In The News

Malaysia and its Blogolution

April 30, 2008

Historians and political scientists are long used to identifying the key ingredients in the making of revolutions – price hikes, splits in the elite, repression – all waiting for a magic trigger to unite and ignite a radical change in political systems.

Perhaps there is now a new trigger for change forcing an overhaul if not overturn of political establishments: the Internet. And, potentially the Internet can have a more powerful impact than the traditional chant and blockade style revolution, which often results in counter-revolutions, messy politics and bloodied bodies on the street.

Anyone who has been observing Malaysian politics will know that this country could now be up for its biggest make-over since the race riots of 1969. On March 8, Malaysian voters went to the polls and the ruling National Front (BN) coalition came in for a shock. The pedestal from which BN has lorded over Malaysian politics for so long has been kicked away from under their feet. Five of the 13 states that constitute Malaysia are now ruled by the opposition, up from only one before the elections. At the national level, BN now only controls 62% of the 222 seats in the federal parliament, down from 90% in the out-going parliament.

Although this may sound like a comfortable majority, in reality, because of the way the electoral system has been so manipulated to work in favor of the BN, the magnitude and overwhelming humiliation of this result is disguised by what appears to be a strong parliamentary majority.

The 2008 elections are a landmark in Malaysian politics. The government may still be intact, but with Malaysia now having an almost credible opposition, the People’s Front (Pakatan Rakyat), the claims of former Deputy Prime Minister and effective head of the three-party coalition, Anwar Ibrahim, that he could be prime minister within three years cannot be dismissed lightly.

There are numerous reasons to explain this dramatic decline in support for the ruling BN. Firstly, like many parts of the world, Malaysia has been rocked by rising prices, especially for food, over the last year. The ringgit in the pocket has not been able to retain its value, and even in a country which likes to portray itself as a modern industrial nation, the many Malaysians who have not benefited from its rapid development have been hurt by the rising prices.

Then there is corruption. Malaysians feel particularly despondent about what they see as the broken promises of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi after his landslide 2004 election win, when he was re-elected promising to address corruption. Unlike other countries, what has been so upsetting to people is not the corrupt cop on the street corner but the seeming collusion within political and business circles that have seen lucrative contracts awarded to a small set of favored contractors in a closed tender process.

Furthermore, Malaysia’s judiciary was also rocked with the release of a secret tape-recording in early 2008, purportedly between a former Chief Justice and a politically well-connected lawyer in which the two were discussing the appointment of judges. This seeming interference in the judiciary, long-suspected but always denied, touched a raw nerve amongst the public.

Finally, there seems to have been an unraveling of the race politics that has for so long dominated Malaysian politics. After the riots of 1969 and the New Economic Policy (NEP) introduced in 1971 designed to boost the economic standing of the Malays in Malaysia, in late 2007 many in the Indian community took to the streets to protest their inferior economic position and the benefits heaped on the Malays through the NEP and follow-up programs. Meanwhile, the Chinese have continued to resent the ongoing pursuit of economic rebalancing which has supported the Malays in a way not commensurate with their contribution towards business development in Malaysia.

If the above are some of the reasons for dissatisfaction with the government, what was fascinating about the 2008 elections was to see how these and many other grievances found an outlet on the Internet for the first time. The mainstream media in Malaysia, the newspapers and television, have always been kept under tight government control. This has prevented critical journalism, especially of the government or social affairs, from appearing. The Internet, on the other hand, while still subject to libel laws, has been left uncensored, allowing for its blossoming as both an alternative source of news and a forum for dissent ” something the mainstream media has not been able to do.

Malaysia’s rapid economic development has allowed Internet penetration to reach audiences that until recently had no access to free media. Indeed, in just one year between 2006 and 2007, the number of youth without access to the Internet dropped from 53% to 43% according to a Merdeka Center opinion poll.

With the rise of the Internet, news portals such as Malaysiakini have grown in prominence, as have sites such as malaysia-today.net and themalaysianinsider.com. Malaysiakini alone claims its articles are read by a half-million people per month ” an impressive figure for a country with a registered voting population of under 11 million people.

In addition to blogs and news portals, an incredible array of new and creative technologies have been used to spread views and opinions amongst a large number of people and at minimal cost. Groups such as votED on Facebook, viral videos, podcasts, e-mail mailing lists and short text messaging services have all joined the pantheon of emergent sources of news and political expression, almost all at odds with the mainstream media.

Inspired by the space created by the Internet for individuals to express themselves, the 2008 elections saw political control of news and information wrested away from the government for the first time, creating the conditions for a new political activism amongst ordinary Malaysian citizens to take root. Even the prime minister conceded “We thought that the newspapers, the print media, the television were more important, but young people were looking at text messages and blogs. We didn’t think it was important. It was a serious misjudgment” (New Straits Times, March 26, 2008).

There may have been no revolution in Malaysia in the traditional understanding of the term, but without a doubt, the Internet and the rise of an alternative media has ended the government monopoly on information. Indeed, the government has already announced a review and maybe an end to the licensing laws which require the media to apply for a new license annually, so forcing them to tread carefully lest they upset the government and have their license revoked. Such changes will in turn force a rethink of the government’s approach to dealing with citizen-state relations. If the government is unable to convince its citizens that its policies are the correct ones in the open media, it is through the Internet and new technologies that people will make sure their voices are heard.

Jeremy Gross is The Asia Foundation’s Election Program Manager in Indonesia. He can be reached at jeremy@tafindo.org.

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