MALAYSIA--As the nation goes to the polls on Mar. 8, analysts say Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is losing the political debate in cyberspace to the scores of anti-government Web sites and blogs campaigning against the BN.
Ironically, the incumbent coalition is poised to win the electoral battle on the back of strong support from rural, non-Internet savvy constituents.
While the opposition admits they are unlikely to deny BN a victory this election, they are optimistic the proliferation of anti-government sites and blogs, as well as the YouTube phenomenon, has created a chink in the armor of the political behemoth which has ruled Malaysia uninterrupted for the past 50 years.
Though the BN has vast financial and manpower resources compared to the opposition, the ruling coalition is less savvy and nimble when it comes to effectively utilizing information and communications technology (ICT) and the Internet to upstage its political foes.
While the main opposition party, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), has unleashed its e-election campaign, the dominant BN-component party Umno, has yet to do likewise.
Senior Umno politician and BN Backbenchers Club chairman Shahrir Abdul Samad confirmed the Malay-based Umno does not have an Internet strategy for the coming election. He told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview that while the Internet was a useful "window" for communication, the election candidates still needed to travel across Malaysia, speak at rallies, visit community centers and meet the constituents face-to- face. Member of Parliament for Malaysian city Johor Bahru, Shahrir is one of few Internet-savvy senior Umno leaders who blog.
Yip Wai Fong, advocacy officer at Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ), said the ruling coalition has been "very complacent" with regard to using the Internet in the political arena. "The BN government has been quite slow in using the Internet," Yip said in a phone interview. "It has been too comfortable relying on the mainstream media over the decades."
She explained that BN's biggest constituency is the rural Malay heartland, where there is low Internet penetration and a non-IT savvy populace, and the pro-government mainstream media exerts greater influence compared to the Internet.
Yip said the BN, which comprises 14 political parties, has been slow to adapt their messages for the Internet, and to respond quickly to the barrage of allegations and criticisms from the host of pro-opposition news Web sites and blogs.
In contrast, the DAP appointed popular blogger Jeff Ooi to organize and head the party's e-campaign for the election. The party operates a Web site dedicated to provide election information and collaterals, including profiles of all its candidates, the party manifesto, YouTube-linked video clips and links to all the party's bloggers.
DAP candidates are also raising much-needed election funding through their individual Web sites, and complementing this effort with the use of (SMS) text messages to propagate its political views and messages to thousands of voters via the mobile platform.
The opposition's reliance on the Internet and communication systems is borne out of sheer necessity. Ooi, who is standing for a parliamentary seat in Penang, said: "DAP's e-election initiative is a platform to circumvent the media blackout on the opposition's messages imposed by the government-controlled mainstream media."
Internet paths way to information
Without access to the mass media, opposition parties were somewhat handicapped in past elections. The emergence of the Internet has now provided the opposition and anti-government groups an alternative platform to spread their political memorandum.
CIJ's Yip said the Internet has benefited the opposition much more than the ruling coalition. "Online news sites, blog sites, YouTube and citizen journalism have definitely cracked the BN government's monopoly on 'truth'," she said. CIJ, together with Writers' Alliance for Independence (WAMI), are monitoring elections coverage together with Charter2000-Aliran and a group of citizen volunteers.
"The government (BN) now has to respond to what its opponents say on the Internet. Previously, it could just ignore the opposition's allegations," she said. In today's connected world, however, the government they can no longer afford to do that, Yip said.
Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of Malaysiakini, said in a phone interview: "Previously, most Malaysians were dependent on the mainstream media for news. Now, with the Internet, they have many options for alternative, independent news. This allows them to make an informed choice in the elections." Malaysiakini is an independent online news provider, and its growing popularity is a cause of worry for the BN.
According to Malaysiakini CEO Premesh Chandran, the online news portal's paid subscriber base increased by 40 percent in the last three months.
"Last year, we had an average of 100,000 unique visitors accessing our news Web site. Since the beginning of the year, to date, the number of daily unique visitors has shot up to 150,000," Chandran told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview. He estimates Malaysiakini articles are read by about 500,000 people each month.
Reaching the young
Thanks also to the Internet, Malaysia's Generation Y voters are becoming more politically conscious and are expected to have a bigger say in the outcome of future elections.
"The mainstream newspapers don't provide fair coverage to the opposition during the election campaign," J. Yeo, who lectures at a local university, said in an interview. This has prompted Yeo, who is in her late 20s, to seek out information from the alternative online news sites such as Malaysiakini and political blogs.
Likewise, IT consultant Randy Tan who is in his twenties, admits he has lost faith in the local media's coverage of political issues. Tan told ZDNet Asia he now gets his news from Malaysiakini, Malaysia Today, Ooi's blog Screenshots and various political blogs.
Despite the BN's lack of Web presence, Umno's Shahrir said the Internet will have "minimal impact" on the outcome of the coming election.
"Elections are about votes, not [page] hits," he said, and argued that even in highly-connected countries such as Singapore, the Internet did not stop the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) from capturing a hefty majority.
CIJ's Yip said she considered the election a success if the opposition comes close to denying the BN its customary two-thirds parliamentary majority. In the 2004 polls, the BN won 90 percent of the 219 parliamentary seats contested.
Malaysiakini's Gan said as the country's Internet penetration rate grows, the Web and new technologies will play a major role in Malaysian politics.
About 10.9 million voters will cast their votes in Saturday's election.
Lee Min Keong is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.