The pen is mightier than the sword

Raja Petra Kamarudin

This is what The Star reported on 28 December 2005:

Some four million eligible voters, which forms almost a third of the country’s voters, have not registered themselves with the Election Commission. Its chairman Tan Sri Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman said, so far, only 10.3 million had registered as voters while another four million had not.

This is what Jason Lee Miller said on 27 December 2005 in an article called ‘One billion web users need better websites’:

Some time this year, the number of Internet users reached one billion — billion with a ‘B’. If you count to one billion at one number per second, it would take you over 31 years to finish. It has taken the Internet 36 years to count that high, says web usability expert and former Sun Microsystems engineer Dr. Jakob Nielsen.

The next 10 years will bring the second billion, growing at an annual rate of 18 percent, and will include unprecedented numbers from Asia and senior citizens — and that has huge implications in e-commerce.

Statistically, says Nielsen, the one-billionth online user was a 24-year-old woman in Shanghai. Only 23 percent come from North America, leaving 24 percent in Europe and 36 percent in Asia. By 2015, though accounting for nearly one-third of e-commerce, North Americans will consist of only 15 percent of Internet users.

And this is what the National Registration Department told The Sun on 27 December 2005:

About 1.2 million Malaysians have yet to apply for the MyKad smart card identification for which the deadline for free application is Saturday.

Deputy Home Minister Datuk Tan Chai Ho said no extension would be given after Dec 31 for those wanting to apply for free.

“From next year onwards, you will have to pay for the smart cards. However, the charges have yet to be fixed.

“It will probably be between RM20 and RM50,” he told The Sun.

He added Home Minister Datuk Azmi Khalid was expected to make an announcement on the MyKad fees next week.

Tan said to date about 16.8 million Malaysians out of the 18 million eligible have either converted to or applied for MyKad.

Yes, those are the statistics.

There are more than 10 million registered voters now. If all eligible voters register, it would increase to more than 14 million. The Election Commission is currently conducting a study to explore the possibility of online registration to rope in those 4 million eligible voters yet to register as voters.

Note the increase. And note that the Election Commission is attempting to now use the internet to register new voters (which means the EC is confident these voters are internet users).

In the November 1999 general election, the number of registered voters was only around 8 million while in March 2004 it increased 25% to 10 million (and 1999 itself saw an increase of 25% over the election before that). Once the additional 4 million new voters have been registered, the increase now would be roughly 40%.

By 2007 or 2008, when the next general election is due to be held, there should be about 16-17 million registered voters in all. Based on the normal voter turnout, about 12 million Malaysians — or about half of Malaysia’s 25 million population — would probably come out to vote.

A 12 million voter turnout is an increase of 50% over the last general election in 2004 and double the 1999 general election before that.

The National Registration Department in turn said that 18 million Malaysians should by now own identity cards known as MyCard. Of course, not all these 18 million are of voting age (as you need to apply for an identity card once you reach the age of 12). But they certainly would be voters two general elections from now (say in 2012-2013) — and for sure a large percentage would be by the next general election in 2007 or 2008 (say 16 million or thereabouts).

16 million voters is a lot of voters. Now, let us relate this 16 million to the number of internet users.

There are currently 6 million Malaysians subscribed with the various internet service providers. About 10% of these are Broadband subscribers and Broadband subscribers are increasing at the rate of 1,000 per day. With computers nowadays so cheap, plus the campaigns being conducted by the internet service providers and the cheap internet access (even for Broadband), it is expected that the number of internet subscribers will touch 9-10 million by 2007/2008 with 15-20% of them using Broadband. (And note the difference between ‘subscribers’ and ‘users’ because there are more users than subscribers).

9-10 million internet subscribers to 15-16 million registered voters to a 12-13 million voter turnout — that is what we should expect to see come the next election. Of course, not every registered voter uses the internet and not every internet user is old enough to vote. There would certainly be some internet users who will not be voting, or voters who have never touched a computer in their life. What we need to do now (which the political parties need to do) is to survey the percentage of overlap. How many voters are also internet users? Is it 70%? Is it 80%? Whatever it is, it certainly is more than half.

