The Mega metamorphosis is great but rather late

This is an opinion piece I wrote for The Jakarta Post on September 16, 2004

There has been a fundamental shift in how President Megawati Soekarnoputri communicates. The Megawati we saw during Tuesday night's presidential "dialog" was definitely a different one from the Megawati in the first round of presidential dialogs weeks ago.

Mega watchers will note that up to the last presidential dialog she was her old self — tentative, insecure, inarticulate and unprepared to speak before the public. She looked and sounded more like a dowdy housewife, happier to tend to affairs of the household than affairs of the state.

Then something happened. By Tuesday night Megawati was still a bit stiff, but she was doing all the right things to communicate effectively. Gone was the horrendous handbag that she plonked in front of the rostrum during the first dialog. Gone were the ridiculously folded notes that she clung to. And gone was the sense of confusion and helplessness that she greeted each question with.

In its place was a well-prepared Megawati who looked like she was confident, in control and in possession of the facts. This was a Megawati who could parry the more uncomfortable questions and deliver a message of how successful her administration has been in effecting change.

What happened? To a public relations practitioner, the answer is obvious: Megawati has, at last, been media trained. In media training executives and politicians are taught how to communicate effectively in an interview situation, whether it is in the format of Tuesday night's dialog or before a pack of aggressive reporters.

There are two components to effective communication: the content and the delivery.

The content consists of boiling down all that the interviewee has to say into two or three main ideas that are expressed in short, concise and memorable statements. These are called key messages and the interviewee's job is to repeat them as often as possible during the interview.

In Megawati's case one of the key messages was how successful her leadership has been in introducing change. There were at least four or five occasions during the dialog where she expressed this idea, saying that she had successfully introduced this law or that initiative and all that remains was merely the implementation.

Then there is the delivery. This is as important as, if not more than, the content. The late Ronald Reagan, who was known as the Great Communicator, was a master at this. No matter what he said, it seemed credible and likable. Successful delivery depends on body language and the use of voice.

In these areas, Megawati also seems to have had a makeover. Though she still does not come across as an animated or inspiring orator like her father, she was noticeably better. She looked responsive to the questions from the panelists. When confronted with difficult questions, she answered with confidence and seemed even to enjoy the session. Unlike the last time, where she leaned on the rostrum, she affected good posture and was attentive. She spoke clearly and enunciated well.

And she made eye contact with the panelists and the audience. Although she still needs to work on sweeping the audience with her eyes to make contact with more people, she at least did not make the same mistake as her rival, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Like Megawati, his answers were well prepared and rehearsed but his trainers overlooked correcting his habit of rapid eye movements. This created the perception of shiftiness and mitigated the effectiveness of his otherwise competent though uninspiring delivery.

The result was a perception that Megawati came out better in the dialog. She even appeared mildly presidential.

Will this be enough to tilt the balance at the presidential polls on Monday? It is doubtful, as her change may be a case of too little too late. Whatever the outcome of the election, however, Megawati's metamorphosis raises intriguing questions about the future of Indonesian politics.

Like most of Indonesia's politicians, Megawati has obstinately refused professional help in managing her public image. Yet her performance on Tuesday night as well as in the immediate aftermath of the bombing outside the Australian Embassy — where she cut short her visit to Brunei and returned to pay a symbolic visit to ground zero and the victims in the hospital. She also delivered a speech that expressed empathy as well as an action plan — a clear indication that the age of the image maker has arrived in Indonesian politics.

From now on we will increasingly see the products of political marketing. Politicians will increasingly be slicker and more sophisticated in the use of public relations strategies and tactics to win the image war, so they can win the political war.

Will this result in a more open Indonesia where its political leaders have to communicate with the people to win their support? Or will it mean the rise to power of the slick, ruthless politician who's mastered the sound bite and other tricks of persuasion but has little else to offer?

Time will tell, but in the meantime we can rejoice that there is change in the air. Change is the result of self-realization. Where self-realization exists, there is capacity for improvement. This may be Megawati's lasting gift to Indonesia, no matter how she does in Monday's presidential elections.

One thought on “The Mega metamorphosis is great but rather late

  1. Hi there,
    I actually quoted your article “The Mega metamorphosis is great but rather late”, for my thesis. I have lost my original printed version of the article, and unfortunately, the new look jakarta post online doesn’t seem to have an archive page anymore. Would you be kind enough to let me know what page did this article appear on the printed edition of the Jakarta Post, and would you prefer me to also quote your name as the author? (I found the article today on but it didn’t have the page number, exact URL, nor, the author’s name). Many many thanks.


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