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Chapter 5
new media: amplifying malaysians’ voices
Nuurrianti Jalli
In November 2007, thousands of supporters of Bersih movement gathered in
Kuala Lumpur, protesting for electoral reform in Malaysia. The protesters,
wearing yellow T-shirts marched towards the Istana Negara demanding for
a cleaner election, raised questions among Malaysians about the political
situation in Malaysia – whether or not the country is going downhill due
to the decreasing democracy in the country. Questions and comments were
uploaded online, on social media like Facebook and Twitter – initiating
interactive political discourse which was impossible if it was not because
of Internet. With 78.8% Internet penetration in the country, second highest
in Southeast Asia after Singapore (Freedom House, 2018), and with more
than 18 million Facebook users (Lee, 2016) the people of Malaysia are
becoming more politically vocal and progressing towards a more politically
engaged society thanks to the new media.
This chapter posits that despite substantial control by the previous
government, the Internet was still a promising domain for political
contestation. Internet platforms during election season were seen to be the
best sphere for critical political discourse (Mohd. Sani, 2014). Even though
throughout the years, critics and opposition leaders had been charged for
voicing dissents and criticizing government policies – the Internet as the
conduit for new media platforms has played a pivotal role in Malaysian
political arena. This could be seen through the uprising of civil society
movements such as Bersih and the drastic changes in the electoral results
since 2008. In 2013, Barisan Nasional for the second time lost its 2/3 majority
Media, Politics and Democracy in the 14th Malaysian General Election
in the parliament after the 13th General Election. In 2018, for the rst time
in Malaysian history, Barisan Nasional lost the majority of parliamentary
seats to Pakatan Harapan, paving a pathway for Pakatan Harapan to form
a new government. With the increasing Internet penetration in the country,
as well as the growing diusion of new media platforms Malaysians
are provided with the facilities to express their opinions, practicing their
democratic rights, despite deprived by the quasi-democracy political setting
in the country. This chapter provides details on the Malaysian political
context and media environment, and the impact of new media towards
democracy in Malaysia during Barisan Nasional governance. One section
of this chapter also illustrates the information ow in the Malaysian media
sphere during Barisan Nasional governance – with a specic focus on the
realm of new media. Also, this chapter looks into the Internet regulatory
framework in the country, and how Barisan Nasional sets eorts to curb
freedom on the Internet until 2018.
Malaysia, a multiracial, a multi religious nation located in the Malay
Archipelago of Southeast Asia, known to the world as one of the leading
developing countries. Since its independence in 1957 from the British
colonial power, Malaysia has been ruled by the same political coalition,
Barisan Nasional, which has been claimed to be the longest continuing
ruling party in the democratic world (Raghu & Koswanage, 2013). The
coalition, which was formed in 1973, is a direct successor of Parti Perikatan,
a three-party alliance coalition between United Malay National Organization
(UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian
Indian Congress (MIC) (Ooi, 2004). From 1957 until 2008 before the 12th
the general election, the coalition, which is led by United Malay National
Organization (UMNO) had successfully maintained its majority seats in the
parliament for decades, allowing it to form policies that are government
friendly, and to a certain extent, to be able to change the constitution at its
Although Malaysia presented itself to the world as a democratic nation,
critics have long criticized that the political system in the county is quasi-
democracy at its best (Case, 2001). Due to the prolonged governance by the
5: New Media: Amplifying Malaysians’ Voices
Barisan Nasional, the formation of policies was also centralized towards the
coalition's political objectives contributing to their maintained status quo
as the leading party in the government. Not only because of the prolonged
governance by Barisan Nasional, but the fundamental rights guaranteed
in a democratic state – the right to free expression and assembly are also
curtailed in Malaysia through the use of various laws. Moreover, many
regulations adopted by Barisan Nasional were inherited from the British,
its former colonial master.
For example, the Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960 that allows for
detention without trial, had been used by the government to charge critics
for their dissenting opinions of the government. People charged under ISA
1960 could be detained up to two years (renewable at the discretion of the
Ministry of Home Aairs) (Amnesty, 2001). Several opposition leaders
were charged under ISA 1960, including Anwar Ibrahim of Parti Keadilan
Rakyat, Lim Kit Siang of Democratic Action Party and Muhammad Sabu
of Pan-Asian Islamic Party (PAS). Despite the abolition of law in 2012
which was replaced by the Security Oences (Special Measures) Act
(SOSMA) 2012, the long practice of detention without trial continues on
the land through the use of SOSMA and other laws like the Prevention of
Terrorism Act (POTA) 2015. SOSMA 2012 permits detention without trial
up to 28 days. The Malaysian Royal Police have the authority to restrict
the detainees from getting any legal counsel or contacting their families
for up to 48 hours. According to the Malaysian Home Ministry, 979 people
have been detained under SOSMA from July 31, 2012, until February 2017
(Kaur, 2017). While under POTA 2015, suspects can be held by the police
up to 59 days and renewable at the discretion of the Prevention of Terrorism
Board for an unlimited time. Against the democratic principles, the use of
repressive laws in Malaysia has been remarked by critics as politically driven
and selective, aiming at opposition leaders and critics who are deemed as
threats to the government.
