The Networked Electorate: The Internet and the Quiet Democratic Revolution in Malaysia and Singapore

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Journal of Information, Law & Technology

The Networked Electorate: The Internet and the Quiet Democratic Revolution in Malaysia and Singapore

Tang Hang Wu*

Assistant Professor

Law School

National University of Singapore

This a refereed article published on 18 September 2009

Citation: Tang, H. W., ‘The Networked Electorate: The Internet and the Quiet Democratic Revolution in Malaysia and Singapore’, 2009(2) Journal of Information, Law & Technology (JILT), <>

This paper is intended to be a contribution to the literature on claims of the democratising effect of the Internet. The paper begins by setting out the arguments and also critiques of claims of the democratising power of the Internet. In order to test the validity of these arguments, the author will undertake a comparative study of the impact of the Internet on recent general elections in Malaysia and Singapore. The study will demonstrate that in the case of Singapore, the Internet has merely exerted some pressure on the pre-existing laws and state-imposed norms governing free speech; in contrast, in Malaysia, the Internet was a major contributory factor to what has been described as a ‘political tsunami’ during the recent general election. In this comparative study, the author will attempt to explain why the impact of the Internet has been so different in both jurisdictions which share similar laws, culture and language. It will be suggested that, in spite of their similarities, the main reasons for this phenomenon are subtle but important differences in terms of legal, social, economic conditions and also the political climate in both jurisdictions. Despite this difference, the claim made in this paper is that the Internet, due to its evolving architecture, is beginning to generate important norms governing free expression which are capable of having an effect on the electorate. In both countries, the Internet connects individuals to become networks which in turn create powerful echo chambers which have or will ultimately strain the effectiveness of pre-existing laws and state-imposed norms governing free speech. It is also suggested that the recent events in Malaysia has inspired nascent Internet activism in Singapore which potentially may be of greater influence in future elections.
Keywords: e-Democracy; free speech; Internet speech; active dot matrix; networked electorate; powerful echo chambers; Malaysia; Singapore.

1. Introduction
The flow of information to the electorate has traditionally depended mainly on newspapers, television and radio. Obviously, this state of affairs precludes the average man or woman on the street from reaching to the masses because of barriers of entry in terms of costs and access to these channels of communication. In countries where there is limited press freedom, this dependence on traditional media prevents opposition politicians from effectively campaigning and spreading their message to the electorate. The Internet presents a reversal of this old paradigm – with the advent of Web 2.0, it is theoretically possible for the average person with a message to communicate with the electorate at large. Therefore, it is unsurprising that many people are excited with the possibility of the democratising effect of the Internet. This paper is an exploration of this possibility from the perspective of two jurisdictions – Singapore and Malaysia. These countries are selected as comparative case studies because they share very similar laws, culture and language and recently held general elections – Singapore in 2006 and Malaysia in 2008.1 And yet, the effect of the Internet on the electorate in these two countries has been markedly different. In spite of these apparent similarities, in the case of Singapore, the Internet merely exerted some pressure on the pre-existing laws and state-imposed norms governing free speech; in contrast, in Malaysia, the Internet was a major contribution to what has been described as a ‘political tsunami’ during the recent general election. This paper will attempt to explain the reasons for this divergence. Despite this divergence, I will argue that both jurisdictions share a particular commonality – the presence of active Internet communities among the electorate has generated norms with regard to free speech that are incompatible with pre-existing norms that exist off-line. These Internet speech norms have the tendency of spilling out of cyberspace and making off-line speech norms less stable. In the case of Malaysia, the spillover effect of these norms, for reasons which will be explored below, is greater than what has happened in Singapore. In Malaysia, these speech norms coupled with the effective use of the Internet as a campaigning platform rendered the Internet as one of the contributing factors in swaying the electorate to vote in a particular manner. It is also contended that the existence of social and political weblogs or blogs in these jurisdictions presents unique opportunities for the creation of new social spaces where free speech thrives. This paper attempts to present a rough snap shot of these newly created social spaces.

