Saturday, December 6, 2008

How New Media Trumped Old Politics and the Road Ahead

Keynote speech by YB Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad
Bloggers Buzz
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Saturday, 06 December 2008 10:00
How New Media Trumped Old Politics and the Road Ahead

by Yang Berhormat Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad
Seri setia state assemblyman / political secretary to Selangor Menteri Besar

5 december 2008


In May 2007, I was invited along with Tony Pua, Jeff Ooi and Soon Li Tsin to speak about blogging in Malaysia. I spoke about the battle between the New Media and Old Politics: how the old politics of divide and rule; command and control is unable to cope with the open nature of new media. The new media, I argued, with a combination of Web 2.0, greater functions and interfacing with mobile devices is becoming more powerful and potent than ever before.


Of course, we have seen how effective NEW MEDIA has become across the globe. While Howard Dean failed in 2004, he paved the way for Barack Obama to make use of the Internet to emerge from being a junior senator with a funny name to the President of the United States. Closer to home, political consultant Douglas Schoen in Power of the Vote revealed how the netroots played an important role in the South Korean Presidential election as far back as 2002.

But we did not expect that it would play such a big role in Malaysia so soon that in less than a year after the function, Tony, Jeff and I all became Yang Berhormats. The 8th of March 2008 illustrated how new media has trumped old politics. It has changed how campaigns, even governments are run radically.

Before this, old politics reigned supreme. Since Independence, the majority OF Malaysians accepted the big tent of the Alliance Party and later Barisan Nasional as the one viable model of government for the country. This was considered ingenuous at that time: the Alliance leaders rejected Dato’ Onn Jaafar’s multiracial Independence of Malaya Party due to the perception that the country’s divided society was not yet ready for a truly malayan party. The Alliance allowed different communal parties to operate within the stratified structure; yet to convince the British administrators it provided for multi-racial co-operation among the elite.

This worked initially because the bulk of society lived separate lives, mixing but not combining – what JS Furnivall famously described as a ‘Plural Society’. This allowed the Alliance and their BN successors to perform feats of dubious duplicity in their discourse.

Their leaders appealed to communal sentiments when they operated at the grassroots level – in gatherings and through the vernacular media – but then spoke of unity and moderation to the wider public. It worked well, playing with our deepest fears and insecurities fostered by the huge inequality across racial lines that we inherited from our former colonial masters, while at the same time telling us that they were the only ones that could preserve our harmonious existence, even if it did not go beyond mere superficialities.

MEANWHILE, the Malaysian establishment maintained the colonial-era legislation that allowed for the muzzling of the press and suppression of public debate on what was called ‘sensitive issues’. Media ownership was narrowed and often in the hands of certain parties. This has contributed to the stagnant and limited nature of our press and public discussion.

This is why we see even the best and brightest of Malaysians believing that the status quo is the only route to power. This is why even the most honourable of politicians end up playing the politics of the lowest common denominator and pandering to age-old prejudices. This is why, they avoid promoting an enlightening and visionary brand of politics. As Tun Musa HItam once said: “a young Malaysian politician has to play the race card to the hilt even if there was not a single chauvinistic bone in his body.”Also, if Malaysians are susceptible to rumours and scare-mongering, it is because they do not have a free and open press to tell them otherwise.

But the emergence of a new media, amongst other factors, has changed the landscape. Here the ‘new media’ needs to be looked into its entirety, meaning not merely blogs and the Internet but also mobile devices and connectivity. Tiny, affordable mobile phones can take pictures, record videos and send out e-mails. The same content can be uploaded on the Internet at Starbucks to be shown on Youtube. This becomes a catalyst to viral communication as acknowledged by Jun E Tan and Zawawi Ibrahim. In fact, the uproar over the 2006 UMNO general assembly has illustrated to us how those used to old politics fail to even understand the most basic technology: the satellite TV. This was apparent when some in the ruling party replied that the racial rhetoric at the assembly was typical, without realising that this was the first time the Malaysian public was exposed to its antics.

