The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

Democracy on-line
August 6th, 1999

At 9:00 p.m. on September 20th, 1998, masked policemen armed with sub-machine guns stormed into the home of sacked Deputy Premier Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim. He was not to be seen again until weeks later, when he was produced in court, battered from the beating he received while under police custody. The arrest sparked violent street demonstrations never before seen in the country and ushered in a new age in Malaysian politics.

But it was not the local television stations or even CNN who were the first to break the news of this historic arrest to the Malaysian public. Just minutes after the arrest, an e-mail alert from a supporter present at the house was sent out to newsgroups and discussion lists on the Internet, giving thousands of Malaysians vivid details of the events that night.

The age of the Internet had arrived in Malaysian politics.

Up to today, both supporters and detractors of the Reformasi movement cannot deny the pivotal role that the Internet played in shaping public opinion in the months following the arrest. For the Reformists, the Internet was one of the few avenues available where they could expose what they regarded as gross injustices and abuses of power. For government supporters, the Internet became a den of lies, rumour 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. Internet discussion lists, such as the controversial MGG Pillai's Sangkancil Forum, had been actively discussing and debating current affairs for years. When the large forest fires of September 1997 cloaked the whole country in a choking haze, half a dozen different websites sprouted almost overnight, providing 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.

Potent power

Malaysians were to receive a taste of the power of the Net when, in August last year, an Internet rumour of riots by machete-wielding Indonesian immigrants taking place in the Chow Kit district of Kuala Lumpur sent city residents in a frenzy of panic. Office phone lines were jammed as worried people called their loved ones urging them to return home early in anticipation of the imminent bloodbath. Supermarkets were swamped with panic-driven shoppers buying enough food and provisions to last them through the expected months of emergency-rule curfew. An 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 taxi driver's vehicle.

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

But the Chow Kit rumour only illustrated the unique dynamics of spreading the word on the Internet. Only a minority of Malaysians have access to the Internet in their homes and offices - less than half a million in a population of 22 million. But that minority triggered thousands upon thousands of others to spread the message by more traditional means - fax, phone and word-of-mouth. The effect was a tidal wave of panic and fear.

There are probably many reasons for this. Memories of the bloody riots in Jakarta just three months before were still fresh in people’s minds. There are also those who think rumor mongering is an inherent trait of Malaysians. But it is a trait that can be found in any society where openness and transparency does not exist. Rumour flourishes in a society where traditional sources of information - whether it is the media or the government - are not credible or even disbelieved. More open and transparent government - and a media that is more free - will not eliminate rumours completely, but it can help prevent them.

The authorities certainly recognised the potent power of this technology by cracking hard on the individuals they believed to be the original perpetrators of the electronic hoax. They were initially detained under the draconian Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial, and only later charged under the Penal Code. The message was clear - you can get in 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.

Enormous success

Supporters of Anwar Ibrahim were quick to use the new technology. Just days after his sacking, a website supporting his cause had already been set up - Anwar On-line. This was to be the first of over 50 pro-Anwar websites that were to emerge in the following months.

“There was no other choice - all the media was against us, without exception,” says the webmaster of Anwar On-line who, for obvious reasons, declines to reveal his identity. “The website’s success was enormous. There weren’t a lot of graphics, but access became slow - I didn’t expect so many responses. People 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 Ibrahim’s sacking, the Prime Minister’s own website still featured the photograph of his smiling ex-Deputy, complete with a glowing biography and impressive tributes to the Premier’s nemesis.

The Internet discussion lists received thousands of new subscribers and a flood of traffic never before seen, with the vast bulk of postings being overwhelmingly pro-Reformist. New discussion lists emerged - Gerak-Net, Adil-Net, Anwarxtpm, Sedarlah - and it was not unusual for your typical subscriber to receive at least 200 new messages in their e-mail boxes every day in the early months following the sacking.

Like the Chow Kit phenomenon, the message spread far and wide, well beyond the computer screens of Malaysian Netizens. Anwar’s letters from prison, eyewitness accounts of demonstrations, 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 isn’t even electricity or telephone lines - let alone computers. A British journalist described how pleasantly surprised he was to witness a demonstration and see translated copies of an opinion piece he had written on the Anwar issue being distributed and eagerly grabbed by demonstrators. Blatant untruths

Ironically, the amazing success of the Internet as an alternative voice is probably due largely to the mainstream media. Opinions that are critical of the government and the ruling political parties are given little, if any, coverage in local newspapers and television stations. The constant fear of losing their publishing or broadcasting licenses hangs like a sword of Damocles over their heads every year when they have to renew them. But Malaysians have long been used to a cowed, docile media. What probably ‘turned over’ most people was the way the local media went into a veritable feeding frenzy of graphic reports about the depraved sodomite Anwar, the bloodthirsty Reformists and their evil foreign backers.

In their new-found zeal, blatant untruths became glaring. When tens of thousands of people gathered at the September 20th pro-Anwar demonstrations at the National Mosque, the media reported only “a few thousand”. Later, there was a demonstration by women's groups and NGOs. A local paper said that they were paid prostitutes. An official police statement denying the allegation did not see the light of day. Violent beatings by police of dozens of demonstrators on the streets, in open daylight, went largely unreported - despite live coverage by foreign television crews and the vivid eyewitness accounts spread via the Internet, the opposition press and the word-of-mouth.

