Malaysian election campaigning gets tech boost

Posted on November 26, 1999 
Filed Under CNET, Julian

By Julian Matthews

KUALA LUMPUR–Computers and the Web have become the new tools on the Malaysian election trail.

One candidate on a Malaysian Chinese Association ticket was seen handing out about 3,000 VCDs of himself interspersed with “before” and “after” scenes of how he has improved his constituency since the last elections.

The 30-minute VCD was entitled The Dragon in Stulang, named after incumbent assemblyman Freddie Long Hoo Hin of Stulang, Johore. “Long ” means Dragon in Chinese.

“We want the voters to know the candidate better and we want them to hear the voices of the people themselves,” said Tan Check Meng, the scriptwriter for the documentary.

Opposition parties have also turned to the Net to raise funding ala American presidential hopefuls.

The Democratic Action Party posted their appeal early in the election campaign at their Web site which is located on an Australian server.

“We are not ashamed to say we are entering this crucial elections with near-empty coffers,” goes the appeal and asks for donations in cash, check or direct deposits for “endless bills” and that “every ringgit counts”.

A poster war that is a typical feature of elections in Malaysia has also gone into cyberspace.

One DAP candidate Zaitun Kasim had her candidacy handbill posted to a discussion list in two languages with the tagline “Vote for Change”. She vouches to end corruption and cronyism and fight against discrimination against women, among other promises.

Poster-pushers also seem to have taken the war to Britain as well. A scanned photograph on the same discussion group shows opposition posters strung together under a signboard welcoming visitors to Manchester city.

When a blitz of controversial full-page advertisements condemning the opposition appeared in local newspapers, Internet writer and satirist Sabri Zain, now also based in the Britain, decided to do what he does best–parody the ads and post it on the Internet.

Sabri, who has been lampooning the government since Anwar’s sacking last year from his Geocities Web site, offered seven alternative ads that Internet users can download in .pdf format.

The seven advertisements appeal for votes for the fictitious Nazional Front and features equally controversial pictures and wordings.

One ad has the picture of a black-eyed Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy Prime Minister, with the tagline, “Vote for rule of law”, while another features a demonstrator being kicked and beaten by riot policemen under the title: “Say yes to violence!”

Members of the National Front are unlikely to see the humor of the ads, which are a reflection of the fact that opposition has had no access to mainstream media, and even attempts to place counter ads were rejected.

“The Internet is the only medium available where people can freely criticize the establishment. It is the only avenue we have open to us where we can freely discuss issues or voice dissent and dissatisfaction. It was not by design–we were simply left with absolutely no other choice,” said Sabri, who has been especially prolific this month.

In one article typical of his biting satire, he suggests how Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji, who is on an official visit to Malaysia this week, was being nominated as candidate for the Bukit Bintang parliamentary constituency in Kuala Lumpur.

Sabri believes although the Net’s reach in Malaysia was still limited, it has allowed the opposition the means to counter instantaneously any allegation made against them.

“Internet postings are also constantly forwarded and re-forwarded, and printed, photocopied, faxed and distributed in the thousands. I have seen copies of my Internet articles in parts of rural Malaysia where there isn’t even electricity or telephone lines–let alone computers,” he said.

Malaysia officially has about 650,000 Internet subscribers who belong to the two local Internet Service Providers, but some estimate that there are twice as many who access the Net via cybercafes and private and public education institutions.

Although the figures are still small in a population of 22 million people–with close to 10 million voters–the fact is not lost on the dominant United Malays National Organization (Umno) party of the National Front. After the controversial sacking last September of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, over 50 pro-reform/ pro-Anwar/anti-Mahathir Web sites have popped up. UMNO has formed an Internet defamation committee to monitor these sites for possible legal action.

Committee head Zein Isma Ismail was cited as saying anti-government Web sites had done a “tremendous job” in discrediting the Government but it would not sway votes.

He said at least 8,000 people logged onto identified anti-government Web sites an hour on weekdays and the figure doubled on weekends. Zein Isma, who is also an Umno Youth executive committee member, said he had instructed the movement’s 700,000 members to look into the anti-government Web sites whenever they could “to study the minds of the opposition.”

Technology, however, also has its downside. The electoral roll made available in CD-ROM format –a first time for this elections–and sold by the Election Commission is allegedly infected by viruses.

Perak State DAP chairman Ngeh Koo Ham claimed a computer belonging to one member was infected and crashed, ruining the machine. Sources at the Election Commission confirmed that they have received the complaint and were taking remedial steps to cleanse the CD-ROM, which contained information on voter eligibility.

Published in CNET Asia, Nov 26, 1999.

Related links:
‘Phantom’ voters show up on Internet electoral roll, Nov 26, 1999.
Net’s influence limited in this election, Nov 26, 1999.
Malaysian cyber election nixed, Nov 26, 1999.
Doctored photo on Net stirs election controversy, Nov 26, 1999.
Malaysian elections: On the cyber-campaign trail, Dec 10, 1999.

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