2. The Theoretical Framework of this Paper: Of Dots and Active Dot Matrix
I begin this paper by examining the theoretical framework of the various forms of restraints operating on an individual’s behavior. The individual, as Lawrence Lessig has famously argued, may be conceptualised as a (pathetic) dot (Lessig, 2006, pp. 122-123). As lawyers, we often only think of the law as the primary regulator of human behaviour. However, Lessig alerts us of four forces which restrain the behaviour of the dot. Quite apart from law, these restraints include social norms, architecture and market forces. The dot and these four restraints are represented in the figure below:

Figure : A Dot's Life (Lessig, 2006, p. 123).

Lessig’s insight on architecture impacting on the dot’s behaviour is an insightful and important observation. For the purposes of this paper, the architecture of the Internet is significant. The heavily hyperlinked architecture of the Internet (especially weblogs or blogs) connects individuals with one another. Thus, the individual is not, as Lessig conceptualises, a lonely and pathetic dot existing in isolation in the context of Web 2.0. Rather, a more accurate representation of the dot in this context is Andrew Murray’s active dot matrix which is represented in the figure below. In analysing digital speech, we should realise that individuals are linked together in a complex matrix. The active dot matrix is not merely a descriptive phenomenon; the contention of this paper is that this matrix is capable of influencing speech norms. In this paper, I make the following claims. First, as more and more individuals are plugged into the active dot matrix, the Internet is increasingly becoming a powerful alternative to the main stream media in terms of news dissemination. This point is extremely significant especially in jurisdictions where press freedom is not guaranteed. In Singapore and Malaysia, I shall demonstrate how the Internet has subverted the agenda and tone of certain issues in the national political discourse and undermined strict campaigning laws during the election period. Second, the active dot matrix is also important because it may generate internal norms which may be incompatible with off-line laws and norms. The principal focus of this essay is to study Internet speech norms and to investigate how these norms make the effectiveness of laws and norms existing off-line less stable. A related point is the issue of the dynamics in group decision making. A hypothesis mooted in this paper is that the results of the Malaysian elections may be partly explained as a form of cascade and polarisation of opinion by reason of the active dot matrix. Third, the active dot matrix forms what I christen as ‘powerful echo chambers’. While the term ‘echo chamber’ has distinctively insular and pejorative connotations, powerful echo chambers makes the concerns of members of active dot matrix louder and impossible to ignore by the mainstream press. Finally, the active dot matrix has the potential to tag certain politicians with ‘digital scarlet letters’. This would have a moderating impact on the tone of the political discourse and the behaviour of some politicians.

Figure : Murray’s ‘Active Dot’ Matrix (Murray, 2008, p. 301)
Nevertheless, it would be naïve to believe that the Internet is not susceptible to regulation. As I will demonstrate in this paper, the Malaysian and Singapore governments and some corporations have taken some action against Internet activists. Regulation on any particular dot within the matrix would have repercussions on the entire active dot matrix. This is represented by Murray in the figure below. Thus, while the networked electorate does wield some power by reason of its interconnectedness, this power of the networks is extremely fragile. It is susceptible to destruction by stringent government regulations or private law action such as defamation.