Curtailing Media Freedom to Maintain Power
It has long established that the government highly controlled
the Malaysian media environment through media monopoly and the
implementation of stringent laws (McDaniel, 1994; McDaniel; 2002).
Other than state-owned broadcasting stations, private companies were also
Media, Politics and Democracy in the 14th Malaysian General Election
aliated to Barisan Nasional – producing content that inclined to position
the former ruling coalition in a positive light and often observed demonizing
opposition parties, particularly during the election period (Mohd Sani, 2004;
2009; 2014 George, 2006). Other than state-owned broadcasting station
Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM), major private media companies, like
Media Prima Berhad and MEASAT Broadcast Network System Berhad (or
better known as ASTRO) were also aliated to Barisan Nasional. Content
distributed through these media channels tend to position the ruling coalition
in a positive light, and contrast, demonizing the opposition parties. Going
against the democratic values, the mainstream media were exclusively used
by Barisan Nasional to distribute content to the public and opposition parties
have no access to the platforms. Today, after the change of government in
May 2018, the Minister of Communications and Multimedia Malaysia,
Gobind Singh had pledged to limit ownership of media agencies by political
parties as an eort to ourish fair news reporting (Sivanandam, Carvalho,
& Tan, 2018).
The degree of biased in mainstream media is said to be heightened
especially during the election period. For instance, in a study conducted in
2013 by Tessa Houghton on media coverage during general election 2013,
she found that the mainstream media shared signicantly larger coverage
on Barisan Nasional as compared to its counterparts. Barisan Nasional was
reportedly covered by mainstream media channels by 64.35% as opposed
to Pakatan Rakyat, the leading opposition coalition (26.1%) and other
opposition parties (9.5%). Barisan Nasional was given a favorable coverage
overall, while the opposition parties were represented otherwise.
The online extensions of the government-printing press also showed
the inclination to portray the government in a much friendlier light than their
alternative media counterparts. In a comparative study conducted in 2015
on news content between The Star Online and The Malaysian Insider on
Bersih 4.0 coverage, it was found that The Star Online had shown a friendlier
attitude towards the ruling government than The Malaysian Insider (Jalli,
2016). The research found that The Star Online had used more negative
headlines to describe Bersih 4.0 (34.3% out of the total 105 headlines) the
fourth Bersih rally, as compared to 15% (out of the 226 headlines) by The
Malaysian Insider (Jalli, 2016). It was also observed that The Star Online
had used more negative images in their news report (15% out of the 78
5: New Media: Amplifying Malaysians’ Voices
images used) of Bersih 4.0 as compared to The Malaysian Insider (4% out
of 164 images used).
Table 1: Tone and Voice of News Headlines on Bersih 4.0
Date The Malaysian Insider The Star Online
Positive Neutral Negative Positive Neutral Negative
August 28, 2015 7 11 7 0 3 12
August 29, 2015 31 46 11 1 28 6
August 30, 2015 26 60 13 6 22 12
August 31, 2015 1 10 3 1 8 6
TOTAL 65 127 34 8 61 36
Inter-rater reliability: 0.78
Source: Jalli, N. (2016)
Table 2: Framing of Image Used in The Malaysian Insider and The Star Online to
Report Bersih 4.0
Date The Malaysian Insider The Star Online
Positive Neutral Negative Positive Neutral Negative
August 28, 2015 2 15 0 0 4 0
August 29, 2015 36 28 1 13 16 17
August 30, 2015 33 36 4 12 16 4
August 31, 2015 2 6 1 1 4 1
TOTAL 73 85 6 26 40 12
Inter-rater reliability: 0.74
Source: Jalli, N. (2016)
The use of strict media laws like the Printing Presses and Publication
Act (PPPA) 1984 and Communication and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998
also one of the ways to gain control over media. Both PPPA 1984 and CMA
1998 require for media practitioners to apply for permits to operate. With
such structural hurdle in place, activists and opposition leaders found it
almost impossible to get publication licenses.
Theorizing Information Flow
This section dedicates to illustrating and theorizing how information
ows in the restricted Malaysian media environment under Barisan Nasional.
