KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s weak opposition was up against a hostile mainstream media and restrictive campaign rules, but it can chalk up much of its stunning success in Saturday’s election to the power of cyberspace.
Voters exasperated with the unvarnished support of the mainstream media for the ruling National Front furiously clicked on YouTube and posted comments with popular bloggers about tales of sex, lies and videotapes in the run-up to Saturday’s election.
Jeff Ooi, a 52-year-old former advertising copywriter who made his name writing a political blog, Screenshots, won a seat in northern Penang state for the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP).
Elizabeth Wong, a human rights activist and political consultant who runs a blog, won a state assembly seat in the central state of Selangor.
YouTube, the phenomenally popular video Web site, did as much damage as any opposition figure could hope to inflict, after netizens uploaded embarrassing videos of their politicians in action on hot-button issues.
One YouTube video in January showed ruling party MP Badruddin bin Amiruldin causing a ruckus in parliament over whether Malaysia was an Islamic state. “Malaysia is an Islamic state”, he declared. “You don’t like it, you get out of Malaysia!”
Muslim Malays form the majority in multi-racial Malaysia, but ethnic Chinese and Indians account for a third of the population and they deserted the ruling National Front in droves, partly in outrage over the religious debate.
Sex, Sleaze, Corruption
Another YouTube video that got wide distribution shows a rambling and incoherent Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin, in a live interview with al-Jazeera, excitedly defending a police crackdown against peaceful protesters calling for changes to the electoral process in November.
Zainuddin was one of several “big guns” in the National Front that fell to the opposition’s onslaught.
Sex, sleaze and corruption were election issues and they all had video soap operas on Web sites.
Malaysia’s health minister resigned in January after admitting he and a female friend were the couple in a secretly filmed sex video uploaded on YouTube. That cost some votes.
“We were concerned about the morality of our leaders,” said Maisarah Zainal, a 26-year-old teacher in Kuala Lumpur. “It didn’t help that Chua Soi Lek was involved in a sex video.”
Loh Gwo Burne, who secretly videotaped a phone conversation, allegedly showing a high-profile lawyer trying to fix judicial appointments with Malaysia’s former chief judge, was elected to a seat in parliament from a seat in suburban Kuala Lumpur.
The grainy video hit a nerve in Malaysia, whose judiciary has been under question since the late 1980s.
Malaysia’s blogging community offer alternative views in a country where the government keeps a tight control on mainstream media. The government said last year it might compel bloggers to register with the authorities to curb the spread of malicious content on the Internet.
Government backers doubt whether bloggers turned opposition politicians could make their presence felt. “Beyond the major cities like Kuala Lumpur and Penang, there’s not much the bloggers can really hope to accomplish,” says Mohamad Norza Zakaria, a leader in Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s UMNO party .
Even a barely literate 89-year-old grandmother running for parliament with little money and only a bicycle to get around on, hopped the cyberspace bandwagon with a Facebook profile and her own blog, courtesy of some Internet savvy supporters. Maimun Yusuf , however, lost. It wasn’t clear how many of her potential voters were hooked up to the Internet in northeastern Terengganu.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)