Like it or not, the internet is not only here to stay but the usage is increasing in leaps and bounds. Political parties had better not ignore the internet for they do so at their own peril. In fact, 1999 proved that the internet helped the Reformasi Movement to a very great extent. If the Reformasi Movement had been born a few years earlier, before the internet age, it would have fizzled out in mere months.

In the November 1999 general election, the number of internet subscribers in Malaysia totalled less than 400,000. Now, in just six years, it is 6 million. Though the number of registered voters since 1999 increased only 66%, the number of internet subscribers has increased 14 times.

What this means, therefore, is that the medium to reach the majority of the voters would be the internet. But political parties, in particular the opposition parties, do not seem to realise this. The ruling party, of course, does not need the internet too much because it controls the radio and television stations, which reach the homes of about 97% of the population — and every voter listens to the radio or watches TV. Therefore its message can be delivered directly to the homes of the voters. But the opposition does not have the luxury or benefit of radio and TV, so the internet is certainly the next best thing.

You may argue that the opposition supporters go to ceramahs (political rallies). Sure, only 3% of the voters do. And only 150,000 or so buy and read opposition publications such as Harakah; even worse for DAP and keADILan whose party organs sell below break-even point and can hardly cover their operating cost let alone make any profit. Anyway, ceramahs and party organs preach to the already converted so you are not really gaining any new ground here. You need to reach the uncommitted, the fence-sitters, those still undecided who to vote for.

But the opposition is not doing this. In fact, the many alternative, independent or opposition mediums are at war with each other. Take Malaysia Today as one example. Malaysia Today is viewed by independent blogs like Jeff Ooi’s Screenshots, Harakah, the party organ of PAS, Suara Keadilan, Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s official newspaper, and so on, as the enemy.

Tian Chua, the Information Chief of keADILan, has issued a press statement distancing the party from Malaysia Today. Zunar, the Editor of Suara Keadilan, has issued a warning to his journalists to not cooperate with Malaysia Today; or face sacking if they do. One Suara Keadilan journalist who persisted in sharing news with Malaysia Today was forced to resign on 1 January 2006. Malaysia Today is to be starved of information about the party.

When Anwar Ibrahim threw a Hari Raya party at his home recently for members of the media, everyone, even those from the mainstream media who are hostile towards the opposition parties, was invited. Malaysia Today was not. Malaysia Today is too small and insignificant to be treated as a serious news organ, never mind that its readership exceeds that of The New Straits Times and its daily hits far exceed that of the top blogs in Malaysia.

I have submitted countless articles to Harakah but they refuse to publish them because I am viewed as critical of the opposition (in particular of PAS’ Islamic State). They will only publish articles that say nice things about the opposition. Since August 2004, I stopped sending Harakah any articles and chose instead to start my own ‘news’ site — this one called Malaysia Today — where I am free to speak my mind and practice freedom of expression which the opposition screams about but does not allow.

The opposition needs to get its act together. It needs to harness the power of the internet. It needs to understand that the media war needs to be coordinated and cooperation is required amongst the many alternative media channels. Those who speak freely must not be perceived as the enemy. Freedom of expression is what the opposition is fighting for and this must include freedom to criticise the opposition as well, not just freedom to criticise the government.

Malaysia Today is not an opposition organ. It offers the alternative view. And the alternative view could be that which is against the government or against the opposition. The government has learnt to accept this. The opposition is yet to come to terms with this.

Come the next election, the voters will turn to the internet for its source of alternative views. Unless the opposition realises this, then it is going to lose the media war. The internet is all that the opposition has. It did well in 1999 using the power of the internet though the number of internet users was still very small then. By 2004 though, it lost out in the internet war. It would probably remain the same come the next election in 2007 or 2008.

The opposition thinks it lost the election because of phantom voters. Think again. It lost because it went to sleep. And it is still sleeping till now. And Malaysia Today is here to wake them up — though the messages in Malaysia Today may not be very pleasant to the ears.