Media, Politics and Democracy in the 14th Malaysian General Election
As mentioned in the previous section, the former Malaysian government
exercised great control over the conventional media, dictating what content
may be distributed. This theoretical model could also be used to explain
information ow in any countries with similar government control.
At the beginning of the model, the information has to go through a
selecting-ltering process by which the state cherry-picks content from the
materials pool to be shared through traditional mainstream media. In the
selecting-ltering process, the government determines what is permissible
in two primary ways: 1) through an authoritarian approach and 2) through a
social responsibility approach. According to Peterson, Siebert, and Schramm
(1956), authoritarian approach is when the leaders (or government) dictate
policies and decisions without any meaningful participation by the media
practitioners. The state plays a role as a sole gatekeeper in deciding which
content to be disseminated to the public. Social responsibility approach is
when the leaders (or government) acts as a media gatekeeper that allows for
content distribution based on the principle of social responsibility; for the
benet of the people on content related to socio-economic issues. Content
by default would be inspected through the social responsibility approach.
Content deemed informative about the latest aairs, but free of controversial
material would be approved. Through this method, the media enlighten the
public, so the people are capable of self-governance. The system sustains
the economic process by bringing businesses and consumers together
through advertising while also providing entertainment (Peterson, Siebert,
& Schramm, 1956).
During Barisan Nasional era, content related to politics or matters
relating to race, religion, special rights of Bumiputeras (translates as ‘sons
of soil’) and other sensitive topics was decided through the authoritarian
approach. Content that did not frame the country in a negative light or did
not side with the opposition parties would be shared through the mainstream
traditional media. On the contrary, content deemed unfriendly towards
the Barisan Nasional government or considered potentially harmful to the
national harmony would be ltered out. Through this approach, the media
served as the servant of the state – to be dictated and shaped near the center
of power so the information ows from the top (government) to the bottom
(citizen). The truth was, the content the Barisan Nasional approved and
selected through this method needed to project a positive image of the state
or favor the ruling power.
5: New Media: Amplifying Malaysians’ Voices
Once the government approved the content, media still responsible
for continuously placing the governing authority in a positive light. Before
the content nally released to the public media practitioners would select
the content through another selection process. Since there is an abundance
of information that could be covered by the press (previously approved
by the government), media practitioners would only select contents with
news value.
Figure 1: Information Flow in Countries with Government-controlled Traditional
Mainstream Media
The three sub-processes involved in this stage would be 1) agenda
setting, 2) framing and 3) gatekeeping. The selected content would be set
with agenda representing values of the media agency and be framed in
a particular manner (i.e; positioning the government in a positive light).
Finally, the content would be reviewed by the editors who act as gatekeepers
before the content is shared to the public. Understanding these three sub-
processes is crucial to answering this question – Why do we see/hear what we
see/hear/read on media channels? In a media setting where the government
is the primary decision maker about media content, it is safe to say that
content presented through government-controlled media might be skewed
and distorted to a certain extent.
With no space for critical opinions, introduction of the Internet was
promising. Unlike the conventional media, the Internet allows users a robust
control over the content they share or retrieve online. Crossing geographical
boundaries and being able to circumvent government restrictions the Internet
became the perfect alternative for critical individuals to share their opinions
to a wider public. The Internet and its surrounding technologies not only
hold encouraging potential to revive an ideal public sphere it is also able
Media, Politics and Democracy in the 14th Malaysian General Election
to provide information and tools that may extend the role of the public in
the social and political arena (Papacharissi, 2002). The public sphere is a
realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can
be formed, and access should be guaranteed to all citizens.
In Malaysia, although there are disputes about Internet freedom, Prime
Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, when launching the Multimedia Super
Corridor Project in 1996, gave an assurance that the Internet would be free
from censorship (Iga, 2012). Holding to the pledge, critical citizens and
leaders shifted to the virtual sphere to free themselves from restrictions
imposed by the government in traditional media outlets. Dr. Mahathir’s
promise then became a contributing factor to the development of the colorful
virtual media environment Malaysia has today.
Finally, as the nal part of the model, salient, viral issues debated on
the Internet would tend to draw government attention, especially on content
related to local politics. In 2007 for example, Wee Meng Chee (better
known as Namewee), a Malaysian student based in Taiwan, uploaded a rap
video parodying Malaysia’s national anthem on Youtube. The rap was in
Chinese and contained lyrics deemed seditious, touching as it did on race
and religion in Malaysia. In mere weeks since it was rst uploaded, the
video was viewed almost half a million times, and received repercussions,
especially from the Malays. The video became one of the salient issues in
the Internet domain at that time, and consequently attracted the government's
attention. Despite hiding his identity his pseudonym, he was quickly tracked
by the government as he appeared in the video which he also uploaded on
his blog (“SPECIAL REPORT: The Negarakuku saga," 2008).
