By Heather Farr
Copy edited and produced by Hilary Johnson
Facebook is making Malaysians lose grip on reality.
At least that is what the newspapers in the country recently proclaimed. But in a society where the government-owned mainstream media are increasingly distrusted, could social media outlets actually be better connecting Malaysians to society, each other and…politics?
“Social media outlets have been the biggest factor in changing the face of politics in Malaysia and how information is spread,” Angela* of Kuala Lumpur said.
Following the 2008 general election, the ruling party, which had relied on traditional media forms since it came to power in 1957, lost a sizable majority in parliament to the media-savvy opposition. According to Anil Netto, a Penang-based independent writer, the ruling party felt that they were being left behind in social media following the election.
“The current government’s traditional communication means of television, radio and print still have an advantage in rural areas where Internet usage is not as high, but not in the urban centers,” Netto said.
“Fewer and fewer people are relying on mainstream media and newspapers. In local universities, people have stopped reading newspapers for Facebook and Twitter.”
Recognizing this fact, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s created 1Malaysia, a site intended to provide a “free and open forum.” The website promotes video responses to viewer questions and a discussion forum called the “Roundtable,” which was created to allow locals, regardless of location, profession or age, to provide “fair and constructive comments, suggestions or ideas to better the life of Malaysians.” Many, however, treat politicians’ personal social media pages like a second form of government-run media.
“People are wary of politicians online because you don’t know if they are being sincere. Their Facebook and blog posts do not affect me much because it feels like another form of propaganda,” retired teacher Halimah Ashari said.
Still, the Prime Minister has just under one million fans on Facebook and receives thousands of “likes” and hundreds of comments each time he posts.
“It seems as if the Prime Minister, or more likely his team, gets back to questions asked, and for that reason, I think he deserves some credit for taking the time to respond,” digital media manager Alwin Chan said. “It use to be difficult to reach politicians in the past, and now with direct connection, you can.”
Before the Internet, citizens had little chance to speak out because the government controlled the media. According to Netto, social media allows Malaysians to give their views and to see others who share those views.
“It’s good to see that you’re not alone on such critical matters as politics,” Netto said. “With avenues like Twitter and Facebook, people feel as if their views matter.”
Not only are Malaysians more able to share views online, but also, they are more willing. According to cross-cultural development consultant and Universiti Putra lecturer Asma Abdullah, Malaysia is a high contact culture. This means people are often very indirect and subtle, and rarely talk about real issues in the foreground. In this type of culture, social media is vital because it allows people to be more direct or bold than they might be in person.
“Social media allows us to give our views about politics, whether for or against. People feel as if they can say what they want because they are faceless,” Ashari said.
“I respond on blogs, saying whatever I like, and I am not afraid of the consequences.”
Although social media gives a more confident voice to Malaysians, it can also lead to problems in such a diverse country.
“Along with the country’s many races, ethnicities and religions come many sensitivities. When it comes to being critical online in this country, a concern is intercultural conflict when one group does not like something another group has said,” Abdullah said.
Although Chan doesn’t believe that social media has improved or worsened race relations, he has felt the effects of faceless hatred. After four or five years of running peacefully, SeksualitiMerdeka – an annual sexuality rights festival held in Kuala Lumpur – was shut down by authorities and attacked by social media users.
Not surprisingly, Malaysian politicians are also targets for ridicule online. Independent newspaper The Malaysian Insider recently reported that Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek, president of uni-racial political party Malaysian Chinese Association, scolds citizens and youth for “using the Internet as an avenue to abuse national leaders.”
“[They] must understand that people are entitled to a difference of opinion and if they are the very people who talk about democracy and freedom of expression, they should not be rubbishing others,” Dr. Chua, who has about 130,000 followers on Facebook, told The Malaysian Insider.
According to Chan, Dr. Chua is naive to think people will not rubbish him because “it’s just a part of social media.”
“It does take a mature nation and mature users to be responsible and share valuable comments. However, comments that are silly are very easy to spot, and most people can spot and disregard them,” Chan said.
For better or worse, the relationship between Malaysian politics and social media has just begun. With a general election in the near future, politicians will utilize the tool or be left behind, and citizens will work to influence others through the outlet.
According to lecturer Asma Abdullah, if nothing else, these outlets will give each Malaysian the opportunity to have a voice.
“That’s the power of social media – even those who are introverts can communicate because it is as if you are talking to not people, but a machine.” Abdullah added: “It certainly has changed the way we look at an issue and how we express our ides openly. I may not have an audience, but I can always talk to my PC.”