It seemed an insult to the intelligence of all Malaysians and many people decided they had had enough. This was not journalism. People needed to look elsewhere.

The lines have been drawn

Today, nearly a year after Anwar’s sacking, many of the 50 pro-Reformasi websites that emerged out of the crisis lie dormant, with only a dozen or so being updated on a regular basis. But webmasters are quick to point out that this is not an indication that the cause is dead. The webmaster of Anwar On-line, which has not been updated for a few months now, said that the Reformasi websites had already performed their prime function. “People were convinced a long time ago - the disgust with the system is already deep.” Another webmaster believed that the awareness stage had long past and people now just wanted to act - especially in the light of coming polls. “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.”

While the quantity of Reformasi websites may have decreased, this has been more than made up for by their quality. Where the majority of websites previously merely hurled accusations and insults at government leaders, current active websites such as Free Malaysia and The Malaysian actually feature well-researched, analytical and though-provoking articles on a wide range of social, political and economic issues.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the twenty or so pro-government websites that have suddenly emerged over the past few months. One particular site, strangely called Adu Domba, urged the authorities to be “firm” with demonstrators, calling on police to “beat them half to death” and “shoot to kill”. The gentle folks at Adu Domba even suggested police strip women demonstrators and rape them. Another pro-government website advised loyal Malaysians to e-mail bomb Reformist webmasters, even helpfully providing a list of known targets. A zip file of the Avalanche e-mail bombing software was conveniently available for download.

This was obviously not an empty threat, as sporadic e-mail bombing attacks have been experienced by subscribers to Reformist discussion lists such as Gerak-Net and ADIL-Net. The worst occurred on the eve of the elections in the state of Sabah early this year, when subscribers’ mail boxes were jammed and crippled for days by an average of about 7,000 e-mails a day calling on them to reject the Opposition and vote for the ruling party. Spamming has also occurred in the form of people being mysteriously subscribed to dozens of adult mailing lists!

Government counter-offensive

How much of this guerrilla warfare is state-sponsored and how much of it is merely personal animosity is not known - but the government certainly still views the Internet as a major threat. On the day he was officially appointed UMNO Secretary-General and Minister of Information last May, Tan Sri Khalil Yaakob declared that his first task would be to dispel “rumours” posted on the Internet. UMNO has formed a special panel of lawyers to counter the Internet offensive, but they still seem to have a rather laughable understanding of the medium and technology. Panel Chairman Datuk Ibrahim Ali last June accused Reformasi websites of being funded by foreign powers, each costing over RM90,000 to develop and maintain. He even managed to cunningly track these down to the United States! In actual fact, most of them are located on completely free web-hosting services such as Geocities, Tripod and Xoom. Most of these are naturally physically located in the US - though the actual webmaster may be in a student flat in Kuala Lumpur!

An earlier attempt by the government to use the Internet to win the hearts and minds of Malaysians very graphically demonstrated the authorities’ ignorance of its users. A website launched by the Ministry of Information in December called Cetusan Rasa or ‘burst of emotion’ very rapidly became exactly that. Intended to allow loyal Malaysians to “show their support to our leaders and our government”, in a matter of days, it attracted over 50,000 messages criticising the government and reviling its leaders. Respondents ignored a hastily added request on the website to “please use polite language”. To their credit, the Ministry did not take the website off, despite the flood of abuse.

Official propaganda

“The government continues to stumble disastrously in coming to terms with the Internet,” MGG Pillai told the Sangkancil Forum last June. “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 armoury 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 seems poorer than that of a schoolboy with a free Geocities website. Some government websites do have pretty pictures, stunning Java effects and dazzling design - but little in terms of good content. And whatever content they do have is rarely updated. Much of it is cosmetic and also displays little of the sense of urgency and dynamics that made the pro-reformasi websites so popular.

More importantly, the government must understand the basic concept of free discourse and debate. Having a 100 websites and 100 writers posting to every newsgroup and list server is useless if the content that is posted is no different from the official propaganda found in the newspapers. For the government to make its presence more credible on the Net, it must be willing to be more transparent, more open to criticism, freely admitting mistakes when they occur and more willing to accept alternative ideas. Until that mental paradigm shift occurs, no amount of technology can make official propaganda sound more than what it really is - just official propaganda.

In all fairness, it is difficult for government to gain credibility on the Net - not just the Malaysian government, but any government or symbol of authority. The nature of the Internet - its structure, its dynamics, its culture, its philosophy, its psychology - will always favour the dissident. But even if the government cannot compete with the dissidents on the Net, it doesn't really need to.

The Internet is popular because it is perceived as a more credible source of information and opinion than the newspapers or television. The solution is therefore blindingly simple - make the newspapers and television more credible. Give them the freedom to criticise, to air alternative views, to question and to play watchdog. Look what happened to Harakah - it was the bastion of the free press and circulation skyrocketed - until other alternative newspapers such as Eksklusif and Warta KL came along.

But what do the powers-that-be do? They pump even more propaganda into the mainstream media and now the feeding frenzy has started yet again. They shoot their mouths off - and are ending up themselves shooting in the foot.

And they silence the opposition. Fortunately, any attempts now to stifle the free voices of the Internet - with threats or harassment or lawsuits or even jail - will only prove that the Internet is hitting the government where it hurts. And that will certainly keep the on-line Reformists going.

The author maintains his own Reformasi Diary website at . It did not cost him RM90,000 to set up and run.