This incident illustrates the viral capability of online content (Weiss,
2012); where wildly viral content has a higher probability of being noticed
by the government. The government would sift through the content and
decide whether it content would be presented through the conventional
mainstream media. If the state media reproduced the content, it would be
framed to favor the ruling power.
5: New Media: Amplifying Malaysians’ Voices
With no space for critical opinions, the introduction of the Internet in the
1990s was seen as promising. Unlike the traditional media, the Internet
permitted the users to have a robust control over the content they share
or retrieve online. Crossing geographical boundaries and being able
to circumvent government restrictions placed by the government, the
Internet became the perfect alternative for critical opposition leaders, and
government critics to share their opinions to a wider public. The Internet
and its surrounding technologies not only hold encouraging potential to
revive an ideal public sphere but it is also able to provide information and
tools that may extend the role of the public in the social and political arena
(Papacharissi, 2002). The public sphere is a realm of our social life in which
something approaching public opinion can be formed, and access should
be guaranteed to all citizens.
In the early years of Internet diusion in the country, Prime Minister,
Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, during the launching of the Malaysian Super
Corridor (MSC) Project in 1996, had pledged to keep the Internet free
from censorship. The free-censorship policy was pursued as one of the
eorts to position Malaysia as one of the important information hubs in
the region and to attract foreign investors as part of the Vision 2020 plan.
The policy opened doors to critics to express dissenting opinions towards
the government and to initiate critical political discourse on the Internet.
In the late 1990s, Internet platforms such as blogs, forums, and online
groups among others became important sources for alternative information
on politics – contesting content shared by government-controlled media.
One of the earliest examples where the Internet had played a signicant
role in Malaysian politics was during the political uprising after the
sacking of Anwar Ibrahim from his position as Deputy Prime Minister.
Dr. Mahathir, who was the prime minister at time stripped Anwar Ibrahim
of his ministerial position for Anwar had allegedly guilty of sodomy and
was found abusing his power during the 1997 nancial conict. Critics,
however, have argued otherwise – the dismissal of Anwar Ibrahim was due
to his sharp remarks on UMNO internal practices of nepotism, cronyism,
and corruption (McDaniel, 2002).
Media, Politics and Democracy in the 14th Malaysian General Election
The political rift between Anwar Ibrahim and Dr. Mahathir Mohammad
led to the formation of Reformasi Movement – calling for political reform.
The Reformasi movement, the rst organized large-scale protest movement
in Malaysia was facilitated by the Internet – where it provided Reformasi
supporters with convenient platforms to distribute sensitive political
materials to the public and to initiate discussion on the conict (Nair, 2007).
Denied space on mainstream media – pro Anwar and Reformasi activists
turned to Internet to express their opinions and deliver their message to the
mass public. Pro-Anwar and Reformasi websites started to proliferate in
cyberspace shortly after the sacked politician was detained. Estimates of
their numbers range from 40 to more than 50 at their peak (George, 2006,
p. 80; Zaharom Nain, 2002, p. 134). This was seen as a highly signicant
number as the Internet was considered relatively new in the country and
not many have the skill to upload content online (Gomez & Chang, 2010).
Within the rst six months following the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim
in September 1998, Telekom Malaysia, an Internet service provider in
Malaysia had recorded a high number of new subscribers of over 14,000
new customers, surpassing its normal 6-month average new subscription of
6000 (Weiss, 2012). With the overwhelming use of the Internet by Reformasi
supporters despite the lack of Internet penetration in the country at that time,
pushed the government to initiate serious eorts to control the Internet.
CMA 1998, for example, required that all Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
operate with license and the act also authorizes heavy penalty for users who
create defamatory content on the Internet.
The use of draconian laws to control the Internet, however, did not
hinder the growth of critical websites on the Internet. Alternative news
sites like Malaysiakini begin to thrive on the virtual domain, gaining
momentum from the supports received from Malaysians who were wearied
by the biased news provided by mainstream media. In the following years,
Malaysiakini joined by other alternative sites like Free Malaysia Today,
The Malaysian Insider, and Malaysia Today among others to continue
providing critical political news to the public. Under strict scrutiny by
the government, some sites could stay online without interference from
Barisan Nasional. Like Malaysian Insider for example, the news portal
was shut down permanently in March 2016 for allegedly publishing critical
reports on the high-prole money laundering case scandal involving Prime
5: New Media: Amplifying Malaysians’ Voices
Minister Najib Razak (Hodge, 2016). The existence of such websites not
only assisted the Malaysian audiences to diverse political information but
also provided them with the opportunity to make a more informed opinion
on Malaysian politics.
