December 10th, 1999
By Julian Matthews
KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia had its first elections ever in which there was finally a medium beyond government control--the Internet. But did the Net play any part in helping people decide who to vote for?
When the results of Malaysia's 10th general elections were coming in on the night of November 29, one stunning outcome that appeared on the Internet even before results were announced by the mainstream media was the defeat of opposition leader Lim Kit Siang in Penang.
It was ironic that the Internet was to be bearer of news sounding the death knell for the parliamentary career of the long-time Democratic Action Party stalwart. Lim is an ardent advocate of the medium and frequent poster to his party's Web site and various newsgroups.
The DAP called its campaign an "e-campaign" and urged supporters to download party material from its Web site, photocopy and circulate them to friends and neighbors, and even solicited for desperately needed funding online--believed to be a first for any political party in Malaysia.
But all the party's cyber-campaigning seemed to have come to nought on polling day. Lim lost both his parliamentary and state seats and, along with party chairman Chen Man Hin and deputy chairman Karpal Singh, found himself without a mandate or platform to voice dissent.
DAP's loss paved the way for Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), another early Internet adopter, to emerge as the dominant opposition party when it won 27 seats in parliament, retaining the northeastern state of Kelantan as well as capturing neighboring Terengganu.
"Technology is seen as a panacea for a weak or indifferent organization. That came through starkly in this general election," said veteran journalist and political observer MGG Pillai. "The opposition parties were into information technology in a big way, but the only party to use it well was PAS. It is not enough to be seen to be IT savvy. You must use it as part of your overall plan," said Pillai who runs popular discussion list Sang Kancil.
Indeed, the elections was Malaysia's first in which the Internet, computers and technology made an impact on the campaign trail.
The Election Commission sold CD-ROMs of the list of voters instead of hard copies, and offered a Web-based checking service. Various political parties on both sides offered their manifestos, candidate lists and news updates on their Web sites.
One candidate on a Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) ticket handed out about 3,000 VCDs of himself, interspersed with scenes of how he had improved his constituency. The novel idea seemed to have worked for incumbent assemblyman Freddie Long Hoo Hin who retained his Stulang state seat in Johore, beating a DAP candidate.
The online editions of newspapers Utusan Malaysia and The Star devoted whole sections for the elections with scorecards and special news coverage, while alternative media Web sites and various discussion lists filled with a flurry of postings.
The Star Online, one the largest Malaysian online publications, claimed one million pageviews on the day after the elections when it posted the most updated official election results. Compared to its usual monthly pageview count of about 10 million, the spike was telling.
The fact that the newpaper's editors decided to upload some stories prior to the next day's print edition, and even posted an audio excerpt of National Front chairman Dr Mahathir Mohamad's victory speech, suggested a willingness to explore the real-time and multimedia value of the medium.
Need for online media watch
Alternative news sites also came to fore, pulling in readers hungry for differing views.
Fledgling news site, Malaysiakini.com, registered 250,000 cumulative hits in its first 10 days leading up the polls, with a high of 75,000 hits on polling day.
Editor Steven Gan said he sees a day when alternative Internet media may eventually become a mainstay in influencing public opinion. "As more and more people go online, the Internet will become one of the main mediums of public discourse. Politicians ignore it at their own peril. Cyber-campaigning will be one of the many tools which politicians must adopt if they are to survive in the digital age," he said.
Malaysiakini.com even took on its print rivals--often cited for being too compliant and pro-government--when it broke election stories questioning their stance.
One story showed how Malaysia's biggest Chinese language newspaper Sin Chew Jit Poh had altered a 1995 group picture of National Front leaders by replacing the head of then deputy chairman Anwar Ibrahim with that of current deputy chairman Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Another showed how The Star demanded amendments to advertisements in support of opposition Alternative Front, and rejected one with a photo of Anwar sporting the now-famous black eye.
"I believe the media should be made accountable. Which is why there is a need for some kind of online media watch. Malaysiakini.com intends to do just that," said Gan.
He added that though the electoral roll was made available online the various irregularities that arose suggested that the Election Commission was not up to mark yet.
There were numerous complaints of discrepancies in the "official" list, including allegations of "phantom" voters, listings of dead voters, transfers of voters to different constituencies without their consent and cases of two voters' names popping up when one identity card number was typed in.
An Election Commission representative blamed the discrepancies on "data entry errors".
Almost 680,000 voters were also excluded from voting this time, although they registered in April or May because the commission could not update the roll in time.
"The commission has been forced to keep up with the times by adopting new technology. But that has also opened up a new can of worms. Citizens are now using the same technology to keep an eye on the commission. Many are asking why, in this age of the Internet, the commission needs more than eight months to update the electoral roll. Only two words can describe the performance of the commission: sheer incompetence," said Gan.
Gan, like others, believes that although the opposition took to the Internet like ducks to water since Anwar's sacking in September last year, the Net's reach has not been wide enough to make a real difference in this election. "But in five years' time, there will be a digital generation and they will definitely be a force to reckon with," he said.
A Web of promises
Malaysia officially has about 650,000 Internet subscribers compared to 10 million eligible voters, but this ratio is likely to change dramatically by the next elections.
Internet writer and satirist Sabri Zain believes the influence of the Net may grow in the next five years, and may change the way the public would want its government to function. However, he is skeptical about whether either is ready for the change.
"I do not think the government is ready for that kind of transparency and accountability. And frankly, I don't think Malaysian society is ready either. It is not yet the kind of society which sees free flow of information as essential to good democratic government. We're getting there, but we're not there yet and I don't know if we will be there in 2004," he said.
Sabri believes PAS was more successful this time around not only because it used the Net, but that it combined this with its house-to-house campaigning and wide distribution of party tabloid Harakah.
"You can have the best updated Web sites and pump the mailing lists with parliamentary speeches all day and night. But just relying on the Internet alone is not enough. PAS was so successful not only because it made effective use of each tool it had in hand--the Internet, Harakah, the grassroots network--but also because it used all three in such a seamless, integrated manner," he noted.
Sabri, who has built a following with his collection of first-person accounts and biting satire on the Net which often skewers the government, doesn't believe that what he does may sway voting decisions.
"But it does make people think. Satire uses humor to drive home a serious point. In a lot of ways, it is more effective because it doesn't preach to you or give you a hard sell. And it doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is--a laugh with a moral. Someone may want to read something funny and, hopefully, the actual message gets through."
Pillai, whose discussion lists attracts some 200 postings daily during peak periods, said technology is a useful tool but not a replacement for groundwork. "Technology is with us to stay. It is yet another medium candidates can use to project themselves, and political parties to spread the message. But I am not one who believes the world is about to change. I shall still be suspicious of any candidate who tries to impress his electorate by flights of technological fancy. The process would be more facile, but whether it would make the message more effective is another matter altogether."
As the post-mortems come in, one election winner has already unveiled his early plans for his constituency. Chia Kwang Chye, the defeater of opposition strongman Lim in Bukit Bendera by a razor-thin majority of 104 votes, seems to have taken a leaf from the latter's cyber-campaign book.
Chia now touts the development of an electronic community for his 100,000 constituents. "Everyone can then access it, communicate and answer questions, or even scold me," Chia was quoted as saying in the New Straits Times.
He said political leaders could not afford to ignore discussion and chat groups on the Internet, and political parties must encourage e-communities, even to the extent of being open to public criticism.
Chia's newfound millennium outlook could be a sign of the times--weaving
a Web of promises to net future voters and keeping one in office. But it
may also just be the precursor of the cyber-battle in Malaysia's next elections.
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