Reformasi on the Internet

Mahathir vexed by his own Internet policy

March 30th, 1999

Chen May Yee,

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's ambition to build a wired society is receiving a big boost from an unexpected quarter: the supporters of his political nemesis.

Since Sept. 2 when the prime minister sacked his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, more than 50 Internet sites have sprouted to offer alternative views to Malaysia's progovernment mass media. The country's biggest Internet service provider, TMNet, says about 14,000 new subscribers have signed on each month since September, compared with about 9,000 before.

It is a telling reflection of Malaysia's biggest political crisis in more than a decade. The local media generally have tended to reflect the government's viewpoint in reporting Datuk Seri Anwar's sacking, arrest and trial. Now they are coming up against critics armed with computers in the tussle to shape public opinion.

Critics such as Sabri Zain. In September, when the local media went to town with reports that Datuk Seri Anwar was bisexual and an adulterer, as well as corrupt and a leaker of state secrets, Mr. Sabri decided he had had enough. "I was outraged. I thought, 'This is not journalism,' " says the 39-year-old Malaysian, an ex-journalist who now works for an environmental organization. He wasn't a fan of Datuk Seri Anwar before, he says, but the media onslaught "turned me over."

A Website Is Born

From the Internet, Mr. Sabri began collecting reports by foreign news agencies and e-mailing them to friends. Unlike much of the Malaysian media, these reports included the fallen politician's claim that he was framed by political enemies. Some stories also described the thousands of supporters thronging his house each night.

Inundated with requests to join his mailing list, Mr. Sabri set up a Web site, Berita Reformasi, or Reform News. It offers Internet links to news sources such as The Straits Times of Singapore, Indonesia's Kompas, Agence France-Presse and CNN International. Today, Berita Reformasi, which says it has received 178,934 visits as of Monday night, along with other reform sites have kept the Anwar issue simmering long after the government expected it to die. There are about 480,000 Internet subscribers among Malaysia's population of 22 million.

Datuk Seri Anwar, the charismatic Islamic youth leader whom Dr. Mahathir recruited into his ruling party in 1982, is in jail awaiting a court verdict on charges that he ordered police to cover up his sexual misconduct. Capitalizing on public dissatisfaction over the government's treatment of Datuk Seri Anwar, a hodgepodge of opposition parties and nongovernmental groups are now trying to hammer together a coalition for the next elections, which Dr. Mahathir must call before April 2000.

Speaking Out Online

Malaysia isn't the first place the Internet has challenged the rules -- from Beijing to Belgrade, dissidents and others have gone online to circumvent government censorship or simply get their message out. In Indonesia in May, university students used e-mail to help organize the mass protests that eventually deposed President Suharto.

Malaysia is slightly different, Internet observers note. Its steadier economy and stronger middle class means people are less likely to riot. They are more likely to have computers, and more likely to use English -- the primary language of the Internet -- due to Malaysia's British colonial history, says Bala Pillai, a 41-year-old Malaysian Internet business consultant based in Sydney. Hence the Internet is more effective in shaping opinion in Malaysia, says Mr. Pillai. He adds that visits to his site, which discusses current affairs, have jumped tenfold to about two million a month since September.

Other countries such as China and Singapore, monitor Internet content and block material they regard as dangerous. But Malaysia, which is striving to attract foreign investors to its new billion-ringgit high-tech development zone, the Multimedia Super Corridor, has guaranteed there won't be any Internet censorship. Dr. Mahathir recently reversed a directive for all customers of cybercafes to register their names and identification-card numbers after an international news magazine said that the directive, which was created to discourage visits to pornographic sites, had spooked foreign investors.

More Sites Pop Up

In Malaysia, major newspapers and television stations are either directly owned by the government or by business groups linked to the ruling coalition. As newspapers ran statements by cabinet ministers condemning Datuk Seri Anwar, the politician fought back by declaring his innocence on Anwar Online, a site that came into existence two days after his arrest.

When the New Straits Times reported on the business assets held by Datuk Seri Anwar's allies, a site called Crony-Net appeared, listing shares owned by individuals close to Dr. Mahathir. (The Webmaster culled his information from the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange's Web site.) And in a country where political cartoonists tread carefully, a modified Star Wars poster -- renamed AnWars -- began circulating by e-mail. Dr. Mahathir is portrayed as the black-hooded Emperor, Datuk Seri Anwar as a swashbuckling Han Solo, and his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail as the white-robed Princess Leia.

There is also a site for Dr. Wan Azizah's new Social Justice Movement, which has been set up to lobby for her husband's release. The group is awaiting official approval, so she can't legally publish a newsletter. Meantime her Web site lists the movement's aims, as well as dates and venues for meetings.

Mahathir's Project

It is Dr. Mahathir who is most responsible for making the Internet accessible to ordinary Malaysians. In 1996, the technology-loving premier launched the Multimedia Super Corridor, an ambitious plan to wire a strip of real estate with telecommunications powerful enough to support "smart" schools, a paperless government, telemedicine and a center for software development, among other things.

Though the recession has delayed some parts of the Multimedia Super Corridor project, industry titans such as Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. have so far pledged a total of 1.2 billion ringgit ($315.8 million) in investment. In 1997, the government launched a nationwide information-technology awareness campaign, complete with a jingle urging people to "Accept IT, Learn IT, Love IT, Use IT."

Malaysians are certainly using it, though perhaps not the way the prime minister envisaged. "I thought the Internet will be good for people to give opinions," Dr. Mahathir said recently, "but now it is being used to spread lies."

Room for Conflicting Views

There are three pro-Mahathir Web sites, and more than 50 pro-Anwar Web sites, according to an official from Malaysia's Information Ministry. A Web site launched by the ministry in December called Cetusan Rasa, or Burst of Feeling, to "show support to leaders and the government" has attracted about 54,000 messages; many critical of the government. A number of respondents have ignored a request to "Please use polite language."

"Just by looking at a reformasi site, you are making a statement that you reject the mainstream media," says Sumitra Visvanathan, 30, Webmaster of, or "Witness." Photographs and eyewitness accounts on Saksi of the 40,000 to 60,000 strong crowd that gathered in the capital to hear Datuk Seri Anwar the day he was arrested attracted 20,000 hits the day they were posted, says Ms. Visvanathan. She says Saksi isn't strictly a reform site: "We don't glorify Anwar and we don't just knock Mahathir."

Others are unabashedly partisan: "I am pro-Anwar," says the Webmaster of the Gerakan Reformasi, or Reform Movement, site. He says he would never post anything that might damage his hero's case.

Opting for Anonymity Webmasters acknowledge that you can't believe everything you read on these sites. One posting erroneously reported that Datuk Seri Anwar's teenage daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, had been arrested. "There is a lot of rubbish flowing out on both sides of the political fence," says Mr. Sabri, who uses his real name because he thinks it makes his reporting more credible.

Most other Webmasters prefer to remain anonymous, they say, for security reasons. In August, just before the Anwar crisis, three people were arrested for Internet "rumor-mongering." They were accused of spreading rumors of riots in Kuala Lumpur via e-mail and are currently on trial.

The Webmaster for Laman Reformasi through e-mail says that even his family and friends don't know what he does. Adds another, also via e-mail: "People from [police headquarters] are looking for people like us."

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