The win by Malaysian opposition Pakatan Harapan in Malaysia’s 14th GE yesterday (9 May) shows that smartphones are by-passing the heavy media censorship by the Malaysian government, especially in the rural areas.
It’s no secret that all along, the Barisan Nasional (BN) strength lies in rural areas as proven in the 13th general election. In the 2013 general election, 108 out of 133 seats won by BN came from rural seats. In terms of popular vote in the last GE, BN obtained 57% in rural seats, 47% in semi-urban seats and 36% in urban seats.
Substantial control over media
According to a BBC report last year, the Malaysian authorities exert substantial control over the media and the country has some of the toughest censorship laws in the world.
The Malaysian government can impose media restrictions in the name of national security. News is constantly being censored by the authorities. A Sedition Act poses the biggest threat to journalists, says Reporters Without Borders.
The TV sector comprises state and private networks and pay TV. Private TVs have close ties to the government, while state outlets reflect government views, said US-based Freedom House. Newspapers must renew their publication licenses annually, and the home minister can suspend or revoke publishing permits. However, Freedom House also noted that news websites and blogs do offer a range of opinions that are absent in traditional media.
So even though news of 1MDB involving Najib may be much curtailed in mainstream media of Malaysia, they are widely circulated online and through social networks. And with the advent of smartphones, it’s not difficult even for the rural folks to receive funny jokes on Najib or 1MDB through their phones, and in turn they would send them to their friends and relatives.
The smartphone has certainly awakened the rural folks much more than before, as seen in the present electoral results of Malaysia’s 14th GE, particularly in those constituencies in rural kampongs.
George Yeo foresaw technological changes undermining hierarchies
At a public lecture in 2016, Singapore’s former Cabinet minister George Yeo noted that technological change is undermining hierarchies everywhere.
In the past, institutions were maintained by ritual, by fear, by mystification, by hypocrisy, sometimes by outright lies. But with cameras and microphones now ubiquitous, this is no longer possible, Mr Yeo acknowledged.
“Those who pretend to be what they are not get quickly exposed and laughed at in the social media,” he said.
“The digital revolution is dramatically redistributing power in human society. Today, good teachers learn from their students; good parents learn from their children. Political or corporate leaders can no longer act as if they have a monopoly of knowledge, wisdom and moral authority.”
He also talked about smartphones linking people up.
“For good or for ill, people are linking up to others with similar identities or interests. Being physically together no longer ensures interaction,” he observed. “Through the smart phone, the passengers in a train are each in his own world. We have become comfortable ignoring people around us. Sometimes, one gets the same feeling even around a family dining table.”
And finally, he also acknowledged, “No government has full control over the Internet.”
Meanwhile, the Singapore government has formed a Parliamentary Select Committee headed by MP Charles Chong to tackle so-called “fake news” particularly in social media.
Would Mr Chong succeed? What do you think?