By Leslie Lau (www.themalaysianinsider.com)
KUALA LUMPUR, March 11 – In the battle for the hearts, minds and votes of Malaysians, the Internet emerged in the General Elections as a serious, if not better, rival to traditional print and electronic media.
Faced with a near shut-out from newspapers and television stations, most of which are either owned or aligned with the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, Malaysia’s rag-tag Opposition turned to the Internet to spread its message.
At the start of campaigning, Opposition parties, in particular the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and to a lesser extent Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), publicised the venues, time and date of their nightly rallies on specially set-up election websites.
They then hoped people would turn up.
On the first Monday after Nomination Day, Tony Pua, who has now been elected the new MP for PJ Utara, turned up to speak to a few hundred supporters, and curious onlookers at the nearby night market.
But as the campaign wore on, hundreds turned into thousands.
And such scenes were being repeated all over the country.
Many who turned up were ordinary Malaysians; Their only means of finding out about the rallies was the Internet. But these were not new converts to the Internet.
Over the last few years, a host of news websites and blogs have sprouted.
More and more Malaysians have been turning to popular political and news sites like Malaysia Today and Malaysiakini for a daily dose of scandal and sometimes far-fetched gossip about the alleged wrongdoings of the authorities and BN politicians.
The fact that a popular blogger, Jeff Ooi, with no experience in politics, and who is known as much for his poor command of English as well as his tendency to disseminate unsubstantiated allegations, was elected to Parliament is testament to the power of the Internet in creating personalities.
“I read the blogs and websites every day,” C. L. Chan, an engineer, told The Malaysian Insider.
“You get one side of the story in the newspapers and you get the other side on the Internet.”
The widespread derision of Khairy Jamaluddin, the son-in-law of the Prime Minister and newly elected MP for Rembau, was perpetrated on the Internet.
At one point, one of the most popular columns to read on the Malaysia Today website was the “Khairy Chronicles”, a weekly instalment of gossip and sometimes malicious tales about the deputy Umno Youth Chief.
Youtube has also been used to great effect to expose scandals and counter official versions of controversial events.
Witness the violent crackdown of last year’s Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) rally. Official television footage showed police firing tear gas at hostile mobs.
On Youtube, a video showing riot police charging into Batu Caves temple was posted. The authorities had earlier denied any such incident.
The shaky, grainy video of senior lawyer V. K. Lingam, allegedly brokering the appointment of senior members of the judiciary, also gained popularity when it was posted on the popular video-sharing website.
At Opposition rallies, his tendency to respond “Correct, Correct, Correct,” complete with Indian inflection, was frequently repeated by candidates, to much laughter, but more importantly, as an example of the BN government’s perceived corruption.
In the end, Loh Gwo Burne, an inexperienced candidate for the PKR who was not even a registered voter, won a seat in Parliament, campaigning solely as “the man who took the VK Lingam” video.
Youtube was also used to share videos of Opposition rallies. The DAP even shot a campaign advertisement which could be viewed only on Youtube.
While it is still clearly advantageous to BN parties to have at their disposal mass media which is friendly to them, the lack of credibility and the perceived biasness of newspapers and television stations worked against BN.
Millions of ringgit would have been spent on campaign advertisements in local dailies and on television, but many voters were turned off by the hackneyed messages.
The BN coalition’s biggest mistake may well have been choosing to take the purportedly moral high ground, refusing to even counter the influence of the Internet, reckoning that websites and blogs had limited reach.
During the election campaign, a check showed that most of the BN candidates’ websites had little or no information about their programmes.
Ultimately, the Opposition used the Internet to seize the day, and that paid off handsomely