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Me in the Media #7: Politicians Face off on internet [Aug. 30th, 2008|04:16 pm]
Politicians Face off on internet; Poke Jeff, throw a cow at Anwar, scribble on Kit Siang's wall
Nazry Bahrawi in Kuala Lumpur nazry@mediacorp.com.sg
TODAY (Singapore), 22 February 2008

You can now poke Anwar Ibrahim, hug Lim Kit Siang or scribble on Jeff Ooi's wall, all in cyberspace, of course.

That's right, many of Malaysia's top opposition faces are using Facebook, one of the hottest social networking websites currently, to reach young, urban voters in a fun and interactive fashion.

Mr Anwar, the adviser to Parti Keadilan Rakyat, boasts 2,000 "friends" on his Facebook account. Democratic Action Party (DAP) chief Lim Kit Siang has some 700, while blogger-turned-politician Jeff Ooi has 900.

Numbers are expected to grow rapidly as the campaigning gets underway.

This evolution mirrors developments in other elections abroad.

For example, Aus-tralia's newly-elected Prime Minister, Mr Kevin Rudd, also used Facebook to get in touch with supporters during the polls Down Under, while United States presidential hopeful Barack Obama can be found in MySpace.

Apart from Facebook, the opposition has also been actively posting videos and maintaining blogs, which have developed fairly large followings and which are often quoted in daily conversations.

Some, like 22-year-old Sarah Chan, a founding member of an online group to educate young Malaysians about the election process, are firm fans of Facebook for its "ability to present things in a lively, vibrant and youthful way". Ms Chan feels "blogs seem to preach, whereas Facebook shares".

However, Mr Gabriel Seah, editor of Singapore-based blog Tomorrow.sg argues that blogs, rather than social networking sites, may prove more effective to reach out to voters.

"For social networking sites, you need to request people to add you as a friend, and spamming unknown people with "friend" requests is considered bad form. Done en masse, it can even get you banned," he said.

Meanwhile, websites - such as Malaysia-kini - that offer political news, commentaries and opinions unlikely to make it to the traditional print media have also been attracting new visitors.

In fact, Malaysiakini co-founder Steven Gan has upgraded his website's bandwidth to improve access in anticipation of an estimated ten-fold increase in the 100,000 hits which the site receives daily.

Not surprisingly, the opposition has staked a bigger claim to the Internet.

Ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN), in contrast, has not been as aggressive in cyberspace.

Credit, however, goes to Malaysian Chinese Association's Lee Hwa Beng. The prominent assemblyman boasts a website and is on Facebook. However, he is in the minority in government.

Speaking to The Edge, political analyst and blogger Khoo Kay Peng argued that BN would welcome a higher profile in cyberspace, but "because it has access to traditional media" it is quite complacent and lacks the determination to cultivate another media, which it would have to relearn.

This polarisation has led to a crisis of credibility for Malaysia's mainstream media.

Observers say many young Malaysians are willing to listen to and believe blog gossip more than traditional media.

But will the Internet influence votes on March 8? Among young voters in Malaysia's cities, perhaps. But few political watchers are convinced that cyberspace will have a major impact, yet.

One often heard argument is: Rural voters make up the majority and they have little access to the Internet.

Still, there is a litmus test ahead for Malaysia.

As political analyst Ooi Kee Beng, from the Institute of South-east Asian Studies told The Edge: "The Internet is a Pandora's Box; it is now open."