The seeds of Malaysia's 'social media election'

In 1996, as Kuala Lumpur correspondent for the Asian Wall Street Journal, I was sent to cover an event at a five-star hotel downtown.

The guest of honour was Malaysia's then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The event was the launch of something called the Multimedia Super Corridor.

Not sure what it’s about, my boss said. See what you make of it.

Like almost every official Malaysian event, it started late. But unlike most events, this time, even the prime minister was kept waiting. After the emcee kicked things off, the giant screen overhead stayed stubbornly blank, even as the voice-over began.

Organisers panicked. The prime minister, his face dark, drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair.

In front of some of Malaysia's biggest foreign investors – including officials from Microsoft and Intel – a technician found the problem: Somebody had tripped over a cable, yanking it out of its socket.

It was not an auspicious start to Malaysia's big information technology push.

At the time, I was probably not alone in underestimating Tun Mahathir's dream. An unfettered Internet? E-commerce? E-government? Computers in the kampungs? It all seemed far-fetched.

I went back to my office and wrote something. My paper ran it inside the main section.

But even Tun Mahathir could not have foreseen the extent to which the people would seize on his vision of a networked Malaysia. Or how they would use its new powers.

Today, what Tun Mahathir articulated has come to pass. Malaysians now buy and sell products and services online. Most government departments have basic information and official forms on their Web sites. And an e-mailing, texting, Facebooking, Tweeting, Whatsapping populace can hardly imagine a time when they didn’t.

The biggest effect of this information revolution has been to open new avenues of public discussion. Lively exchanges on once taboo subjects such as official corruption and race relations are now all over the Web.

The combination of multiplying Internet connections and the longtime hunger for alternative sources of news has been combustive.

They culminated in 2008 in startling elections – which became known as the “political tsunami” - that saw the poorest showing for the ruling coalition since 1969. And yes, it was computers and mobile phones in urban areas and in the kampungs that helped bring about the change.

With the next election imminent, in a country with one of the longest-ruling governments in the world, the noise online is rising to a crescendo. When everybody piles in, it’s harder than ever to say who’s telling the truth. 

But this is one cable that can’t simply be yanked out of its socket again.

This isn’t being called the “social media election” for nothing.

chenmay@sph.com.sg