A cyber war in Malaysian politics?

FEB 19 — Once upon a time, before the Internet became as common as the television in Malaysian homes, public figures made local speeches that were tailored to suit the audience that was physically present.

This worked well for politicians wishing to entertain the parochial tendencies of the audience of the day without jeopardising their prospects of becoming nationally relevant.

Today, however, such speeches quickly leak into the wired world of the Internet, putting things into a different context, and revealing the speakers' supposed real values to the world.

Playing local politics with the awareness that the audience is always the whole wide world is no easy task, especially for those who have been in politics and in power long before the Internet changed everything.

The dominant Umno learned this the hard way three years ago when it decided to telecast "live" its national assembly. The parochialism and racism expressed by its candidates on that occasion for the nation to hear soon forced it to backtrack.

Defensive arrogance does grow out of the inability to evolve.

The attempt to block access to Raja Petra Kamarudin's controversial Malaysia Today website last year managed to stop traffic going to that site, but did not stop access to its contents. Mirror sites sprung up immediately to nullify the censorship.

The police decision in September 2008 to use the Internal Security Act to jail Raja Petra, along with prominent opposition politician Teresa Kok and journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, merely backfired. The de facto minister of law, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, soon resigned in protest.

Publicly calling female bloggers liars, as then Tourism Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor did in March 2007, is also not a very smart thing to do. The negative reaction on the web on that occasion was tremendous.

Opinions expressed for local consumption becoming national news is part and parcel of a revolution in information technology which carries enormous consequences for the near future. Some are positive, and some will certainly not be.

Through the Net, you can sell old useless books you have under the stairs on the world market; you can get to know strangers on the other half of the world merely by being on chat sites; and you can arrange an entire holiday to the south of France without talking to any salesperson at all.

In Malaysian politics, we have witnessed how SMSes, videos and phone cameras have come into play. While these can uncover abuse of power, as in the case of the woman forced to do ear-squats naked while detained by the police in December 2005; reveal dubious practices, as in the case of the Lingam Tapes released in 2007 showing a prominent lawyer boasting about his ability to fix top judge appointments through political connections; and contribute to court cases, as in SMSes supposedly sent by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to a lawyer, discussing the detention of a close associate then charged with involvement in the murder of a Mongolian woman.

The latest political incident involving IT innovations concerns the circulation of nude pictures of prominent opposition politician Elizabeth Wong, secretly taken on a phone camera.

The case of Wong (also a blogger), who has offered to resign from her position as state assemblywoman for the opposition-held Selangor, adds worrying dimensions to the political use of modern IT.

First, it is not only the line between the local and the national that is being erased. The line between the private and the public is fading fast as well.

That is worrying indeed. Most urbanites in Malaysia of all races, especially in the Klang Valley where Wong lives, would undoubtedly consider Wong the victim. Mass media attempts to class the case as a "sex scandal" — and this happened on both sides of the Causeway — smack of shameless sensationalism, journalistic amateurism and political opportunism.

In the sanctity of her home, surely she is allowed to walk scantily dressed, sleep half-naked, even shower nude, and yes, have sex without clothes on. The culprits deserving punishment are those who facilitated the publicising of those pictures, regardless of whether they were taken with her permission or not.

The fact that she is an unmarried woman, and not a man, has had a serious impact on how the incident is being interpreted. Should a male politician, married or not, such as former Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Khir Toyo, for example, have been photographed in the nude while asleep, the fallout would have been minimal, even comical.

The Wong case also shows the disturbing shrinkage of moral space when the private and the local are technologically subsumed under the public and the national.

Moral values do differ geographically, individually, culturally and according to lifestyle. This diversity is denied when such a case gets politicised, and here, the supposed sensitivities of the vocally most religious, most parochial, most traditional and most rural are allowed to define the national public norm. Wong is being sacrificed to appease illiberal elements within the opposition. Surely, this is not what the Pakatan Rakyat is fighting for.

A political cyber war has started in Malaysia. While we thought that the old would be at the mercy of the new in such a showdown, it is time to realise that, in truth, the more desperate and more immoral has the edge.

The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. His latest book is "March 8: Eclipsing May 13" (with Johan Saravanamuttu and Lee Hock Guan, ISEAS).

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