Figure : Regulatory Impact (Murray, 2008, p. 304)
3. The Internet and its Effect on Electorate
The argument that the Internet has a democratising effect on the electorate is not a new one. There are several points embedded in this claim. First, in most jurisdictions, the regulatory regime affecting the Internet is usually less stringent than those affecting newspapers, radio and television. This is not because governments do not wish to control the Internet but there are practical and political difficulties to regulating the Internet. On one level, an overzealous regulatory control of the Internet may, to a certain extent, impede trade. A government who obsessively censors the Internet would have an unfavorable reputation among international investors. Of course, if the regime is not too concerned with the views of the international community, it can attempt to control the Internet and block out certain websites. While this option may be open to a country like China (Reporters Sans Frontieres, 2007), which remains an attractive proposition to investors despite its human rights record, or Burma (Reporters Sans Frontieres, 2008), which does not seem to care about the opinion of the international community, most countries are wary of driving away potential international investors. Control of the Internet also poses immense practical problems. Since the Internet is so vast, any form of effective control would be extremely labor intensive and costly. Furthermore, various techniques such as the setting up of anonymous websites, hosting the websites overseas, using overseas websites such as Youtube or Blogger, putting up mirror sites etc may route around some of the attempts to control the Internet.
Apart from routing around restrictive legal controls, the Internet has lowered the barriers to entry for access to mass communication. With the ubiquity and popularity of social and political blogs and video sharing websites such as Youtube, a person may write and broadcast content which may potentially reach the electorate with access to the Internet. All this may be done without incurring too much cost. Therefore, the barriers to entry in the Internet era are not the regulatory regime or prohibitive costs; rather it is the practical problem of finding and keeping an interested audience (Drezner, 2008, p. 181). In particular, blogs have emerged as a powerful medium in many countries as an effective means of connecting with the electorate (See, e.g., Coleman, 2005; Jackson, 2008; Ferguson and Griffiths, 2006). The architecture of the blog – the possibility of hyper linking it to other blogs and websites and the comments section for readers – has made it an ideal medium for political punditry, dissemination of information and encouraging a dynamic interaction between the blogger and his or her readers. The interactive nature of the blog can be seen as creating new social spaces where the electorate may participate in the deliberative process and as a means of aggregating the collective knowledge of the electorate in considering the pressing issues of the day. It is therefore unsurprising that many political parties all over the world have used blogs as a medium to reach out to the electorate.
Despite the claim that the Internet has had a dramatic democratisation effect among the electorate, there has been some pessimism raised about the extent of this effect. Some of these principal concerns about the limited effect of the Internet will be discussed below.

    1. The Problem of the Daily Me

Cass Sunstein eloquently describes the problem of the Daily Me in (Sunstein, 2002, pp. 3-22). Sunstein warns that the Internet may fragment public discourse into party lines and make the electorate more insular. Prima facie, this seems like a counter-intuitive argument - wouldn’t the Internet expose the electorate to more information and disparate points of views? Sunstein argues that the opposite might be true. People may just log on to the Internet and read things that reflect their pre-existing opinion. In order to describe this phenomenon, Sunstein uses the metaphor of the echo chamber – Internet users will seek out others who echo their pre-existing views. As such, the information on the Internet will only serve to reinforce a person’s preconceived beliefs. According to this theory, the Internet, far from serving as a forum for balanced public discourse, could degenerate into a series of polarised echo chambers. In the context of a multi-ethnic electorate like Singapore and Malaysia, this observation may be particularly apposite. Quite apart, from discourse on the Internet being polarised on ideological grounds, there is also the possibility of fragmentation according to language and racial lines. For example, it is quite likely that the views expressed on the Malaysian English language blogosphere are very different from that prevalent in the Malay language blogosphere.2

