Elaine Leong (Malaysia, AC07-09)
March 8 marked a dramatic turn in Malaysia’s political history when the Opposition (the People’s Alliance) denied the National Front (Barisan Nasional) a two-thirds majority in the 2008 General Election. Some even went so far as to call it the “Malaysian Revolution”; indeed, it was a result that not only dealt a massive blow to the National Front which has been in power since Malaysia’s independence 50 years ago but also sent shockwaves throughout the country: for the first time in history, not one, but five prominent Malaysian bloggers were voted into the Parliament.
A lot has been said about the Internet’s role in American politics over the last six months, but the Malaysian general election has probably seen the most dramatic effect the Internet has had on politics so far. Although mainstream media in Malaysia is privately owned, their licenses are held by those closely connected to the constituent parties of the National Front. Over time, this has given the mainstream media a bad reputation as mouthpieces of the National Front. Public dissatisfaction with what they see as censored and controlled news, coupled with the rise of blogs and Youtube, were used effectively by the Opposition to campaign against the National Front.
Prem Chandran, chief of the Internet news portal Malaysiakini argues that the Internet has made such an impact because issues that make a difference, such as corruption and interference in the judiciary were only carried on news sites like Malaysiakini. Raja Petra Kamaruddin, owner of Malaysia-today.net feels that the Internet’s biggest contribution was to get the middle class to the voting ballots. According to an interview by Singapore’s Strait Times, Raja Petra argues that the middle class were no longer saying “let’s not bother”. Suddenly, it was “let’s go and give the opposition a chance.”
There appears to be truth in his words. There were large swings in urban and rural areas to the favour of the opposition especially amongst first-time young voters. The five prominent bloggers who gained parliamentary seats were internationally renowned blogger Jeff Ooi, Oxford graduate Tony Pua, Elizabeth Wong, Nik Azmi Nik Ahmed and Tian Chua (a former political prisoner). The only prominent blogger who lost was Badrul Hisham Shaharin, and he lost to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s controversial son-in-law.
Jeff Ooi and Tony Pua both blogged live from the Parliament on the 28th of April. Quoting from the Star newspaper, Jeff Ooi explained, “I did it because there was a long list of MPs waiting to be sworn in and I had ample time to do it. One cannot stop information, it is flowing every second.”
Ironically, it was the government’s policy of developing a Multimedia Super Corridor that allowed urban voters access to information not available in government-controlled mainstream media. To reach out to the rural areas, SMS (text messages) and Malaysiakini’s Internet-streamed television programmes which were then copied onto discs were used.
Nationally, the government only won 51% of the vote and would have lost the elections if not for the eastern states of Sarawak and Sabah. Whether or not the Opposition manages to do a better job than the current government remains to be seen, but it has certainly given some Malaysians a reason to be optimistic.
What cannot be denied is the phenomenal impact the Internet has had on the last Malaysian General Election, but it must be kept in mind that what is read on the Internet be it written by a prominent blogger or not may not necessarily be accurate. As Lee Yun-Ni put it, “Most blogs are set up by people who are so emotionally worked up by the lack of freedom in the mainstream media that they tend to have a biased opinion; what we need is a completely neutral media to compromise this.”
It may not be impossible with five opposition-led state governments taking office in Malaysia to completely reform the media scene. For the moment, the Malaysian political scene still lies in uncertainty.
– United World College Student Magazine –