The perils of modernity

THE ECONOMIST: Mar 13th 2008
The government’s cyber-enthusiasm comes back to haunt it
ON MARCH 8th, Malaysia’s electoral upset unfolded at glacial pace on government-owned television channels. As the approved pundits stumbled to grasp the stunning implications, some 500,000 Malaysians lost patience, and turned to Malaysiakini, an independent online newspaper, with 35 staff. It was faster and did not fight shy of trumpeting the opposition’s excellent showing.
Even before election night, the internet had already played a big part in the vote. Malaysia has an unusual combination of high internet penetration and pliant mainstream media. It is therefore fertile ground for cyber-politics. According to the government’s multimedia regulator, 3.9m of the country’s 28m people have dial-up internet subscriptions and 1.2m broadband. Some 60% of the population, it reckons, use the internet. Even if that is an overestimate, the limitations of the mainstream media are enough to drive politics online.
Television hardly ever covers opposition rallies and speeches. But the online world is delightfully free. Anxious to make Malaysia a high-tech cyber-hub, the county’s former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, exempted websites from the annual licensing requirements that help keep print publications deferential. The 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act decreed that there would be no censorship of the internet.
That does not, of course, make it a free-for-all. Strict laws-on defamation, for example-still apply. But the air of the blogosphere is refreshing after the stultifying fug of Malaysia’s mainstream press. Jeff Ooi ( and Tony Pua ( were among several successful opposition candidates to have made their names as bloggers. Mr Pua thinks all parties underestimated the effects of “secondary access” to the internet, as news broken on the web-of opposition rallies, for example-was disseminated by word-of-mouth and mobile-phone text messages.
Most worrying for the government and the mainstream media, Malaysia is young. A new generation sees the internet as its primary news source. Founded in 1999 as a free site, Malaysiakini was forced to start charging in 2002, but was free for the election. In normal times, it has just 10,000 subscribers. But the election has been a great advertisement for it, as well as for democracy.