3.2 Digital Divide
Another commonly mentioned limitation of the Internet is the existence of the digital divide between those who have the skills and financial resources to have access to the Internet and those who do not (Norris, 2001, pp. 3-26). The presence of the digital divide means that the content of the Internet will only reach those who are well-off and technologically savvy. Therefore, a commonly made argument is that since the degree of Internet penetration is usually relatively low in developing countries especially with the older demographic of the electorate who may not be technologically proficient, the democratisation effect of the Internet is largely overstated.
3.3 Laws May Curtail the Content of the Internet
The initial euphoria among libertarians about the Internet not being subject to legal control has given way to some realism that laws may curtail Internet activism. Website owners, blog writers and various content providers live in the real world and they are subject to the laws of the jurisdiction where they are based. While it is a theoretical possibility of maintaining a completely anonymous website or blog, most prominent political commentators disclose their identity. It is surmised that this is because a political commentator or activist garners more credibility in the public sphere if their identity is known rather than being an anonymous voice on the Internet. Once the identity of the website owner or blogger is disclosed, this immediately subjects the person to the local laws where they are based.
3.4 Most Content on the Internet Are Puerile, Inane or Simply Inaccurate
While some Internet websites have very good content, the fact is, most popular websites are either very puerile or inane.3 Websites featuring pornography and sex scandals remain the perennial top websites and searches on the Internet. Apart from pornography, there is also a huge appetite for puerile content on the web such as gossip on celebrities, fashion etc. Also, a lot of the content on the Internet is simply wrong. Wild conspiracy theories about various celebrities and politicians flourish on the Internet. Thus, it may very well be that the Internet’s power to educate and enlighten the electorate is exaggerated.
4. An Overview of the Recent General Election in Singapore and Malaysia
The contrast between the fortunes of the ruling party in the general election between Singapore and Malaysia is very stark. In the general election in 2006, Singapore’s ruling party, the People’s Action Party (‘PAP’), returned with a comfortable majority of 66.6 % of the overall votes and dropped only 2 seats out of 84 to the opposition (The Strait Times (Singapore), May 8, 2008). In comparison, the ruling coalition in Malaysia, Barisan Nasional, lost its 2/3 majority in the Parliament in the 2008 general election winning 140 out of the 222 seats (New Strait Times, Mar 10, 2008; The Wall St. Journal, Mar 10, 2008). By way of background, the Barisan Nasional is a multi-racial coalition, of which the main players are the United Malay National Organisation, Malaysian Indian Congress and the Malaysian Chinese Association. The 2/3 majority represents a crucial figure because this is the majority that is needed to amend the Constitution.4 The 2008 general election was the worst ever showing by the Barisan Nasional since 1969.5 It is instructive to compare the results of the Malaysian general election in 20046 and 2008. In the 2004 election, Barisan Nasional obtained an enviable 198 out of 219 seats in Parliament. Interesting questions arise when we look at these results. How is the PAP able to maintain such a huge domination over the electorate in Singapore? Has the opposition in Singapore failed to take advantage of the Internet? On the Malaysian side, what is the explanation for the dramatic downward shift in terms of votes for Barisan Nasional? Is the Internet a contributory factor for this shift? The related point is that since there was already the presence of a strong Internet activist movement in Malaysia, why did the opposition not fare much better in the 2004 election?
It would seem that a confluence of factors accounted for Barisan Nasional’s poor showing in the 2008 polls. What then are these factors? Due to space constraints, it is beyond the scope of this paper to undertake a comprehensive account of these factors. For the purposes of this paper, it is sufficient merely to outline the main factors. The 2004 Malaysian general election was unique in the sense that there was a change of the Prime Minister after 22 years. Recall that the general election was called 5 months after the transition between the long serving Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who stepped down in favor of Abdullah Badawi (Liow, 2005). In contrast to Dr. Mahathir’s feisty and combative style of leadership which polarised the electorate, the affable and soft-spoken Abdullah Badawi seemed like a breath of fresh air. The general feel-good mood of the electorate for the end of ‘Mahathirism’ after 22 years accounted for some of the success of Barisan Nasional. Second, Abdullah Badawi being a new Prime Minister cleverly appropriated the mantra of change and reform from the opposition. In the 1999 general election, Anwar Ibrahim’s party, Party Keadilan Rakyat, had gained some ground with the campaign message of reform (‘reformasi’). However, this message of reform was adopted by Abdullah Badawi in 2004, and, therefore, Barisan Nasional took the wind out of the sails of the opposition. Abdullah Badawi sold himself as ‘Mr. Clean’ and a person who was determined to institute structural changes to governance and to crack down on corruption. Barisan Nasional also cleverly neutralised the Islamic party in Malaysia, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, by promoting a moderate and progressive brand of Islam, Islam Hadhari. It is noteworthy to point out that the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001 had some of the Muslim and non-Muslim electorate wary of the growing fundamentalist Islamic movement that was taking root in Malaysia. Thus, Islam Hadhari was a perfect compromise to placate those fears. While it does not deny the importance of Islam, it presents a moderate face of Islam (New Straits Times, Mar. 22 2004).