Limiting Freedom of Expression on the Internet through
This segment focused on the use of laws by the former Barisan
Nasional government to limit freedom of expression on the Internet
despite the free-censorship policy introduced by Dr. Mahathir in 1996. The
contradicting actions taken by the government had raised more concern
among critics – questions on the legitimacy of democracy in the country,
as citizens’ right to freedom of expression, is constantly challenged. Some
critics had asserted that Malaysia, due to its increasing control over free
speech – be it online or oine suggesting that Malaysia is moving towards
a more authoritarian state (“Malaysia’s Creeping Authoritarianism” 2015;
Parameswaran, 2016). Other than using Internet-related laws such as the
Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) Act,
CMA 1998 and the newly enacted (and repealed) Anti Fake-News Law
2018 to govern online platforms, other indirect laws were also used to
silence Malaysians’ voices.
In Malaysia, Internet activities are mainly under the supervision of the
Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC).
However, despite being appointed by the government as the regulatory
body based on the power provided in the MCMC Act (1998) and CMA 198
– content provisions on the Internet are also bound to other laws including
the aforementioned colonial laws (Mohd. Sani, 2009). Although MCMC has
been appointed as the regulatory body for online activities since 1998, critics
had expressed that the regulator has been too arbitrary in implementing
these cyber laws (Lim, 2015).
Media, Politics and Democracy in the 14th Malaysian General Election
MCMC is often observed to control the Internet through two ways
1) through content ltering/blocking and 2) through content removal.
In 2014, MCMC stated that the government has not pushed for content
ltering/blocking except for pornographic websites (Wok & Mohamed,
2017). However, in 2008, the access to one of the popular alternative news
sites, Malaysia-Today was blocked for content on the site was labeled as
threatening to national harmony. In 2015, a London-based online news site,
Sarawak Report was also blocked after its reports on the money laundering
scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak. Also, in February in the
following year, another alternative online news site, The Malaysian Insider
was also blocked for the same reason – publishing reports on the scandal.
By March 2016, the owner of the Malaysian Insider decided to shut down
the news site permanently. The constant harassments from the state towards
online media show the declining democracy in Malaysia, as the right to
freedom of speech is constantly disturbed. According to Wok & Mohamed
(2017), due to the stringent control over Internet content in Malaysia, public
universities and government-linked companies also have started to practice
self-censorship by restricting sta and students from accessing online sites
that the government deemed as contentious.
Laws used to Control New Media
Although the government has originally claimed not to censor the
Internet, it has brazenly exerted control over Internet content, especially
when the content is deemed critical of the ruling power. Any disparaging
content involving Barisan Nasional would be curtailed through the use of
repressive laws as tabulated in Table 3.
Throughout the years, government ocials had openly expressed their
frustration over the free-censorship policy. Even Mahathir Mohammad
himself admitted that he regretted the decision he made in 1996, expressed
concern over content posted by irresponsible individuals, taking advantage
of the freedom of expression on the Internet (Surach, 2014; Ng, 2014).
Particularly in the recent years, the popularity of social media among
Malaysians had increased concern among the authorities as content shared on
social networking sites have a higher potential to viral due to the interactive
features of those sites.
5: New Media: Amplifying Malaysians’ Voices
Table 3: Acts used by the Government to Curb Freedom of Expression
on the Internet
Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission Act 1998
Communication and Multimedia Act 1998
Malaysian Penal Code
Evidence Act 1950
Sedition Act 1948
Defamation Act 1957
Internal Security Act 1960, repealed and replaced by Security Oenses and Special
Measures 2012
Ocial Secret Act 1972
Anti-Fake News Act 2018*
*The Malaysian government had enacted a new law which was passed in 2018; The Anti-Fake News
Act. Under this new Act, any content that is deemed as ‘fake’ should not be distributed particularly on
new media sites, such as social media. Person found guilty in creating, publishing, sharing, funding
or any act facilitating the distribution of fake news would be subjected to punishment of RM500,000
ne or 6 years jail, or both (Reduan & Abdul Hakim, 2018). The law however has been repealed by
the Pakatan Harapan government.
