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A Web of promises

Malaysia officially has about 650,000 Internet subscribers compared to 10 million eligible voters, but this ratio is likely to change dramatically by the next elections.

Internet writer and satirist Sabri Zain believes the influence of the Net may grow in the next five years, and may change the way the public would want its government to function. However, he is skeptical about whether either is ready for the change.

"I do not think the government is ready for that kind of transparency and accountability. And frankly, I don't think Malaysian society is ready either. It is not yet the kind of society which sees free flow of information as essential to good democratic government. We're getting there, but we're not there yet and I don't know if we will be there in 2004," he said.

Sabri believes PAS was more successful this time around not only because it used the Net, but that it combined this with its house-to-house campaigning and wide distribution of party tabloid Harakah.

"You can have the best updated Web sites and pump the mailing lists with parliamentary speeches all day and night. But just relying on the Internet alone is not enough. PAS was so successful not only because it made effective use of each tool it had in hand--the Internet, Harakah, the grassroots network--but also because it used all three in such a seamless, integrated manner," he noted.

Sabri, who has built a following with his collection of first-person accounts and biting satire on the Net which often skewers the government, doesn't believe that what he does may sway voting decisions.

"But it does make people think. Satire uses humor to drive home a serious point. In a lot of ways, it is more effective because it doesn't preach to you or give you a hard sell. And it doesn't pretend to be anything more than what it is--a laugh with a moral. Someone may want to read something funny and, hopefully, the actual message gets through."

Pillai, whose discussion lists attracts some 200 postings daily during peak periods, said technology is a useful tool but not a replacement for groundwork. "Technology is with us to stay. It is yet another medium candidates can use to project themselves, and political parties to spread the message. But I am not one who believes the world is about to change. I shall still be suspicious of any candidate who tries to impress his electorate by flights of technological fancy. The process would be more facile, but whether it would make the message more effective is another matter altogether."

As the post-mortems come in, one election winner has already unveiled his early plans for his constituency. Chia Kwang Chye, the defeater of opposition strongman Lim in Bukit Bendera by a razor-thin majority of 104 votes, seems to have taken a leaf from the latter's cyber-campaign book.

Chia now touts the development of an electronic community for his 100,000 constituents. "Everyone can then access it, communicate and answer questions, or even scold me," Chia was quoted as saying in the New Straits Times.

He said political leaders could not afford to ignore discussion and chat groups on the Internet, and political parties must encourage e-communities, even to the extent of being open to public criticism.

Chia's newfound millennium outlook could be a sign of the times--weaving a Web of promises to net future voters and keeping one in office. But it may also just be the precursor of the cyber-battle in Malaysia's next elections.



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