How the Internet is molding public opinion in Malaysia

August 6th, 1999

At 9 pm on September 20, 1998, when masked policemen armed with submachine guns stormed into the home of Malaysia's sacked Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim, it was not the local television stations or even CNN which were the first to break the news of the historic arrest.

Just minutes after the arrest, an email alert from a supporter present at the house was sent out to newsgroups and discussion lists on the Internet, giving thousands of Malaysians access to vivid details of the events that night.

It signaled a crucial turning point in Malaysia's political landscape--the Internet had arrived.

Since then, both supporters and opposers of Anwar and his nascent Reformasi (reform) movement acknowledge the role that the Internet has played in shaping public opinion.

For the reformists, the Internet became one of the few avenues available where they could expose what they alleged were gross injustices and abuses of power. For government supporters, the Internet became a den of lies, rumors and slander aimed at tarnishing the country's image.

The use of the Internet as an alternative source of information and channel for public opinion in Malaysia is, however, not new.

Mailing lists, such as the Sangkancil Forum, had been actively discussing and debating current affairs for years prior to the incident.

When in September 1997, the country was cloaked in a choking haze from neighboring forest fires, at least six different Web sites sprouted almost overnight.

The sites provided Malaysians with daily air pollution readings, satellite maps of the forest fires, health advisories and even tips on how to wear protective masks properly--information sorely lacking in the traditional media during the initial stages of the environmental disaster.

Malaysians were to receive another taste of the Net's power last August.

A rumor, first started on the Internet, was to send city residents in a frenzy of provision-stocking panic. Machete-wielding Indonesian immigrants were said to be rioting in the Chow Kit district of capital city Kuala Lumpur.

One office worker recalls going home in a taxi and having to squeeze herself among literally hundreds of packets of instant noodles in the back seat of the terrified driver's vehicle.

In the end, the only machete-wielding Indonesians in the city were the fruit-sellers cutting open durians for hungry customers.

An alternative voice

The incident illustrated the unique dynamics of spreading the word on the Internet. Only a minority of Malaysians had access to the Internet in their homes and offices back then--less than half a million in a population of 22 million. But that minority triggered the many to spread the message by more traditional means--fax, phone and word-of-mouth.

The snowball effect that the Net triggered may have been partly due to the fact that bloody riots in neighboring Jakarta were still fresh in people's minds. But the manner in which the public lent credence to the rumors, some reasoned, was because traditional sources of information--whether the media or government--is distrusted.

The authorities came down hard on the four individuals they believed to be the original perpetrators of the electronic hoax. The message was clear--you could get into serious trouble on the Internet. But even this was not enough to stop the explosion on the Net that was to take place just the month after.

The sacking, arrest and subsequent beating of Anwar was to amplify public discontent like never before.

Just days after his sacking, a Web site called Anwar On-line, supporting Anwar's cause, had already been set up. This was to be the first of over 50 pro-Anwar Web sites that were to emerge in the following months.

"There was no other choice--all the media was against us, without exception," said the Web master of Anwar On-line who declined to reveal his identity. "The Web site's success was enormous. There weren't a lot of graphics, but access became slow because of the traffic. I didn't expect so many responses. People even thought the government was blocking the site!"

The speed with which the reformists embraced the Internet was in marked contrast to the government's use of the technology. More than three weeks after Anwar's sacking, the Prime Minister's own Web site still featured the photograph of his smiling ex-Deputy, complete with a glowing biography.

Related Internet forums received a flood of traffic and new subscribers, the bulk of postings being overwhelmingly pro-reform. New discussion lists emerged, and it was not unusual for the avid subscriber to receive up to 200 new messages in his email box daily in the early months following the sacking.

Like the Chow Kit rumor incident, the message spread far and wide, well beyond the computer screens of Malaysian netizens. Anwar's letters from prison, eyewitness accounts of demonstrations and foreign news reports of the political crisis were printed, photocopied, faxed and mailed out in the thousands.

Copies of Internet articles appeared in parts of rural Malaysia where there wasn't even power supply or telephone lines--let alone computers.

A British journalist described how pleasantly surprised he was to witness translated copies of an opinion piece he had written, available on the Internet and being distributed during a demonstration.

