Malaysia: Mahathir's Internet Politics


James Chin

For the past several months, newspapers, Internet blogs and coffee-shop talk has been dominated by the ongoing feud between Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad and his hand-picked successor, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. He has even gone to the extent of saying that he regrets picking Badawi as his successor. Right from the start, Mahathir bypassed the mainstream media and took his attacks directly to the Internet, with all his speeches widely available on video for downloading. What is perhaps truly ironic is that the main websites promoting Mahathir now were the same websites that condemned him when he was in power. Even the websites of Parti Islam Semalaysia (PAS), and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Mahathir's arch enemies during his 23 years in power, have featured him prominently. There is even a website called 'M Generation' consisting of Mahathir fans!

For seasoned observers of UMNO, the current bloodletting is unprecedented. Even when Mahathir was being challenged for the UMNO presidency in 1987, most of the dirty laundry was aired inside the party. A decade later, with the rise of the Internet, UMNO's dirty laundry is being aired not only for the Malaysian public, but with a single click for the global audience as well. Despite being an 80 year old, Mahathir understands technology and, while he may not use the Internet directly, he knows how to maximise its potential.

All this of course is giving the Badawi government a big headache. Mahathir's Internet campaign has already claimed a scalp - Khairy Jamaluddin, Umno Youth deputy chief and the PM's son-in-law. Khairy, 31, the fastest rising star in UMNO politics in this generation, was forced to sell his small stake in a financial services firm after Mahathir questioned the source of his funding to buy the stake. Mahathir has also openly raised the spectre of corruption against Scomi, a company linked to the PM's only son, Kamaluddin Abdullah.

In an hour-long interview broadcast on prime time television, Badawi denied all the corruption allegations against his family and defended the government's policies. He has said openly that Mahathir can say what he wants, but only he (Badawi) will decide what's best for Malaysia.

One could easily argue that Internet politics has finally gone mainstream in Malaysia. Prior to the feud, it was the educated middle class that read most of the political postings on the Internet. The Internet did not have a significant impact in past elections. Now, with Mahathir's latest salvos against Badawi only available on the Internet, more and more first timers (including the all important rural Malay population) are turning to the Internet for the latest scores.

Mahathir could not have chosen a better media outlet than the Internet. One, all his criticisms are available 'on demand' 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - people can download his criticisms any time. Second, the government has no hope of shutting down his criticisms. Setting up a website or blog takes less than 10 minutes and, moreover, most of the servers are outside Malaysia. Third, the Internet can generate even more 'dirt' as any reader can add comments to Mahathir's criticisms. Thus far, most of the comments are in support of Mahathir. Fourth, anything posted on the Internet can be 'forwarded' to countless readers via email lists, similar to a chain letter, guaranteeing a large number of recipients and presumably readers as well.

The big winner will of course be transparency and accountability as more and more things are revealed by both sides on the Internet as they try to win the propaganda war.

WATCHPOINT: All the interesting backbiting is being done through the Internet, causing the government to seriously rethink its earlier pledge that it will not censor the Internet. However, if the feud remains unresolved and the Internet continues to be used as the main staging point for attacks by Tun Mahathir against the current PM, the government will likely bring charges against the bloggers or owners of pro-Mahathir websites for defamation or spreading rumours, an offence in Malaysia. This way, the government can continue to claim that it does not censor the Internet while at the same time send a powerful message about its ability to punish those who post negative items against the government.


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