Malaysia's election has seen online campaigning come into its own for the first time [Reuters]


The run-up to Malaysia's March 8 general election has seen the internet become a key political battleground for the first time, with prominent bloggers standing as candidates and the government despatching its own "cyber-troopers" to counter opposition campaigning.

 

Malaysian polls have traditionally been about poster wars and the media monopoly held by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which has ruled the country for the past 50 years.

 

But this time both opposition and government candidates have been maximising the use of web and mobile technology to woo voters.

 

Even an 80-year old grandmother, standing as an independent candidate in the largely rural east coast state of Terengganu, has hit the campaign trail with her own blog and a profile on Facebook.

 

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Poll battle goes online

For several years the internet has been the main outlet for open political discussions in Malaysia, given the government's almost total grip on traditional print and broadcast media.

 

Blogs, e-mails, videos on YouTube and mobile short messaging service (SMS) have been extensively used by the opposition parties and activists to get their message across.

 

Not to be outdone, the current campaign has seen the government weigh in with its own online campaign machine.

 

According to the latest industry figures, about 60 per cent of Malaysia's estimated 28 million population, or about 15 million people, now have access to the internet.

 

With that degree of penetration, politicians, activists and individuals have been using internet lobbying to push their wish-list of policies in the March 8 vote.

 

And for the first time, bloggers are running for public office – among them Jeff Ooi, an IT consultant who runs one of Malaysia's most-visited political blogs, Screenshots.

 

Ooi is contesting one of 222 parliamentary seats up for grabs on Saturday after joining the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a predominantly-Chinese opposition party.

 

Ooi's take on corruption and alleged mismanagement of public funds have frequently drawn flak, including a recent police investigation into allegedly defamatory postings on his blog.

 

Another blogger-turned-candidate is Tony Pua, whose blog Philosophy Politics Economics has been a regular critics of the government education and economic policies.

 

With Malaysians gearing up for polling day on Saturday, many political blogs and websites have gone into full campaign mode calling for change, and a new government.

 

Online petitions

 

Blogs such as The People's Parliament are an
established online force in Malaysian politics
Haris Ibrahim, a prominent human rights lawyer, started his blog, The People's Parliament, in April last year to create public awareness on fundamental rights and liberties.

 

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Haris said he was trying to facilitate change through the blog "which every Malaysian has a stake in".

 

"This [blog] does not belong to me," he said. "I set it up to help educate people about their constitutional rights and how they can reclaim them."

 

Haris's blog has been campaigning to mobilise civil society support for the opposition coalition - informally known as Barisan Rakyat, or People's Front - on polling day.

 

"There is a mood out there where we hear people clamouring for change in the method of governance."

 

In recent months, Haris has been urging Malaysian voters to empower themselves by joining what he calls a 'Get to know your MP' initiative on his blog, saying it is time voters reclaimed their rights and hold their MPs accountable.

 

"The internet affords civil society an opportunity to articulate their concerns, to get their message across and to engage in democratic discourse," he told Al Jazeera. "It gives the public an alternative to the country's mainstream media."

 

"The BN parties have their own cyber-troopers to do spin-doctoring … to counter the opposition campaign," he said.

 

"To me, this is an honest acknowledgement of the power of the internet as an alternative media platform."

 

Cyber-troopers

 

The Barisan Nasional has despatched "cyber
troopers" to take its message online [EPA]
Realising the impact of online advocacy, the youth wing of Umno, the dominant party in the BN coalition, has set up a team of volunteers at the party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur scouring the internet to counter what it sees as rumours and misinformation.

 

In addition to these so-called cyber-troopers, some of the other BN parties have despatched their own teams to keep track of popular sentiment in cyberspace.

 

Abdul Rahman Dahlan, secretary-general of Umno Youth, said they decided it was important to fight rumours after seeing increasing levels of "accusations and half-truths" being spread on the internet and via SMS.

 

"We have decided to fight this cyber war head-on," he was quoted as saying in the New Straits Times.

 

"We monitor the contents of the websites and forward the information to our members via SMS."

 

Gerakan, the fourth biggest component in the BN, has a team to track blogs and gauge the sentiments of young internet users.

 

"Our investigation shows that the internet plays a major role in influencing people, especially those living in urban and semi-urban areas," Mah Siew Keong, the Gerakan youth chief, was quoted as saying.

 

'Ripple effect'

 

Aneel David Kannabhiran, a blogger and editorial member of a Catholic newsletter, said online messages were reaching those without internet access in more traditional ways.

 

"The ripple effect ensures that more people get those messages by word of mouth or as printouts of articles posted on the internet," he told Al Jazeera.

 

Kannabhiran started his blog DeadAlienX on MySpace last September after thousands of lawyers staged a 'Walk for Justice' in Putrajaya, the country's administrative capital, to protest alleged corrupt practices in the Malaysian judiciary.

 

He said the shaping of opinions has become difficult because of the media controls, adding that many Malaysians have turned to online political discourses.

 

"There is clearly a groundswell of disaffection especially among urbanites," he said.

 

"This election will see a big swing … the tide is beginning to turn."

Source: Al Jazeera