Reigning in the Internet? The Malaysian dilemma

The Durian

For all its polished public relations and glitzy tourism advertisements Malaysia is far from the shining example of a multi-cultural harmonious and thriving democracy. Indeed scholars of Southeast Asian politics have for over two decades categorized Malaysia as an illiberal democracy, a semi-democracy or an example of electoral authoritarianism. Freedom House, the Washington D.C. based think-tank and advocacy group has consistently designated the country as ‘partly free’ in its annual ‘Freedom in the World’ reports.   Nowhere is this more apparent than in the country’s print and television media where a combination of legislative checks, and the concentration of media ownership in a small number of companies that are linked to the state and/or the ruling National Front coalition, ensures that the media is at best shackled and at worst compliant.  By way of an indication the France-based advocacy group Reporters without Borders has consistently placed Malaysia among the worst performing 25-33 percent of countries in its press freedom index in the last decade. Furthermore whereas between 2002-2006 the trend was toward greater freedom, since 2007 there has been a notable reverse. In its most recent report for 2010 Malaysia was placed 141st out of 178 behind Russia and even its equally authoritarian neighbor Singapore!
Blogger Jeff Ooi elected to parliament in 2008
for the opposition Democratic Action Party
The curious exception to this has been the country’s online media, which has thrived, and matured into a vibrant alternative source of analysis, information, and comment. The online newspaper Malaysiakini has become one of the most widely read and trusted sources of independent news both in the country and across the region while a veritable army of bloggers have emerged over the past five years themselves becoming widely influential. Indeed in the momentous 2008 general election which saw the ruling coalition lose its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time since 1969, two of the country’s most prominent bloggers were elected to parliament, while a further three were elected to state assemblies.
The reason for this seeming contradiction lies in the fact that in the 1990 former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad launched a much-vaunted mega-project called the Multimedia Super Corridor.  A quasi-industrial park with dedicated high-speed Internet access the MSC sought to attract foreign high-tech investment not just by offering tax breaks, but also by ensuring in its Bill of Guarantees that the government would not censor the Internet.  Much to the chagrin of the government the Internet blossomed in Malaysia from a cacophony of accusatory diatribes into a trusted source of information, and this was long before Facebook and Twitter burst onto the scene. In the 1998 elections students were printing off articles and comments from Malaysiakini, The Free Anwar Campaign (then led by Raja Petra Kamarudin who would later become a prominent anti-government blogger), and various websites of opposition political parties, photocopying those articles and distributing them across the country when they would travel home to their families and friends in areas of the country where the internet had yet to penetrate. A decade latter and the impact would be even greater. Reading the official media in the election campaign of 2008 one would have hardly thought the opposition Pakatan Rakyat was a credible force so triumphant was the coverage of the successes of the government and so limited the coverage of opposition figures and their policies (relegated to extremely brief descriptive stories at best and stinging critique at worst). When early results indicated the scale of the opposition’s success in 2008 the official media went largely silent not knowing how to respond resulting in hundreds of thousands flocking to Malaysiakini for information, overloading the site with traffic and forcing the organization to quickly launch multiple mirror sites.
Prominent blogger and
government critic
Raja Petra Kamarudin
Increasingly however the patience of the Malaysian government has worn ever thinner. In September 2008 prominent blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin was arrested under the controversial Internal Security Act that allows detention without trial and held for almost two months. In recent weeks the government announced that they were exploring whether to pass amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act which requires all publications to apply for an annual permit from the Home Ministry which can be refused, revoked or suspended at the minister’s discretion without judicial review.  This news provoked an outcry from the country’s bloggers, including several who are actual members of the United Malays National Organization that dominates the ruling coalition.  Instead the government has moved to issue new guidelines to the country’s Sedition Act, which prohibits prompting disaffection with the administration of justice in Malaysia or of sensitive subjects such as special privileges for the dominant Malay ethnic group, the citizenship of non-Malays, the status of Islam as official religion etc. These new guidelines, which will be published in the next few days, will directly target bloggers.