The increased eort to curb freedom of expression on the Internet could
be observed through the revision of the Evidence Act 1950 in 2012 and the
amendment of Sedition Act 1948 in 2015. In 2012, the government passed
the amendments of the Evidence Act 1950, which holds the owner and
editors of Internet sites, providers of Internet hosting services and owner of
mobile devices liable for the content they published through their services or
platforms (Freedom House, 2016). Meanwhile, Zahid Hamidi, the Minister
of Home Aairs, in 2015 had armed that the move to amend Sedition Act
1948 was necessary due to the rising threats spread on social media sites like
Facebook and Twitter. He declared that the Penal Code's provisions were
inadequate to handle oenses committed on social media. Critics across the
world have long criticized the use of the oppressive Sedition Act 1948 by the
Malaysian government. The newly amended version also received various
backlashes from human right groups both local and international. At the
30th Session of UN Human Rights Council assembly in 2015, the UN High
Commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had expressed his consternations on
the amended version of the Sedition Act 1948, as it was seen to be another
eort placed by the Malaysian government to curb freedom of expression. In
the 2015 amendment, the denition of "seditious tendency" covers broader
categories and also included more severe penalties.
Media, Politics and Democracy in the 14th Malaysian General Election
Derogatory content related to race, the Malay rulers, the special rights
of the Bumiputeras, religion and secession would be deemed as seditious
and would be banned from the public sphere. Increase number of groups
especially from the state of Sarawak, Sabah and Johor push for secession
from Malaysia as they claimed the federal government has breached the
agreement made during the formation of Malaysia in 1969. In the 2015
amended version of the Act, anyone that commits a seditious oense, if
found guilty would be sent to prison for three years minimum and not exceed
seven years old. As compared to the previous version, rst time oender,
if convicted would receive a ne not exceeding ve thousand ringgits or
be sent to prison not exceeding three years or both, and for the subsequent
oense, to be jailed for a term not exceeding ve years. In Section 4 (1) (c)
of the Act, the word “publish” has been amended to include the words “and
cause to be published.” The amendment was seen necessary as a way to
counter attack the claims by the social media users who inventively argue
that they did not "publish" the content (example, tweets or status updates)
as the publisher would be the social media organizations like Twitter or
Facebook (Johan, 2015).
The "propagation" of seditious content is also included as one of the
oenses. "Propagation" is, however, is not ocially dened in the Act
(Johan, 2015). "Propagation" at its core would mean the action of spreading
or promoting an idea, or in this context would be - spreading or promotion
of content. For new media users, this would mean that an individual would
be count liability if the person shared content on new media platforms
(Facebook, Twitter, messaging apps or others). The person would still
be charged under the Sedition Act 1948 (amendment 2015) even if the
individual is not the one producing the content nor had any seditious intent
(ibid.). Also, another section (Section 5A) was added to the new version
that gives power to the Court to prohibit the person charged under the Act
from leaving the country.
Zulkiee Anwar Haque, or better known as Zunar, an award-winning
political cartoonist who is notoriously known as a vocal critic of the
government, was banned from traveling abroad under Section 5A of the
Sedition Act 1948. Zunar has often satirized Najib Razak, the Malaysian
prime minister including calling for attention towards the allegation of
corruption involving the management of a government development fund
5: New Media: Amplifying Malaysians’ Voices
known as the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (CPJ, 2016). In 2015 alone,
at least 91 individuals were arrested, investigated and charged under the
Sedition Act 1948 (Freedom House, 2016). Activists, opposition leaders,
critics, academia, students were also censured under Defamation Act 1957,
Ocial Secret Act 1972, the Penal Code and the Security Oenses and
Special Measures Act 2012 for content they posted online, which could
result in imprisonment if found guilty (ibid.). However, after the change of
government post 14th General Election, Zunar was pardoned of all charges
and was immediately released by Pakatan Harapan coalition.
Content scrutinized by the government is also not limited to politically
related content. The government had long declared that issues related to
race, religion should be treated delicately by Malaysians as these matters
could jeopardize the national harmony of the multiracial Malaysia. For
example, in July 2013, two Malaysian Chinese, Alvin Tan, and Vivian Lee,
who were made famous for their sex blog, were arrested by the police. They
were arrested for uploading a photo of themselves on Facebook, eating
pork soup (Bak Kut Teh) with Ramadhan greeting that reads “Selamat
Berbuka Puasa dengan Bak Kut Teh... wangi, enak, menyelerakan" (Happy
breaking fast with Bak Kut Teh...fragrant, delicious, appetizing) (Ng, 2014).
Eating pork is forbidden for Muslims; hence the post was deemed oensive
and received much criticism from both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
They were charged under Subsection 4(1)(c) of Sedition Act for posting
seditious content, under Section 298A of the penal code for promoting
enmity between dierent racial or religious groups, and Subsection 5(1)
of the Film Censorship Act for publishing indecent photographs (Freedom
House, 2015).
