How the Internet is used in the political arena

The Internet has in a large sense, awakened the average urban Malaysian's need to be more informed about his surroundings. This new sense of being inevitably spills into the politics of the country ....

Nowhere is the Internet officially viewed so contentiously as in politics. Governments in Southeast Asia and beyond praise the widespread practical application of the Internet in all forms as proof of modernity and a sign of arrival. Partly, this grasps at straws, to attempt to reverse the subservient role they necessarily are placed in, partly to hope for that well nigh mythical pie-in-the-sky to reverse their own current setbacks. Often, this is not addressed except in bombast, the promise of things to come, than serious intent. The slips betwixt the cup and the lip more often than not sums it up. The one country that has embraced computerisation in all its forms, and enmeshes into all walks of life with such deadly efficiency is Singapore, systematically turning the island republic into a highly computerised society that, like Sweden, that intrusion into private life is inevitable. Not all of what I write here would apply there, except in broad generalities.

The importance of marketing throws the debate off scent in most countries. And no where is this more evident, and more contentious, in the region and beyond than in politics. The opposition, hemmed in by official rules and policies more often than not, find the Internet a boon and godsend; the government, while usually taking the lead in making that available, have allowed it to seize the advantage. In Indonesia, Burma, Malaysia, Vietnam, government peccadillos are mercilessly portrayed by interested parties to a gamut of citizenry with access to the Internet. The government, in each case, either ignore the threat, or grin and grimly push on. In every country in Asia, except India, the official view predominates. Or did until Internet became so widespread.

In Malaysia, the Internet is the preserve of the Opposition, which embraced it with verve and gusto, using it not to affirm its modernity but as a tool to gets its message across. What egged this along is the political crisis of confidence Malaysia found herself in when her former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim was dismissed and jailed. His supporters used the Internet to spread his case through the Internet. At one time more than a hundred websites pressed his case. These were often downloaded, copied and widely distributed. So widespread did this become that the government's version, when it came, was disbelieved. The Internet gave the Opposition, not just the political parties, a voice which often differed from the official.

The two political parties who use the Internet so efficiently in Malaysia is the Islamic party PAS and the Democratic Action Party, both from the opposition ranks. When restrictions were put on the PAS organ, Harakah, it began publishing an Internet edition, with daily updates through another website. The DAP has its bungaraya mailing list and localists websites. The governing National Front parties have a token presence, but little else. But those whose views run counter to the official have come in to fly the flag. The UMNO dissident, the former cabinet minister, Dato' Shahrir Samad, who surprised everyone by being returned to the party's supreme council, has now established his own website in which not only does he present his views on current politics, not necessarily compatible with his party's, but an opportunity for on-line discussion. It is a hit. In the first week, by little more than word of mouth, he had 800 hits.

But he created a trend. This online debating with constituents is new. The UMNO youth leader and cabinet minister, Dato' Hishamuddin Hussein, are now doing so through the Internet newspaper, Malaysiakini. The Parti Rakyat Malaysia president, Dr Syed Husin Ali, followed. The chairman of the DAP, Mr Lim Kit Siang, recently had an online conference with his supporters on Bungaraya. More would follow. Interestingly, all this is done without the citizen barely knowing about this. The mainstream media ignores this, with the Dato' Shahrir initiative reported by only one. But this is an important development which the governing parties can only ignore at its peril.

It is not money or the latest equipment that counts at the end of the day. It is determination. Which is why Washington could not defeat Hanoi, whose national resilience for a thousand years required it to remove every foreigner who dared conquer his country. But the political scene in many Southeast Asian countries is fixated in this paradox, believing that its high moral ground should overcome opposition political savvy. It would have at one time. Not any more. It is practical use of what it has, than the equipment, that determines who gets the advantage. The opposition parties and those out of sync with the ruling party agilely work through cyberspace to spread their views.

The Internet ensures that the citizen gets as different views and opinions as there are. It has become the preferred choice of all who has a message to impart, not just politicians, but everyone. The profusion of mailing lists on the Internet, for just about any group, is a boon. It enables me, for instance, to ward off the mental vacuum that retirement brings. I had not expected my Sang Kancil mailing list to take off as it did. Indeed, it languished in its first two years, until the Anwar saga pushed it into the centre stage. It succeeds because what I, and several others, write, with its warts and shortcomings, express a point of view. They are often hotly challenged, but usually from anonymous critics, or those who insist upon questioning motives. I stayed clear of personality attacks, challenging the views expressed and not descending to the gutter. I stand my ground. I do not claim omniscience, and my views for what it is worth just one point of view. There is now one website just to attack me. They were once on Sang Kancil, but had to unsubscribed because their view of debate was to issues with personal attacks.

And it is points of view, not the news, that people want. The why of events is more important than the what or how of when. The newspapers, especially the mainstream, have given up the ghost, and present its readers with a daily list of happenings, with little or no attempt to analyse and present a view that the reader could accept or discard. The mindless "infotainment" on television and radio dulls into soporific irrelevance. When a man begins his day with looking at television schedules, it shows his irrelevance. He resents it. And so when he is given a choice to exercise his mind, and be part of a movement, he grabs the opportunity. A cabinet minister told me how shocked he was when his old golfing friend, with no interest in politics, suddenly questions the government. The man said he now felt he had a role to play, something lacking in 25 years of retirement. It is this resurgence by the marginalised that the Internet awakens.