Malaysia’s Alternative Media Become Decisive…

April 3, 2008

From
USINFOlistmgr@STATE.GOV, US STATE GOVERNMENT
Thu, 3 Apr 2008 21:02:59 -0400

Malaysia’s Alternative Media Become Decisive Political Factor
(More than 70 percent of voters in March 8 elections were influenced by blogs) (639)
By Stephen Kaufman, Staff Writer

Washington — Weblogs (blogs), text messages and copies of Internet-streamed videos became the most influential information sources for voters ahead of Malaysia’s March 8 parliamentary elections and resulted in a surprise blow to the Barisan National (BN) party, which has ruled the country for more than 50 years.

After BN’s worst election showing, in which it lost its two-thirds majority in the parliament, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi acknowledged March 25 that his coalition “certainly lost the Internet war,” and added that it was “a serious misjudgment” for his party to rely solely on government-controlled newspapers and television in its efforts to attract voters.

In a March 19 analysis on the blog malaysiakini.com of the role of alternative media in the election, Kalinga Seneviratne writes that Malaysia’s traditional media sources, such as newspapers, radio and television, are owned mostly by business people closely connected with the country’s ruling coalition.

“[T]he poor reputation that Malaysia’s newspapers have, as mouthpieces of coalition parties, [has] worked against them, and in favor of alternative media,” he writes.

With about 500,000 active bloggers, Malaysia boasts one of the largest online communities in the world after Indonesia and the European Union. Malaysiakini.com Chief Executive Premesh Chandran told Inter Press Service March 13 that alternative media were the only source for information on issues that many Malaysians consider important, such as government corruption and interference with the country’s judiciary. He also said the Internet allowed political parties to reach out and attract new constituencies, such as first-time young voters who live in urban and semi-urban areas.

Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who owns malaysia-today.net, told Singapore’s Straits Times March 12 that the Internet’s biggest contribution in the election was motivating Malaysia’s middle class to turn out at the polling places on March 8.

“Alternative media cured the apathy the middle class has. They were no longer saying: ‘Let’s not bother. Suddenly, it was let’s go and give the opposition a chance,’” Kamaruddin said.

MAJORITY OF VOTERS INFLUENCED BY BLOGS

On April 1, University Malaya media professor and lecturer Abu Hassan Hasbullah said his research indicated that 70 percent of the election results “were influenced by information in the blogs.”

Speaking at a forum on the university campus in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, Abu Hassan cited the dramatic growth of alternative media in Malaysia over the past 10 years, with 45 bloggers in 1998 rising to 7,500 in 2004. In contrast, he said, the BN party and its allies had only two Web sites and one blog in 2004.

Because the Internet is not as commonly available outside Malaysia’s urban areas, the country’s political parties use other alternative information sources to get their campaign messages out to voters in the countryside.

The widespread distribution of cellular phones in rural areas enabled the effective use of SMS (short messaging system) text messages, and campaign activists copied Internet-streamed television programs onto video CDs (VCDs) and circulated them in the countryside where VCD players are popular. More primitive methods, such as photocopies of political platforms and statements, also helped bring the opposition’s message to Malaysia’s rural voters.

The opposition’s use of the Internet might have helped train and position some of the country’s newest leaders. Five of Malaysia’s newly elected parliamentarians are bloggers.

At the April 1 University Malaya forum, one of the panelists, columnist Datuk Johan Jaffar, said the influence of blogs and SMS messages in the election was undeniable.

“In Malaysia, people trust the Internet more than official sources … the [opposition] election campaign was conducted unconventionally and quietly,” he said, adding that he hopes the recent campaign and election results will be a “wake up call” for the government.

(USINFO is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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