Malaysia: elections usher in hope
18 Mar 08

Abdullah Ahmad BadawiThe change of government owed a great deal to Internet activism, with bloggers even taking parliamentary seats, writes David Jardine

Malaysia’s stunning election results of 8 March, which have seen the 40-year-long two-thirds majority of the ruling BN (Barisan Nasional/ National Front) coalition blown away, have hugely important implications for freedom of expression in the former British colony where draconian British-devised legislation has been a significant prop of state power.

The opposition to new Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will include five bloggers, including the internationally known Jeff Ooi and the media reform advocate Elizabeth Wong. One Malaysian media commentator has observed that their presence is particularly ‘galling’ to BN.

Blogging, which also played a role in the ‘reformasi’ (reform) movement of the late 1990s that coalesced around the protests against perceived state persecution of the former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, has been a highly successful means of circumventing the state-controlled and ruling party-directed media. Anwar, although until next month officially barred from running for office himself, is the de facto leader of Keadilan, and his election rallies drew large crowds even in small towns.

Recourse to the Internet, and the use of SMS and photocopying have afforded disaffected Malaysians a much wider window on information and alternative views. Ooi’s Screenshots as well as sites such as Malaysiakini (Malaysia Now), Farish Noor’s
The Other Malaysia, the reform group Aliran and Rojak and Cocktail, have opened up a much greater range of discussion and critical thinking.

Civil society groups, which have long laboured under the threat of state repression, have made the fullest use of the electronic media to outwit the state and BN.

It has not only been the multi-ethnic Keadilan but also the left-leaning Democratic Action Party, a predominantly Chinese grouping under veteran politician Lim Kit Siang and the Malay-essentialist Muslim Parti Islam (PAS) that have benefited from the new means of opposing the state. Even in the predominantly rural state of Kedah, Malaysia’s ‘rice bowl’, this appears to have been the case.

It should be noted that the Internet also played a big role in the development of the student-led ‘reformasi’ movement in Indonesia that pushed out the late strongman Suharto in 1998.

Malaysia’s freshly invigorated reform coalition is not, however, without serious problems of its own. These stem from the ideological distance between PAS, which controls the Malay-majority east coast state of Kelantan and will have the chief minister in the newly opposition-controlled state of Perak, once, with the Bolivian altiplano, the world’s major tin-producing centre, and the DAP.

Already, the state-controlled and ruling party-controlled media, in particular the Malay-language Utusan and Bernama have been accused of mischief-making in trying to depict the essentially anti-communalist policies of Keadilan and DAP at state level as anti-Malay. Both groupings favour the scrapping of the pro-Malay affirmative action of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was created after the race rioting of 1969 to redress Malay grievances, or, as Malaysian human rights activist Kua Kia Soong has argued, to empower the Malay ‘state capitalist class’.

This, besides anything else, is a case of camera obscura. The NEP has long been a cause of major grievance amongst the Chinese and Indians of Malaysia.

Media reform campaigners meanwhile continue to face an uphill struggle as many of the national media either belong to the BN-related forces or are actively controlled by the government. A heavily circumscribed media needs time to break out.

These are exciting but still potentially dangerous times for Malaysia, not only because the state may, yet again, take recourse to the draconian British-derived Internal Security Act (ISA), under which, at the end of 2007, it gaoled four leaders of the ethnic Tamil Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), but because the growth of the pro-PAS vote threatens non-Malay rights at the local level in several states. PAS is an Islamist body with Wahabi tendencies.

Nonetheless, these are times to cheer for freedom of expression in Malaysia. After the bleak news from fellow ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) member Burma in 2007, this is extremely welcome.

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.