In contrast, the 2008 general election was held at a time when there was a strong feeling of disenchantment with the government among the three major communities in Malaysia. Among the communities, the Indian community’s feeling of disillusionment was especially acute in 2008. One of the major turning points was a much publicised ‘body snatching’ incident. This involved the burial of M. Moorthy who was widely considered a local hero among the Indian community (Malaysiakini, Dec.22 2005). By way of background, Moorthy was an army officer and part of a Malaysian team which climbed Mount Everest. When M. Moorthy tragically died in 2005, the Islamic religious authority applied to the Syariah court for a declaration that he was a Muslim. It was alleged that army records showed Moorthy had converted to Islam before his death. His family disputed this and asserted that Moorthy died a Hindu. Despite protests, the Islamic officials insisted that Moorthy be buried as a Muslim which resulted in Moorthy’s family not attending the funeral (Aziz, 2005). The high handed and oppressive manner in which the officials behaved gave birth to the Hindu Rights Action Force (‘Hindraf”). The second event which galvanised the Hindu community was the demolition of several Hindu temples including the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple (New Straits Times, Singapore, Nov.7, 2007). All this anger culminated in a bizarre rally organised by Hindraf to collect signatures to petition Queen Elizabeth II and to file a class action suit against the British government for bringing Indians to Malaysia as indentured servants (New Straits Times, Nov.22, 2007). Although the stated goals of the rally were rather odd, it attracted a huge turnout. It was reported that between 5,000 – 20,000 people turned up at the rally.7 In response, the riot police used teargas and water cannons to break up the protesting crowds. Scenes of the riot police battling the crowd further angered the Indian community. Subsequently, Hindraf leaders were arrested without trial under the Internal Security Act. These incidents left the Indian community with the feeling that their interests were not protected by Barisan Nasional’s Malaysian Indian Congress (‘MIC’). It was unsurprising that in the subsequent polls most of the top MIC politicians lost their seats (Anand, 2008).
In the 2008 election, the Chinese community also deserted Barisan Nasional’s Malaysian Chinese Association (‘MCA’) because there was a feeling that the party was impotent when it came to protecting the community’s interest (New Sunday Times, Mar.9, 2008). The high water mark must have been the 2006 United Malay National Organization (‘UMNO’) general assembly where very inflammatory rhetoric was heard. One UMNO delegate was reported to have said: ‘Umno is willing to risk lives and bathe in blood to defend the race and religion. Don't play with fire. If they mess with our rights, we will mess with theirs’ (Ahmad, 2006). The Education Minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, unsheathed, kissed and raised a Malay sword, the keris, and said: ‘This is a warning from the youth movement’. To make matters worse, the entire event was broadcast live (Ahmad, 2006) on cable television to the horrified non-Malay electorate (Lau, 2006). Unrepentant, Hishamuddin again waved the keris in the 2007 UMNO general assembly (Hong, 2007). Other important factors which contributed to Barisan Nasional’s poor showing included: (a) Dr. Mahathir’s constant attacks on Abdullah Badawi;8 (b) the alarming rise of crime rate in Malaysia (Ong, 2008); (c) rising cost of living (Hong, 2008); (d) the trial of a research analyst with rumoured links to the government for allegedly murdering his Mongolian mistress; and (e) alleged corruption in the highest level among members of the Malaysian judiciary and the police force (Ming, 2008). All these events left the electorate with the impression that all major institutions of the government were crumbling and Abdullah Badawi was a weak and ineffectual leader.
A few observations seem to be striking in this cursory overview of the general elections in both countries. First, the degree of Internet penetration among the electorate does not inevitably guarantee success for the opposition. Singapore has a higher percentage of Internet penetration than Malaysia (George, 2005). And yet, the PAP has been extremely successful in dominating the political space in the country. Another important qualification is that the strength of civil society in a particular country appears to be more important than the degree of Internet penetration. This is shown by comparing Internet activism in Singapore with that in Malaysia. The former has higher Internet penetration and a relatively weaker civil society activism than the latter. As such, in Singapore Internet activism is correspondingly less vibrant than Malaysia. Also, as will be demonstrated below, in the case of Singapore, a strategic use of legislation may prevent the Internet from being used as an effective means of campaigning and raising funds during the general election. Another important observation is that even if there is the presence of strong Internet activism, the effect of the Internet is merely one factor which may sway the electorate. In Malaysia, there was a combination of many adverse factors which contributed to the decline of the fortunes of Barisan Nasional. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the Internet had no effect on the electorate in the 2006 general election in Singapore. As I will demonstrate below, the Internet played an important role in news dissemination, subverting the message of the ruling party and routing around some of the legal restraints to free speech and campaigning in Singapore.

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