Not only was the conference shown live on Astro, but it then provoked an excited debate in the blogosphere. Previously, the government could manipulate or simply silence the fallout over gaffes like this. The mainstream media would downplay, even refuse to report the incident; while the few independent publications had too small an audience and too long a production time to have a major or immediate impact. Now, what used to be idle Mamak shop chatter has now made its way to the Web, for all Malaysians to consume and discuss.

In the same year, a government minister announced plans to require the registration of blogs. This was another gross misunderstanding of new technology. A Malaysian blogger can still host his blog overseas while making the content available in Malaysia. In fact a blogger can reside anywhere in the world and still reach Malaysians. Indeed, it is a technical possibility to prevent content from reaching the public, but this is difficult, messy and imperfect. Furthermore, various ways exist to circumvent Internet censorship - as countries such as China have found out.

By the time the 12th General Elections took place, blogs were a force to be reckoned with in the urban constituencies. I set up a campaign website that solicited donations and showed my campaign videos. Several mainstream journalists contacted me to cover my campaign, but little, if any of their stories ended up being published. Instead, my team organised a “blog for Nik Nazmi day” during the run-up to the election to hype up the campaign as well as launched a Friends of Nik Nazmi page on Facebook. Keadilan sent out SMSes to millions of voters, customised for each constituency to get our message across.

When the results trickled in on 8th of March, it was clear that the urban voters, especially the younger generation, voted against the BN in a big way. Clearly, the new media played a big role in trumping old politics. Of course, other factors also came into play: a united Opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim, rising costs of living and a weak government. But the new media definitely had a key role, in that it helped bring out voters by the thousands, many of whom were voting for the first time in their lives.

What next?

While we have established that the new media played an important role in trumping old politics, the next question is: “What next?”

Politically, it is clear that new media has changed campaigning in Malaysia. UMNO has also recognised this fact and many of their leaders have entered the blogosphere despite having denigrated it in the past. Khir Toyo, Muhammad Muhammad Taib and Ali Rustam have all started blogs. Even Najib Razak has set up his own website. While this is generally a welcome development, we cannot forget that their sectarian, divisive and backward message remains the same.

We need to realise that while the last General Elections has breathed new life into Malaysian democracy, more needs to be done. More needs to be done for new media to succeed. More needs to be done to end old politics once and for all. More needs to be done for democracy to be entrenched in the Malaysian landscape.

We need to push the envelope, to consolidate the gains we have made and make them a permanent feature in our national life. Those opposed to a multiracial and democratic Malaysia are attempting to turn back the clock with every old trick in the book. Their most potent weapon thus far has been sectarianism.

Racism is still rife, and as the establishment comes undone further due to the discontent on the ground, the racial rhetoric will become more apparent. Samuel Johnson once said patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. In Malaysia racism is the last refuge of the politicians. The use of arbitrary force, including the ISA continues unabated as we have seen in the manifestly unjust detentions of Raja Petra Kamaruddin and Teresa Kok.

Ironically, the new media was very much involved in these arrests: Petra is of course the editor of Malaysia Today while Khir Toyo made some accusations against Teresa on his blog that was picked up by Utusan in an attempt to stir up Malay sentiment. Not long before Teresa was arrested, photos that purportedly showed her campaigning against Jawi signboards made its rounds over the Internet. Furthermore, the BN-controlled mainstream media has attempted to exploit what they believe to be divisions in the blogosphere.

But the nature of the new media means that those standing up for democracy can use it to counter the slander and the spin. This was not possible before due to the dominance of the government-controlled media, but ICT and its tools now allow us to get our side of the story out to as many people as possible at the lowest cost available.

In my mind, we can advance our cause through the new media by pursuing the following five points:

1. First, unity is essential. It is important that practitioners of the new media respond with a united voice against the arbitrary use of the law or other, more insidious attempts in order to silence, intimidate or control them. Also, attempts to split the progressive movement in the country along sectarian or even ideological lines must be exposed and resisted. The fact is that there are only two groups in Malaysia today: those who want to change the country for the better, and those who do not want this.

