The government’s anxiety in the face of kid’s play betrays insecurity, paranoia, and a totalitarian bent.

THIS is the sequence of events:

Young schoolchildren aged eight to 10 from an international school stage a cute little presentation about how oil palm plantations are harming the environment.

Next, Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok loses her mind, describes the performance as “sowing hatred against palm oil plantations”.

Next, the Education Ministry launches an investigation into the international school under the Education Act 1966 (Act 550), with director-general Datuk Dr Amin Senin saying, “The Ministry will not compromise with any propaganda and indoctrination in private institutions that tarnish the image and name of the country”.

So that’s the new low we’ve reached. A bunch of cute little prepubescent kids dressed up as orangutan have successfully trolled and struck fear into a minister, as well as the top civil servant in the Education Ministry.

Clearly, had these gallant representatives of our noble government not intervened, the whole of Malaysia would surely have been incited by these young tykes to go and burn down each and every oil palm plantation in the country by now.

You can almost see and hear the collective rolling of eyeballs, facepalms and groans from all around the country.

Let’s start with some very basic principles in communications and public relations: The more disproportionately you react to something, the more guilty and insecure you look.

After all, did the video or children’s play even mention Malaysia by name? Or is this a case of “Siapa makan cili, dia rasa pedas” (in English, more or less, “If the shoe fits, wear it”)?

Given this ridiculous reaction, people who may have been inclined to think that planting oil palm is indeed bad for the environment would now be doubly sure that it is.

Why else would the government react so strongly and virulently against children who can’t even walk around the mall without supervision, much less threaten our nation’s primary industries?

Had the government been confident regarding its stance that planting palm oil in Malaysia is done in a sustainable manner, they would have simply argued their case in a calm, collected manner, without the need for hysterics and punitive action.

If a school held a play saying that eating meat is bad for the environment, should a full cabinet minister go out of his or her way to criticise the school for “sowing hatred” against meat eaters? Should the Education Ministry investigate the school for spreading “propaganda and indoctrination”?

(Eating meat, by the way, is in fact bad for the environment!)

To call this response preposterous and disproportionate would be a preposterously disproportionate understatement.

If the government is serious about effectively communicating its position that oil palm in Malaysia is planted in a way that is environmentally sustainable, then it should focus on highlighting as many established and verifiable facts that support its case.

Kok extended an invitation to the school’s headmaster and teachers to come to her ministry and to the Malaysian Palm Oil Council to see firsthand the efforts that are made to make oil palm plantations sustainable.

This was well and good; she should have stopped there. That would have been a proportionate and appropriate response.

If she wanted to say more, perhaps she could have spoken about Malaysia’s efforts to protect and preserve the orangutan. (Which she did earlier today with a more reasonable statement).

Hitting out at a school and at little children reflects badly on her and the government, as well as hurts, rather than helps, those who are promoting the use of palm oil as environmentally sustainable.

Kok has had an extremely successful political career, especially in the Opposition. In her new role, she can extend that success positively if she replaces the habit of being reactive with the habit of being calm, measured and thoughtful in her responses to current affairs.

Having the Education Ministry jump on the bandwagon makes things indescribably worse.

By this point, the government as a whole is coming across as a totalitarian police state which cannot abide even the smallest bit of criticism or difference of opinion from (very nearly literally) Malaysia’s smallest citizens and residents.

This reaction gives the impression that in a blink of an eye, all of Pakatan Harapan’s promises for a new Malaysia which genuinely respects freedom of expression, and the right to offer a different view from that of the almighty government, seem to be thrown right out the window.

In its place looks to be an Animal Farm type scenario, where the new guys look exactly like the old guys in terms of how they intimidate and come down hard on citizens who dare to sing a different tune from the government’s.

Whether or not oil palm plantations are or are not environmentally sustainable is a genuinely debatable question.

We have our very own Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification, which presumably institutes some standards by which the planting of oil palm can be considered environmentally sustainable.

The very day after she blew up at the little children, Kok was in a discussion about the MSPO certification, and it was reported that only 36% of oil palm plantations are MSPO certified.

If barely a third of all oil palm planted in Malaysia meets Malaysia’s own standard for sustainability, then for the love of all that is good, shouldn’t the minister be breathing down the necks of oil palm planters instead of a bunch of eight- to nine-year-old kids and their teachers?

Let us also not go too far down the ego-fuelled path of “this is a neo-colonial conspiracy by white people who are out to get us”, and relate that to the fact that this took place in an international school.

Nobody is denying that palm oil currently plays an important role in our economy; but to get riled up and instantly punish and decry any criticism about palm oil as being propaganda influenced by foreigners is to be like North Korea.

Do we want to be like North Korea?

NATHANIEL TAN is a consultant specialising in impactful communication and navigating public perception. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.