The growing scrutiny over online content could also be seen through
the enactment of a new controversial Internet-related law, The Anti
Fake-News Act in 2018. Despite the numerous protests and criticisms by
the opposition parties and critics, the bill was passed by the Malaysian
parliament in early 2018, under the justication that it was needed to combat
the widespread of fake news in Malaysian virtual sphere (Reduan & Abdul
Karim, 2018). The Anti-Fake News 2018 was voted through the Malaysia's
Parliament Lower House (Dewan Rakyat), receiving 123 votes for and 64
against the second reading of the bill (Leong & Rodzi, 2018). Under the
Anti-Fake News Act 2018, any person found guilty of creating, publishing,
Media, Politics and Democracy in the 14th Malaysian General Election
sharing, funding, or any act facilitating the spread of false news would be
subjected to a hefty ne of RM500,000 or 6 years imprisonment or both
(Leong & Rodzi, 2018).
The expansion of the Internet technology widens the realm of democratic
engagement and forming new public domains for political involvement. This
section will discuss that despite the strict control placed by the government
towards online content, the Internet is still a promising space not only for
political contestation but also as a tool for political change. This could be
observed through role it played during the previous Bersih rallies, and the
three general elections in Malaysia; GE12 (in 2008), GE13 (2013) and
GE14 (2018).
Bersih Movement
Bersih or the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections was ocially
formed on November 26, 2006, comprising leaders from political parties,
NGOs, and civil society groups calling for electoral reform. The formation
of Bersih was mainly motivated by the claim that the electoral system in
Malaysia is tainted because of the manipulation by the Malaysian Electoral
Committee (EC) that is believed to be of assistance to Barisan Nasional.
The EC is accused of gerrymandering the election to ensure that Barisan
Nasional always has the upper hand during the voting period (Chin, 2015).
Bersih movement although in the beginning were seen to be partisan due
to the majority participation by opposition leaders, throughout the years,
the movement is perceived to be more of grassroots than it was in 2006
(Weiss, 2012). However, the Bersih rallies continued to be criticized by
observers – as the protests were said to be often hijacked by opposition
leaders (Lokman, 2016).
The Bersih movement, despite considered very controversial in
Malaysia, is perceived to play an integral role in increasing the democratic
power of the Malaysian people through openly protesting the government
for fair and clean elections. Until the end of 2016, ve rallies had been
organized by this movement, the rst in 2007 and the sixth on November
5: New Media: Amplifying Malaysians’ Voices
19, 2016. For the rst three rallies and the sixth, the primary objective was
to call for electoral reform and to ght for a clean and fair general election.
However, the fourth gathering (Bersih 4.0), organized in late August 2015,
had a dierent principal aim, to call for Prime Minister Najib Razak’s
resignation, and to push for institutional reforms of prime ministerial
corruption. With an extensive online campaign, it was claimed that half
a million Malaysians participated in the two-day event that took place in
Kuala Lumpur for Bersih 4.0 (Buang, 2015).
The use of Internet platforms especially social media sites like
Facebook and Twitter to promote Bersih rallies, and as communication tools
during the day of the demonstration itself, exhibited the pivotal role played
by the Internet as a conduit for democracy. This could be seen through the
increasing support from Malaysians towards Bersih over the years, where
the number of turnouts during the rallies increases exponentially from
approximately 50,000 attendees in 2007 (Siong & Yahya, 2015) to 500, 000
participants in 2015 (Bersih, 2017). Although the government constantly
reminded that there would be potential punishment for rally goers – the
warnings from the Malaysian authorities did not deter the supporters. During
Bersih 4.0 in 2015, it was found that more than 70 pages Facebook groups
and pages have been created, and other social media like Twitter, Youtube,
and blogs were actively used during the protests.
Declining Support towards Barisan Nasional in General
New media has undeniably assisted in political metamorphosis in
Malaysia. Since the beginning of Internet penetration in the mid-1990s,
the new media had assisted Malaysians to overpass government control
over freedom of expression. Malaysian media has always been under strict
control by the former Barisan Nasional coalition. The stringent control
includes eliminating the right of the opposition party to use traditional media
(broadcast and print media) for political lobbying. Opposition parties as
an eort to overpass government control over the media had strategically
utilized the Internet to assist them with their political aims. Their eorts
came to fruition during the 12th general election in 2008 where opposition
parties collectively broke the 2/3 majority in the parliament that has been
maintained by Barisan Nasional since 1969 (Moten, 2009). It has been
Media, Politics and Democracy in the 14th Malaysian General Election
widely accepted that the strategic use of the new media platforms by the
opposition had contributed to the result of the 2008 election. Prime Minister
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who was in the oce at that time, acknowledged
that the Barisan Nasional had underestimated the power of Internet platforms
for political campaigning (Sani & Zengeni, 2010). Aware of the aptitude
of the Internet as an ecient political tool, in the following years, Barisan
Nasional exerted extra eort in increasing its online presence by encouraging
members of parliament to engage with the public through social media.
