Reporting from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and New — Malaysia's reputation as a moderate, progressive Muslim nation has been sullied by a string of embarrassing news stories involving church burnings, pig heads dumped in mosques, Muslim girls caned for premarital sex and an interminable sodomy trial of a senior political figure.
The government's response? "Rebrand" Malaysia.
Hoping to unite the nation of 27 million people and promote its attractions abroad (and maybe make the negative coverage go away), government officials have hired a high-powered American public relations firm.
The result is a snazzy campaign called 1Malaysia featuring a slew of billboards and banners across Kuala Lumpur invoking images of national unity, including multiracial Malaysian children and adults holding hands and smiling warmly.
Some people, however, ask whether the image makeover is all style over substance.
"1Malaysia had the potential to be something good," said Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at Singapore Management University. "But because it doesn't have substance, it hasn't evolved. And because the prime minister used it as a campaign slogan, it's become divisive rather than unifying."
The country is in the midst of a battle for political control and national identity as the ruling coalition led by the United Malay National Organization finds its grip on power slipping. Recently, it lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since 1957.
At issue are the government's religious, political and cultural policies favoring ethnic Malays, who make up 53% of the population. Will the coalition continue the policies in a bid to shore up support among its conservative Muslim base, or adopt a more inclusive approach like the one touted in the 1Malaysia campaign?
"In 1Malaysia, the government seems to be promising that change is going to happen," said Faizal Kasmani, political analyst from the Islamic Science University of Malaysia. "It is up to them to fulfill this, or else this whole campaign will backfire."
Malaysia made news around the world earlier this year when 11 churches, two Muslim prayer halls, a mosque and a Sikh temple were firebombed or vandalized, most of them in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Around the same time, three Muslim teenagers were caned for premarital sex.
Prime Minister Najib Razak and other officials are counting on Washington-based communications firm Apco Worldwide to help the country, which has seen a dramatic decline in foreign investment, improve its international image at a reported cost of about $24 million a year.
Najib, elected in 2009, has seen efforts to enact economic overhauls strongly opposed by the Malay right-wing, which is determined to retain preferential privileges for Malays. But analysts say failure to deliver on the economy could hurt Najib in the next general election, due by 2013.
The 1Malaysia campaign signals the government has taken note of rising ethnic tensions and that Najib "is not actively going down the Malay supremacy road," said Ooi Kee Beng, political analyst with the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who faces sodomy charges that supporters claim are politically motivated, said the PR campaign is understandable given the country's many problems.
Lawmaker Shahrir Samad defended the campaign. "Media always laps up bad news, and we have had our share of those recently," he said. "The government has to buy advertisement space in the media to balance the news."
Recently, the 1Malaysia theme has been picked up by retailers, some rather sloppily inserting the numeral "1" in their ad copy. "1Malaysia Ramadan promotion," says a restaurant company offering "two [multiethnic] buffets featuring more than 100 selections."
"It's a good slogan, catchy, with a message of national inclusiveness," said Welsh, the professor. "But it also illustrates how shallow the campaign is, that it can go from political slogan to a company ad....It's kind of sad."
Special correspondent Sam reported from Kuala Lumpur and Times staff writer Magnier from New Delhi.