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Feb 21, 2008

Internet to swing votes?


KUALA LUMPUR: You no longer have to attend ceramahs to be drawn into political discussions. Blogs, websites and video sites have sprouted in the last three years to give space to the more than 10 million Internet users in the country who seek to interact, express opinions, and share views, news and gossips, without meeting face-to-face.

Blogs such as Screenshots (Jeff Ooi), Rocky’s bru (Ahirudin Attan), Rantings by MM (Marina Mahathir), Straight Talk (Khoo Kay Peng), Niamah (Patrick Teoh) and the latest, Malaysia Votes, have huge followings and their contents are often quoted in daily conversations. Politicians such as Datuk Shahrir Samad of Umno and DAP’s Lim Kit Siang, Teresa Kok and Tony Pua also see the benefits of maintaining blogs.

The People’s Parliament — a blog initiated by lawyer Haris Ibrahim — has given birth to various civil society initiatives such as Get an MP/Keep Your MP and The People’s Voice and The People’s Declaration, which have rallied people to commit to a cause for the betterment of the country.

Meanwhile, opinion and news websites such as Malaysiakini, Malaysia Today and Agenda Daily have continued to attract new visitors as they offer news, commentaries and opinions that are unlikely to make it to the print media. In essence, these websites provide alternative views and news as a counterbalance to the mainstream media.

Then, there are the social networking websites such as Facebook and Myspace. Kevin Rudd had used Facebook to get in touch with his supporters during the Australian elections while US presidential hopeful Barack Obama can be found in Myspace. Local figures such as MCA’s Datuk Lee Hwa Beng, Nurul Izzah Anwar, Lim Kit Siang, Teresa Kok and Jeff Ooi can also be found on Facebook, where they touch base with fans and supporters.

Some have posted fiery debates in Parliament on YouTube, exposing the less-than-desirable quality of the debates and behaviour of Members of Parliament (MPs) never before seen by the public.

So, how significant is the Internet in influencing opinions in the run-up to the March 8 general election?

Political analyst Dr Ooi Kee Beng of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) said the Net provided Malaysians with an avenue for the immediate expression of political thought, which was not possible for a long time.

“The Net is a Pandora’s Box, and that is now open,” he said.

“(For instance,) the segregation between the races is not something Malaysians enjoy or are proud of, but there is very little they can do about it. But with the Net, you can actually discuss all sorts of things with people of other races. Facelessness helps in this case,” said Ooi.

Penang-born Ooi said Malaysians have matured much faster than their government and their system of government, adding: “There is an incongruence between their growing feeling of self-worth and the government’s old-world style of leadership.”

He said the people are taking the fight to the Internet as it was the only choice “because it is a huge crack in the establishment’s information fortress which cannot be mended and closed up, and whose possibilities it does not readily comprehend”.

This has led to a crisis of credibility for the mainstream media. “It has reached such an extent that young Malaysians are willing to listen to and believe in blog gossip more than they would in information sanctioned by the state,” said Ooi.

However, Ooi doubts if the Internet would have a major influence on the outcome of this round’s election results. His verdict is: “The Net is unlikely to affect the overall results this time around.”

“A few elections down the road, the Internet as the forum for political discussion will be obvious to all,” he added.

Tricia Yeoh, the director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies, echoed the sentiment. “This is a lesson for people to learn. Previously, information can be controlled but now there is more than one channel of dissemination. It should keep them on their toes,” she added.

Yeoh said the Internet influence would be a crucial factor in urban areas, as urban voters are more likely to be critical of the government. “They are more exposed to issues. The rural constituents are the majority but they don’t have much access to the Internet,” she added.

Yeoh said the Internet is now the Fourth Estate, which traditionally refers to the conventional media.

“The Communication Act provides that there would not be any censorship of the Internet. They can only monitor,” she said, adding that the Internet can be stronger than traditional media as it has more capacity to be independent.

Politicians should make better use of the Internet. Unfortunately, many are not savvy enough to do so. Often the websites (if any at all) are merely a means to disseminate information. “It is unfortunate because it is a great opportunity for them to interact with their constituents but they still prefer to go down to ground level,” Yeoh said.

She said the Internet has also made this election “more globalised”. “Malaysians abroad get local news the same time as those at home. You get participation from around the world. These opinion shapers can contribute to political discourse at home,” she said.

Political analyst and blogger Khoo Kay Peng agrees that the Internet will play a crucial role in the coming elections. It is a dynamic tool for forwarding news, he said.

“One thing you can find in the Internet is grassroots activism. People who read become part of the activism movement. There are groups in Facebook to support various causes. This was not seen in 2004. In a span of four years, the Internet has gotten into the political process,” he said.

According to Khoo, if political parties can harness the Internet well, they should not complain about lack of access to the traditional media, which are facing stern competition from the online media. “The Internet has perhaps made the playing field more level,” he added.

Interestingly, opposition parties have staked a bigger claim to the Internet. DAP, for example, uses YouTube as part of its election tools. It also uses the Internet to source for funds.

Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim sent out statements and informed the public of his whereabouts through the Net. more...


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