Prime Minister Najib Razak was famously quoted in the press that the
2013 general election would be a “social media election” due to the extensive
use of social media platforms by Barisan Nasional for political campaigns
(Lim, 2013). According to Tapsell (2013), the increased participation on
social media by political parties had led to political cyber wars. Barisan
Nasional was said to employ the use of mob-style campaign of engaging
politically motivated cyber troopers to assist in political lobbying and to
ensure increased support from avid social media users and at the same time
to counter-attack content uploaded by opposition parties (Hopkins, 2014).
Five years later, despite the eorts placed by the government to
strengthen its online presence, in the 2013 general election, Barisan
Nasional, again, shocked by the loss of popular vote to the opposition
(Gomez, 2014; Noh, 2014). Barisan Nasional won only 47.3% of the
popular vote (Zakaria, 2014). That year, the coalition for the second time
lost its two-third majority, securing only 133 seats compared to 89 by the
opposition, dropping further from its 140 seats in the parliamentary majority
in 2008 (Tapsell, 2013; Gomez, 2014). The result for the consecutive losses
in the two elections was said to be contributed to the increasing number of
civil society movements in Malaysia and the intensive use of social media
as political tools by the oppositions (Leong; 2013).
Regardless of the increased eorts by Barisan Nasional in the next
ve years, in 2018, for the rst time, Barisan Nasional lost its majority in
the parliament, failed to form a government. Barisan Nasional which was
led by the former Prime Minister Najib Razak was said to lose the election
due to the ongoing discourse online over the nancial scandal involving
him and his family members (Mohsen & Kavanagh, 2018) and other factors
including the popularity of his opponent, Tun. Dr. Mahathir Mohammad (the
5: New Media: Amplifying Malaysians’ Voices
president of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, PPBM) (Barron, 2018), the rise
of civil right movements, and the prolong dissatisfaction over the condition
of the nation’s economy (Tan, 2018). Through the events described in this
chapter, the use of new media for political contestation had brought changes
to Malaysian politics. Although the change was not immediate, the direct
change towards electoral results could be traced back to over a decade ago.
As this chapter has shown, although the Barisan government had
continuously increased its control over Internet content, despite the free-
censorship policy in place – the Internet was still a promising sphere for
political contestation. Internet platforms were actively used by Malaysians
to express opinions, sharing critical information as well as initiating political
campaigns. Throughout the almost three decades of Internet diusion in
the country, Malaysia has experienced the Internet-eect on its political
landscape – from witnessing the uprising of civil society movements like
Bersih, and the loss of Barisan Nasional two-thirds majority in the parliament
during the 2008 and 2013 general elections and ultimately the change of
government in 2018. These political events suggest that control placed by
the Barisan Nasional although intimidating did not stop the growth of civil
society in Malaysia. Free speech – while deprived by the quasi-democratic
setting in the country – still could still be practiced through the use of the
Internet. It is undeniable that the Internet to a certain extent has the power
to widen democracy especially in a country such as Malaysia.
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... Moreover, during the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) Malaysia project launch in 1996, then the Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammad pledged that the Internet would be free from censorship. The policy was one of the efforts for the country to attract foreign investors as well as be an information hub in the region, as part of the Vision 2020 strategy (Jalli N., 2021). Therefore, the policy is being continued into the present day. ...
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In the run up to Malaysia’s 13th general election, observers were curious to know if social media would be able to impact the electoral outcome. In the 2008 general election, it was widely accepted that alternative online content disseminated by blogs, party websites and alternative news portals determined the electoral outcome. The opposition then, for the first time, denied the ruling coalition a two-thirds majority in Parliament. By 2013 the role of social media received widespread attention because of its exponential growth in Malaysia since 2008, where there were 800,000 Facebook and 3,429 Twitter users to 2013 when the number increased to 13,220,000 for Facebook and 2,000,000 for Twitter users. This commentary examines the role of social media in Malaysia’s 2013 general election and assesses its impact on the electoral outcome.
Despite losing the popular vote, Malaysia’s long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) triumphed again in the country’s 2013 elections, disappointing an emboldened opposition that had high hopes after a strong performance in 2008. Why and how did Najib and the BN win? What do the answers to those questions mean for his government and for democracy in Malaysia? In many ways, the 2013 polls typify those of competitive authoritarian systems, in which incumbents use finely honed tactics and institutional leverage to stay in office. But the 2013 general election also revealed social forces pushing for greater democracy. The nature of BN’s victory, the voting patterns, and the broader political forces within society point to continuing pressures for further democratization and high levels of political contestation in the future.