillas were often employed to reach out to their former comrades in the Malayan jungles to entice them to surrender as well, with considerable success.
CVE efforts today should therefore have a judicious mix of moderate scholars and carefully selected former radicals. The messenger conveying the meme matters too.
While a lot has been said about the relative merits of communication mechanisms such as the print, broadcast and online media, comparatively little attention has been placed on the underlying principles that should guide their use. Two principles from the comparatively sophisticated and successful British psychological warfare effort in World War II stand out.
First, the art of propaganda is to conceal that you are actually engaging in it. Hence whether using online or offline communications platforms, one’s narrative must not come across to the audience so blatantly as “propaganda”.
National campaigns calling on the public to stand firm against violent extremism are needed but the same messages should also be conveyed by “softer”, indirect, non-governmental means as well, such as blogs, podcasts, and commentary and talk shows involving famous sports, media and entertainment personalities.
A second principle was captured in the saying “Entertainment is a narcotic that dulls the sensitivities of the propaganda-conscious mind”.
This is why the British in 1950s Malaya invested in a strong Malayan Film Unit and Radio Malaya’s Community Listening Service, featuring the legendary Lee Dai Soh, to enthrall rural and urban audiences with anti-Communist memes integrated with music, drama, humorous sketches and short films about the new lives of reformed guerillas.
It is thus telling that modern CVE analysts like the Dutch-Somali commentator Ayaan Hirsi Ali similarly call for the use of humour and satire to undercut violent extremist appeals today.
The satirical and funny British film Four Lions, about a group of wannabe terrorists, is one example of entertainment as a way to promote the anti-extremist meme among vulnerable but wary audiences.
Finally, the effective absorption by an audience of memes and narratives is also influenced by situational context: Put another way, are the “consumers” in the target market receptive to your “products”?
In September 1949, the British High Commissioner’s amnesty for Malayan Communists failed, but by August 1957, Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman’s Merdeka Amnesty succeeded spectacularly in damaging the CPM’s morale.
Why? One of the key factors was that in 1949 the public knew the government was not winning, but by Tunku’s time, it was patently obvious that the Communists had all but lost.
Similarly, in today’s CVE context, as long as political and socio-economic grievances that underpin Muslim separatism in southern Philippines continue to be relatively unaddressed, we are likely to see more sieges such as the current standoff between the IS-linked militants and the Philippines military in Marawi City in Mindanao.
No amount of counter-extremist memes and narratives can resolve the situation if the ground is not receptive.
The Marawi example reinforces the point that South-east Asia, including Singapore today, is being assailed by a concerted IS social media onslaught seeking to split our respective multicultural social fabrics apart.
Hence, preserving national unity in an increasingly hostile strategic environment — witness the SG Secure meme “Not if, but when” — should be a no-brainer.
Now, more than ever, therefore, positive national narratives and their constituent memes — no matter how ungrammatical as long as they are sticky, remember — are in fact very much needed to maintain social and psychological resilience.
Facing up to the IS social media challenge demands nothing less.
* Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna is Head of Policy Studies and Coordinator of the National Security Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He is the author of Emergency Propaganda: The Winning of Malayan Hearts and Minds, 1948-1958.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the view of the Malay Mail Online.