2. On the other hand, however, the netroots must always keep in mind that we have to practice what we preach. We too, must exercise the principles of independence, free speech and critical thinking on our blogs or websites. We must allow views different from ours a free hearing. We too must be willing to accept criticism and the fact that some people will not agree with us no matter what.

The great danger in these times of transition is that we become too frustrated and resort to uncouth or even extreme methods in opposing the old politics. We cannot do that. We cannot allow the reactionary forces in this country to claim the moral high ground on any point. We must ensure that the new media always remains an avenue for free and open discourse. If there is something we disagree with, it is always better and more effective to come up with a proper rebuttal to it rather than censor or deride the holder of those views.

3. There is also a need for us to continue to expand the netroots. The greater Internet penetration, and the more tech-savvy Malaysians are, the easier the process of democratisation becomes. Part of our activism must therefore go to ensuring that access to ICT is expanded across the board in Malaysia. Part of our agenda must ensure that the people in the places with the least access to such technology gets it, and more importantly – they are given the resources to use such innovations critically and well. It is no accident that in Selangor, BN seats only remain in the rural areas.

This is, however, more than just about politics. Giving underprivileged Malaysians access to the Internet, especially young ones, also helps close socio-economic gaps. Knowledge is power. Someone with Internet access in today’s globalised; knowledge-based economy definitely has an edge over someone who does not. Spreading ICT will help to resolve the great inequalities that exist in our society.

The Selangor state government has introduced a wireless service in Shah Alam and hopes to expand it to over 90 percent of urban areas by 2010. Currently there are over 13 million Internet users in malaysia, half of the total population. As Jun-E Tan and Zawawi Ibrahim wrote in Blogging and Democratisation in Malaysia: A New Covil Society in the Making, bloggers are the new thought leaders of the younger generation.

4. New media practitioners should also maintain the highest journalistic ethics and standards. Blogs, regardless of what they were originally created for, are now public documents that are in the public domain. This is especially true for socio-political blogs and websites. Its owners, therefore, must ensure that their writing receives the same duty of care and professionalism that goes into other journalistic mediums.

Take note, the last thing that is being advocated here is for bloggers to ‘watch what they say’. Overcautious self-censorship and the lack of courage will doubtlessly compromise the new media the same way it emasculated its mainstream counterpart. Rather, what is alluded to is the undeniable fact that being ethical, transparent and professional in ones blogging gives one’s writing credibility amongst ones audience that is unbeatable.

5. This may be controversial, but perhaps new media practitioners should explore forming alliances with certain members of the mainstream media. It is true, as alluded to earlier, that most mainstream media outlets in the country have regrettably been reduced to becoming mere tools of the ruling party. We need to acknowledge however, after 8th of March, there has been some shift in the mainstream media in trying to become more credible, perhaps with the exception of Utusan Malaysia.

While during campaigning it was difficult to get my story published in the mainstream media, on 9th of March, I received a call from one of the journalists who told me today she will cover my post-election activities and the editor has promised her it will be published this time around. True enough, it was published immediately the next day

But there are many restrictions that continue to exist, and that many journalists ‘still in the system’ are growing increasingly frustrated with the restrictions imposed on them and desire a free press just as badly as their new media counterparts do. We must never forget that our goal is not to supplant or destroy the traditional media, but to free it from undue political influence and complement it as channels of public opinion. The netroots should therefore reaffirm its commitment to campaign to support mainstream media journalists who continue to uphold the principles of integrity in their reporting.

The Selangor state government has formed a taskforce on the Freedom of Information to look into ways on how the state can get around the OSA to promote a more transparent and accountable government through a freedom of information enactment

Malaysia has already come a long way through the new media. If the latter continues to be fully utilised courageously and shrewdly, then our country can progress further still. But old media will not disappear, and it is crucial that we get the old media to advance our cause. Even now, we see some changes from the mainstream media, but more needs to be done for lasting change to become a reality.

The new media has provided new possibilities and unleashed new forces. The new media has trumped old politics. The new media can be the vanguard for a new Malaysia.

Thank you.

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