A government without walls

Ironically, the amazing success of the Internet as an alternative voice may have been prompted by misgivings on the coverage by mainstream media which adopted a blatantly pro-government stance and missed key elements in the entire episode as this was unfolding.

Malaysians decided they had had enough. This was not journalism. People needed to look elsewhere.

However, today, nearly a year later, the early euphoria has faded somewhat. Many of the 50 pro-reform sites show signs of neglect, with few being updated on a regular basis.

The Webmaster of Anwar On-line, which has lain dormant for a few months, said by way of an excuse that the Reformasi Web sites had already performed their primary function. "People were convinced a long time ago--the disgust with the system is already deep," he said.

Another Webmaster believed that the awareness stage was long past and people now just wanted to act, especially in the light of coming polls.

Malaysia must hold an election by next June but the government is widely expected to call a snap poll in the next few months as the economy recovers from recession. "The lines had already been drawn and people have firmly decided which side of it they are on. They are now just waiting to show it--in the elections," he said.

If anything, the Anwar incident was instrumental in stirring users into "discovering" various political Web sites, and inspiring site owners to keep them updated with new content.

Where the majority of Web sites previously were blatantly accusatory and insulting towards government leaders, the present active crop shows signs of a maturing independent and alternative media.

Free Malaysia, Saksi, The Malaysian and Aliran are examples of this emerging trend.

Mailing lists such as Berita Malaysia and Bungaraya have also garnered a loyal following.

Even the various opposition political parties now seem keenly aware of leveraging on the Net and keeping their Web sites updated. Democratic Action Party has a trilingual site, Parti Islam SeMalaysia has redesigned its site, while the homepage for Parti Keadilan Nasional, a new party led by Anwar's wife, is in constant flux.

The darkness within

Sadly, though, some supposedly pro-government Web sites that have emerged over the past few months are in reverse. One particular site, strangely called Adu Domba, urges the authorities to be "firm" with demonstrators, calling on police to "beat them half to death" and "shoot to kill". The Adu Domba site owners go so far as to suggest that police strip women demonstrators and rape them.

Another Web site advises users to email bombs to offending Webmasters and to provide a list of known targets. A zip file of the Avalanche email bombing software is conveniently available for download.

On the eve of the elections in the state of Sabah early this year, subscribers of opposition mailing lists found their mail boxes jammed with thousands of email calling on them to reject the opposition and to vote for the ruling party. Known opposition users have also found themselves on the receiving end of dozens of adult mailing lists mysteriously subscribed to by a third party.

The government, meanwhile, has been ambivalent on the role of the Internet, promising non-censorship as an economic drawcard, but criticizing it for creating political animosity.

Khalil Yaakob, on the day he was officially appointed Information Minister and Secretary General to dominant ruling party Umno, declared that his first task would be to counter "lies" posted on the Internet. A special panel of lawyers was formed to scrutinize content for possible legal action.

"The government continues to stumble disastrously in coming to terms with the Internet," said veteran journalist MGG Pillai in a posting on the popular Sangkancil Forum which he runs.

"It does not know how it works, nor how it can be used with effect to spread information, nor how it can be a useful armory in the cultural battle for the hearts and minds of the Malay community. Its opponents saw it as a practical tool to overcome the official and government control of the mass media and took to it like ducks to water."

Certainly, it would be very difficult for the government to influence public opinion in the Internet when their grasp of the technology is limited. Many official Web sites are rarely updated and do not display the sense of urgency and dynamics that make Web sites popular.

More importantly, the government seems to disdain the Net's penchant for free discourse, debate, and alternative views. Until that mental paradigm shift occurs, no amount of technology can make official propaganda sound more than what it really is--just official propaganda.

Attempts now to stifle the free voices of the Internet--with threats, harassment, lawsuits and even jail--will only prove that the Internet is hitting the government where it hurts. And that will certainly keep the online dissidents going.

Sabri Zain was a former journalist and corporate communication specialist for a technology company prior to switching to wildlife conservation. His present claim to fame arose from running a controversial diary on the Internet ranging from straight reporting to satire. Email us your comments.

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