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Kingmaker Web 2.0

by Kean Wong
Freedom of information: Malaysian children enjoy internet access at a school in Kuala Lumpur

Freedom of information: Malaysian children enjoy internet access at a school in Kuala Lumpur

The elections of 8 March changed Malaysia, though the Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi stayed in power. For the first time, however, the opposition parties denied the long-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) its traditional two-thirds majority in the Federal Parliament. The internet helped to make the difference by opening up new spaces for public discourse. [ By Kean Wong ]

The PR also swept up majorities in five states, forming state governments for the first time ever in Malaysia’s industrial hubs of Penang and Selangor as well as three other states. This strategic alliance, stitched and held together by the charismatic leadership Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, delivered stunning results thanks to the cooperation of the PKR (the populist People’s Justice Party), the DAP (the ethnically-Chinese dominated socialist party), and PAS (an Islamist party led by a mix of technocrats and religious figures).

Unlike previous elections, the opposition parties overcame the typical blackout and disinformation used against them in the mainstream media. The internet made the difference. In 2008, web-communication mattered in the elections. Social networking websites, forums, blogs and video channels such as YouTube were used extensively by the opposition, circumventing the mainstream newspapers, television and radio, all of which are kept on tight leashes thanks to annual licensing laws enforced by the Federal Government.

First inklings of internet impact had become evident as early as 1999. Public discourse contributed to Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister for 22 years, stepping down in 2002.

This time the internet was harnessed efficiently by opposition activists and the burgeoning new class of young, first-time voters in the cities. As artist Yee
I-Lann points out, “the blogger world gave people confidence to dissent, though it probably didn’t change the overall politics and policies that much.” According to her, social networking via the internet spread the virus of change. To cast a dissenting vote suddenly seemed to make sense, because one had friends and colleagues online, in forums and blogs, on Facebook and MySpace, who all declared they would be doing so.

As technology commentators noted in the aftermath of the latest elections, the Web 2.0 age of social networking has firmly taken root in Malaysia. In 2000, there were 3.7 million internet users in the country. By now, that figure has jumped to 14 million, which is significant given Malaysia’s total population of around 25 million. In eight years, Internet usage grew over 300 %.

Even so, the elections were still marked by an information divide. While urban folk treat the mainstream media’s political reportage with deep scepticism and turned in droves to the unregulated net, rural voters were still mostly served by the mainstream media.

New methods, new gains

But even in rural areas, change could be felt thanks to the mass distribution of printouts of the opposition’s online information. Free blogs such as Malaysia-Today, were updated on a daily basis. They recorded over 15 million hits following the stunning election results in March, which was triple the usual daily traffic. On the other hand, the slightly more liberal and highly competitive vernacular press (mainly the Chinese-language newspapers) picked up on alternative news and views, responding to market demand.

Premesh Chandran, chief executive of the news portal Malaysiakini.com, says news and videos from his online service successfully bypassed the continuing restrictions imposed on Malaysia’s licensed electronic and print media. After modest beginnings in the heat of the 1999 elections, Malaysiakini has grown to become the country’s central online news website. During election night, Malaysiakini got over half-a-million visitors an hour, a stark increase from the typical 150,000 unique hits it gets a day.

“The government thought the internet news wouldn’t go beyond those who had internet access, but they didn’t consider the spillover effect,” says Premesh Chandran. The internet fed the information into a certain part of the community, and it spread from there. Premesh realised how popular his “brand” had become, when co-workers went out to record the rallies and meetings of the opposition, even in sometimes remote rural areas. “Our teams were cheered by strangers when they saw our Malaysiakini video crews at political rallies,” remembers the chief executive. He believes that this had almost entirely to do with their widespread distribution of Internet video reports on DVD and CD.

The news website also recorded a historically high number of unique visitors over the course of the election campaign. It even had to shut down briefly after the polls closed, as traffic on the site overwhelmed the servers. However, fast-established mirror websites helped to relay the historic results of opposition parties’ wins across the peninsular, with Malaysiakini often beating the traditional news services to publishing key results.

According to web researcher and journalist Oon Yeoh, who was Malaysia’s first online blogger eight years ago, the role of the internet in overcoming information blackouts and the general bias of the mainstream media is only one part of recent media evolution. The internet was also used by well-known bloggers to raise campaign funds. And there were other factors with an impact on Malay- and Chinese-language newspapers, he says, arguing that more traditional efforts of campaigning at political rallies, and highlighting issues at such rallies in the last days of the election campaign hammered home the need for change.

Until such mass rallies occurred, the sentiment for change had been vague and barely swayed by watching controversial videos on YouTube about alleged judge-fixing and other Malaysian corruption scandals. “Ironically, the best gift that the government has given to our civil society is the 1998 Communications and Multimedia Bill, which committed the federal government to ensuring there would be no internet censorship,” Mr Yeoh said.

According to Malaysiakini’s Premesh Chandran, waiving the subscription-fee access over the week of the polls “helped ramp up traffic to our site, and this was good for business as many Malaysians decided to sign up for subscriptions after the free period was over”. The Malaysiakini chief executive admits it was a “win-win” situation for his news service, as Malaysians celebrated their democracy’s historic results with free access to a service that had often been sidelined by the licensed mainstream media.

A revolution that cannot be stopped

Recognising the acute need for the mainstream media to be unleashed from its yearly licensing restrictions and also political ownership, the chief editor of The Star, Malaysia's best-selling English-language newspaper, Wong Chun Wai, has called for the abolition of media licenses found in the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA). He also spoke against the government’s fond use of draconian laws such as the Sedition Act against bloggers. “Fresh from the heavy electoral defeats in five states, the public opinion against the BN can be politically costly,” Mr Wong wrote on his new post-elections blog.

For now at least, both perception and politics have changed in Malaysia, forcing a liberalisation of old methods of control, thanks to the new information tsunami brought on by the Internet. But the contest for votes, and electoral popularity, remains driven by the hard realities of sweaty rallies and door-to-door campaigning.