Malaysian elections & social media

This weekend sees a national election taking place which could be pivotal in Malaysia’s future, which makes it a significant event in Australia’s south-east Asian region. It also reminded me of a forum I attended in Kuala Lumpur last year as part of Malaysia Social Media Week (MSMW). I spoke in one session which looked at the use of social media in politics – encompassing campaigning for social change, of which electoral politics is one part. Malaysia has ‘only’ around 29 million people, compared to approximately 240 million people in Indonesia, which tends to mean that Australian policy gives much greater attention to Indonesia. But there are large numbers of Malaysians studying in Australia, with Malaysia being the fifth largest source country when it comes to international students. I met quite a few Malaysians at the MSMW who were or had been studying in Australia. It also has a legal system based on English Common Law.

I watched many of the other segments held at the MSMW forum, which included one which featured two fairly young politicians – one a Government MP and one from the Opposition – talking about the role and use of social media in electoral politics. I’ve seen many talks on a similar topic in Australia, and seen and read many pieces by Australian politicians on such a topic. I have to say the two Malaysian MPs was easily the most insightful I’ve seen, displaying a comprehensive understanding of how social media can be used by civil society for campaigning and to influence policy. There has been significant agitation for social and political reform in Malaysia in recent years, including Bersih – the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections – and that movement has also used social media quite effectively.

All told, I got a very strong impression from listening to a range of talks, as well as talking with participants outside the forum, that there was much more meaningful and effective use of social media amongst politically active people in Malaysia than there is in Australia, where politicians seem to use it mostly as just another form of advertising. Perhaps because the mainstream media in Malaysia is so blatantly pro-government, people need to use other mechanisms to communicate ideas and build support. However, that’s not something Australia can really be very critical of, given the unabashedly pro-Liberal nature of the Murdoch press, which dominates the print landscape in Australia.

Since independence, Malaysia has been governed by the same Barisan Nasional (or National Front) Coalition, headed by the United Malays National Organization (UNMO) – usually with large majorities. At the most recent Malaysian election in 2008, the Parliamentary representation of the UNM led Coalition fell below two thirds – the threshold for changing the Malaysian Constitution – with significant gains to the Coalition now led by Anwar Ibrahim, which also won government in five out of the twelve contested State Parliaments.

Whilst some are critical about how genuinely representative the Malaysian Parliament is, it is not something people in Queensland can really be overly critical of. After all, at our election last year, the LNP won just under fifty per cent of the vote, yet ended up with over eighty-five per cent of the seats. If the Malaysian Opposition manages to make further gains at this weekend’s election it will be very significant. If they can actually gain government it will be a truly historic moment. If UNMO regains lost ground and gets back above a two-thirds majority, it will be a big blow to those trying to bring significant change to how Malaysia operates.

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