Tech powers change in Malaysia's political scene

Jul. 9, 2011 will be remembered as the day Malaysians from all walks of life took to the streets to campaign for free and fair elections.
Written by Edwin Yapp, Contributor

Jul. 9, 2011 will be remembered as the day Malaysians from all walks of life took to the streets to campaign for free and fair elections.

Organized by an independent coalition comprising 62 non-government organizations, the group which calls itself Bersih 2.0 (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) claims to be unaffiliated to any political party, and seeks to work for a cleaner, fairer and freer electoral reform in Malaysia.

In the days before the intended rally, the government began clamping down on the Bersih 2.0 movement. It declared the group illegal as it alleged it was not a legal entity registered with the Registrar of Societies.

The government also started harassing the group by showing up at its office to seize what the government deemed as illegal paraphernalia such as T-shirts and Bersih 2.0 communique.

It also warned all citizens to stay away from the intended rally--originally scheduled to be held at the historical Merdeka Stadium [the stadium where Malaysia declared its independence in 1957]--noting that those who came to the rally would be doing so illegally and would, therefore, be arrested.

A day before the rally, the police had locked down Kuala Lumpur, closing off many roads in and around the city center. They also mounted massive roadblocks and began checking people coming and going from various tributaries leading into the city.

But despite the restrictions, thousands of people thronged the city on Saturday, dubbed 7/9, in defiance of the government's warning. Water cannons and teargas were fired at people in the certain sections of the city.

In all, close to 1,700 people were arrested in the melee which lasted from about noon to about 6pm.

In the days running up to 7/9, rumors began circulating that the Internet also would be cut off and that the government was ostensibly bent on blocking Internet access to Web sites, especially social media ones such as Facebook and Twitter.

A check with several of my industry sources on the Friday before the rally thankfully revealed that no such order to censor or cut off the Internet had been given.

The Home Minister also claimed that no such move would be taken, news that was greeted skeptically by Netizens, as moves to block the Web had been carried out by the government before.

But the Internet did work and for much of the day on 7/9, thousands of Netizens were tweeting, streaming and video recording, and updating their Facebook walls and Twitter timelines with what was going on.

Also in the game were alternative online media, and its reporters, who were also feeding the public with up-to-date information of what was going on at the scenes, almost real-time. On the receiving end, people who weren't in the city were able to get blow-by-blow accounts by the minute of what was going on in up to 10 different parts of the city.

And in the days after the rally, a compilation of videos began springing up on YouTube, chronicling what happened on 7/9 for the world to see.

Facebook and Twitter were full of links of these sites and columnists, including myself, wrote in to express what we felt about the events on 7/9.

Thanks to the Internet, and by extension, the participatory nature of the Web, Malaysian citizens now have the power to be truly liberalized from one-sided viewpoints and claims from government-friendly media organizations.

In short, the tools of the Internet have enabled Malaysians to see and judge for themselves what happened on 7/9 in their country. This development is significant in that it places the issue of good governance, or the lack thereof, squarely back at the feet of the ruling government in power.

It also ensures that more people are informed, thereby, going back to the principle that a democratic country's citizens are ultimately the ones who put a sitting government in power in the first place.

A while back, I opined in a column of my uncertainty over whether the Internet and ostensibly, social media, could by itself shape the political landscape of a country.

While I'm still not convinced that it can, I believe the one thing social media has been able to do is to democratize the tools of distribution such that ordinary people can have access to relevant and honest information.

As Bersih 2.0's chairperson, Ambiga Sreenevasan, was quoted to say in news portal Malaysiakini: "No one can tell lies with the social media pictures and videos. The Internet together with social media is an amazing leveler among people when people from all races and communities came together on 7/9."

Along with these developments are signs that things could further change in the near-term. With the government's push to extend the reach of broadband in Malaysia and its agenda to depend on the Internet for everything from education to business to social-economic programs, the battleground for the nation's young minds is going to be fought in the cyber world.

Noting this trend, Jahabar Sadiq, CEO and editor of the popular The Malaysian Insider news portal, noted in a BBC report: "Internet media is changing the way people think, giving them a wider choice between what the government says and what is actually going on. Someone within Facebook or Twitter will capture people's imagination, and he or she will take over leadership of this country, I think, within a decade."

Whether this will happen or not in a decade remains to be seen but one thing is sure--the Malaysian political landscape has changed and will continue to evolve.

And technology is and will continue to be a central cog in this wheel of change.


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