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MEDIA-MALAYSIA: Bloggers On Opposition Benches

Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne

SINGAPORE, Mar 12 2008 (IPS) - The presence of five bloggers on opposition benches in Malaysia’s newly elected parliament must be galling for the ruling National Front (NF) coalition, which was returned to power in Saturday’s general elections minus its long-held two-thirds majority.

Internationally renowned blogger Jeff Ooi, a 52-year-old former advertising copywriter, won a seat in the western island state of Penang, while Oxford University economics graduate Tony Pua, 34, claimed a seat in the bustling Kuala Lumpur suburb of Petaling Jaya with over a majority of over 19,000 votes. Both were candidates of the left-leaning Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Wining seats in state parliaments for the multi-racial Parti Kadilan Rakyat (PKR) were prominent bloggers Nik Azmi Nik Ahmed and Elizabeth Wong, a noted human rights activist and media reforms advocate. Tian Chua, a former political prisoner under the notorious Internal Security Act, was another claimant to a seat in the national parliament.

The only prominent blogger who lost a fight was Badrul Hisham Shaharin, who contested a semi-rural constituency south of Kuala Lumpur and lost to Khairy Jamaluddin, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s controversial son-in-law.

Prem Chandran, chief of the Internet news portal Malaysiakini, argues that the Internet had a major influence on the election outcome because the issues which make a difference, such as corruption and interference in the judiciary, were only carried on news sites like theirs.

There were large swings in urban and semi-urban areas, especially (to opposition) among first-time young voters, Chandran told IPS. Internet, he said, allowed political parties to reach out to a very important constituency which was non-existent in previous elections.

Raja Petra Kamaruddin, owner of, argues that the Internet’s biggest contribution was to get the middle-class to the ballot box. The opposition is infested with bloggers noted Raja Petra in an interview with Singapore’s ‘Strait Times’.

Alternative media cured the apathy the middle-class has. They were no longer saying: ‘’Let’s not bother. Suddenly, it was let’s go and give the opposition a chance.’’

Denying the NF (or Barisan Socialis) coalition two-thirds majority in the national parliament, which the party enjoyed for the past 40 years, is seen as a major victory for the opposition. The opposition also won majorities in five state parliaments, an act never before accomplished in Malaysia. Nationally, the government won only 51 percent of the vote and in fact would have lost the elections if not for the slew of seats they retained in the eastern Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah.

It was direct access to the Internet in urban areas – ironically, because of the government’s policy of developing a Multimedia Super Corridor – that allowed urban voters to access information not available in the government-controlled mainstream media.

Chandran pointed out that apart from the Internet, the use of SMS (telephone text messages) and photocopiers took information rural electorates, bridging the digital divide. He also said that Malaysiakini’s Internet-streamed television programmes were copied on to VCDs and circulated for viewing in rural homes (where VCD machines are popular).

More than the Internet, SMSs played a critical role in spreading the opposition message, says Sankaran Ramanathan, managing partner of Media Plus Research Consultants. Because rural people now have mobile phones, it was easy to break the urban-rural barrier.

"There were Internet groups which exchanged messages via e-mail, especially among the Hindu (Indian minority) community… I know at least half a dozen users," Ramanathan told IPS. "They were not registered organisations and were urban based. There were similar groups among the (minority) Chinese community," he added.

Ramanathan pointed out that both the information minister and his deputy were beaten by opposition candidates promoted by the Internet media.

Though Malaysia’s mainstream newspapers, radio and television, are mainly private-owned, their licenses are held by business people closely connected with the constituent parties of the NF.

But analysts argue that the poor reputation that Malaysia’s newspapers have, as mouthpieces of coalition parties, worked against them, and in favour of alternative media.

Malaysian mainstream media are directed and constrained by two interrelated entities; the state and the market, argues Zaharom Nain, associated professor of communication studies at the Science University of Malaysia. Through direct and indirect ownership there tends to be collusion between the state and the market.

What the alternative media has done, according to Nain, is improvise communication systems using a combination of the Internet, mobile phones, blogs, e-mails, SMS and the YouTube. They were not only used effectively by opposition parties but also by civil society to raise consciousness and create awareness, he noted.

Chandran feels the government may now be tempted to impose sanctions on the Internet media to protect them from further damage as Singapore has done. They have a tough decisions ahead of them, Chandran said, adding that it was best if they adopted path of reform by opening up the media and cracking down on corruption – changes that people obviously want.

Ramanathan believes that the government will not take to the repressive path simply because they have already tried to take bloggers to courts, without much success, and failed in its attempts to police the Internet.

Gayathri Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Centre for Independent Journalism, believes that with five opposition-led state governments taking office in Malaysia it was now possible to completely reform the media scene.

‘’State governments can allocate grants and other financial support for communities to have their own newspapers and media, paving the way for more diverse and dynamic expression of views and exchange of information,’’ she said.

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