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How the Internet is molding public opinion in Malaysia

By Sabri Zain
August 6, 1999

At 9 pm on September 20, 1998, when masked policemen armed with submachine guns stormed into the home of Malaysia's sacked Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim, it was not the local television stations or even CNN which were the first to break the news of the historic arrest.

Just minutes after the arrest, an email alert from a supporter present at the house was sent out to newsgroups and discussion lists on the Internet, giving thousands of Malaysians access to vivid details of the events that night.

It signaled a crucial turning point in Malaysia's political landscape--the Internet had arrived.

Since then, both supporters and opposers of Anwar and his nascent Reformasi (reform) movement acknowledge the role that the Internet has played in shaping public opinion.

For the reformists, the Internet became one of the few avenues available where they could expose what they alleged were gross injustices and abuses of power. For government supporters, the Internet became a den of lies, rumors and slander aimed at tarnishing the country's image.

The use of the Internet as an alternative source of information and channel for public opinion in Malaysia is, however, not new.

Mailing lists, such as the Sangkancil Forum, had been actively discussing and debating current affairs for years prior to the incident.

When in September 1997, the country was cloaked in a choking haze from neighboring forest fires, at least six different Web sites sprouted almost overnight.

The sites provided Malaysians with daily air pollution readings, satellite maps of the forest fires, health advisories and even tips on how to wear protective masks properly--information sorely lacking in the traditional media during the initial stages of the environmental disaster.

Malaysians were to receive another taste of the Net's power last August.

A rumor, first started on the Internet, was to send city residents in a frenzy of provision-stocking panic. Machete-wielding Indonesian immigrants were said to be rioting in the Chow Kit district of capital city Kuala Lumpur.

One office worker recalls going home in a taxi and having to squeeze herself among literally hundreds of packets of instant noodles in the back seat of the terrified driver's vehicle.

In the end, the only machete-wielding Indonesians in the city were the fruit-sellers cutting open durians for hungry customers.



Sabri Zain was a former journalist and corporate communication specialist for a technology company prior to switching to wildlife conservation. His present claim to fame arose from running a controversial diary on the Internet ranging from straight reporting to satire. Email us your comments.


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