Will Social Media Sway Malaysia’s Elections?

Politicians are becoming media savvy in Malaysia, using Twitter, Facebook and Youtube to appeal to netizens.

Malaysia is gearing up for a general election in six months and as the campaigns enter the crucial voter-courting phase many observers are wondering if the political ‘tsunami’, which severely weakened the ruling National Front coalition (BN) at the 2008 polls, might be repeated.

That political tidal wave – which stripped the BN of its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time since independence and handed five state governments over to the opposition – was precipitated by the spread of Internet-based social media as a campaigning tool, harnessed primarily by the opposition.

“In 2008 neither the government nor opposition expected the result they got,” Ramanathan Sankaran, author of ‘Media, Democracy and Civil Society’, told IPS.

The proliferation of independent websites and blogs such as Malaysia Today and Malaysiakini rendered the ruling coalition’s propaganda machinery less effective during the electoral race, as formidable opponents appeared in the crucial arena of cyberspace.

“Six or seven bloggers, who had been unknown (to most of the ruling coalition) got into parliament. It shocked the BN,” Sankaran added.

Three of these bloggers have now become well-known opposition figures in Malaysia. Former human rights activist and environmental campaigner Elizabeth Wong is now the minister for Tourism, Consumer Affairs and the Environment in the opposition-ruled Selangor state government that covers the capital Kuala Lumpur.

Tony Pua, who defeated a BN parliamentary secretary candidate to win the Petaling Jaya federal constituency, is now the “shadow minister” for Higher Education in the federal parliament.

Meanwhile Jeff Ooi, who won a state assembly seat in Penang, clinching another crucial win for the opposition in 2008, has taken the reigns as senior aide to the Chief Minister.

“One of the first things (then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad) Badawi said when the results came out was ‘we lost the Internet war. We didn’t realise that was important. We relied too much on mainstream media’,” recalled Steven Gan, editor of the leading alternative news website Malaysiakini.

“When (current Prime Minister) Najib Tun Razak came to power in 2009 there was substantial focus on the Internet. He set up his own Facebook (account), along with other politicians, and he is tweeting as well.”

The Prime Minister also has a website called ‘1 Malaysia’ which is updated daily. According to Sankaran, Razak has instructed other ministers and senior government officials to make good use of the Internet and respond to emails within 48 hours.

Even the former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has set up his own blog, ‘Blogging to Unblock’, whose comments are regularly picked up by the mainstream and alternative media.

And long-term opposition member in federal parliament, Lim Kit Siang, who first entered parliament in 1969 and is currently the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party’s parliamentary leader, has his own blog through which he has been relentlessly attacking the government on corruption issues for several months.

Nudged by the outcome of the 2008 election, “BN made a concerted move to (mobilise) its own cyber-troopers,” Gan told IPS.

According to Sankaran, BN’s determination to learn from past mistakes is reflected in their decision to field Kamalananthan Panchanathen, a young Internet-savvy candidate, for the seat of Hulu Selangor, an electorate with a large Indian population.

The 40-year-old blogger won back the seat in the by-election of 2010 “partly because of his appeal to young (netizens), and he now has his own website,” Sankaran added.

“The government has opened up the Internet (to encourage better governance),” he added.

Prominent Malaysian political commentator Chandra Muzzafar, a former political ally of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, agrees that the Internet will play an important role in coming elections. “It will be a major actor in some constituencies and controlling it is difficult,” he told IPS.

Censorship rears its head

But along with the government’s attempt to become more media savvy ahead of the elections has come a desire to curtail the freedoms allowed to other social media practitioners and rights groups who utilise these channels to spread their message to civil society.

On Sep. 13, the independent Star newspaper reported that the prominent human rights group SUARAM was being investigated by the Home Ministry and five government agencies, including the Registrar of Societies, on allegations that they received funds from the Open Society Foundation (OSF), whose chairman is international financial speculator George Soros.

SUARAM’s membership includes a number of opposition MPs linked to Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party (PKR). The rights group has waged a long anti-corruption crusade against the government.

Government-controlled media reported that investigations by the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry found three letters addressed to SUARAM dated 2007, 2008 and 2010, detailing grants amounting to nearly 189,000 dollars from the OSF.

“Civil society is now continuously portrayed in the media as the enemy who is seeking to overthrow the government at the behest of foreign powers. These accusations have also been hurled at BERSIH (the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections), more so since July last year when we had a successful rally of more than 50,000 people on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, clamouring for clean and fair elections,” Ambiga Sreenevasan, co-chair of BERSIH, said in a commentary published by ‘Malaysian Insider’ last week.

Another alternative media outfit that has been consistently accused of receiving funds from Soros is Malaysiakini.

“While we are non-partisan that doesn’t mean we are apolitical. We are very political. We cover issues we feel strongly about such as corruption, press freedom and human rights,” Gan said in an interview with IPS.

“We will speak for people who do not have access to mainstream media. We speak for the voiceless, those who suffer human rights abuses that are not covered properly by mainstream media. That has always been our position. People see us as pro-opposition because we cover those issues,” he added.

Internet – or economy?

But though active netizens are breaking the government’s “monopoly on truth”, and the powerful Reformasi movement – comprised of a Malay core and based on exposing corruption and abuse of power within the government – is on the rise, experts like Muzzafar believe BN will have an easy victory at the polls.

He believes the economy will be the key factor in determining the outcome of the election. The Malaysian economy is currently strong and stable. Unemployment is at a low 2.7 percent as of August 2012, gross domestic product (GDP) growth was 5.6 percent in the second quarter of 2012 and industrial production was up by 4.9 percent in September 2012, according to the Department of Statistics.

Though Malaysia enjoys a strong alternative media network, a vibrant NGO sector and a robust opposition – the three ingredients necessary to topple a ruling government – Gan believes that BN will win on account of their huge state machinery and state funds – the government’s television and radio networks, along with the government-controlled mainstream newspapers, have a huge influence on Malay rural voters who form the backbone of the electorate.

And though the opposition has been targeting young voters, the recent nationwide university elections don’t augur well. According to Star, Pro-Aspirasi, a group widely seen to be pro-establishment and pro-government, “won big” in elections at 8 out of 15 public universities on Sep. 25.