EMPLOYING the power of the internet is easier said than done.
After the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s drubbing in the 8 March 2008 general election, the effective use of the internet by the opposition was identified as one of the reasons for the ruling parties’ losses.
So, it wasn’t much of a surprise that BN leaders themselves began getting onto the internet. Especially with party elections being held after the general election, many BN politicians finally took to the internet as a means of garnering support for themselves.
Khairy Jamaluddin While blogging was once seen to be the last resort of the politically desperate, it is now viewed as a legitimate and viable form of reaching out to the masses, even by BN leaders who once poured scorn upon bloggers. Among the notable Umno politician bloggers are former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and Umno Youth deputy chief and Member of Parliament (MP) of Rembau Khairy Jamaluddin.
The latest BN leader to set up a website is prime-minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Najib Razak. But even before Najib’s website was launched on 17 Sept 2008, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had a website — Warkah untuk PM — which was put up a week before the general election.
The question is, have these new sites by BN leaders made inroads by actively engaging internet users and by being personally available to their constituents? Or are these mere attempts to jump on the e-bandwagon?
Too little, too late
In a well-circulated critique, content and digital media professional Bernice Low posts several legitimate criticisms about Najib’s site. Among others, she pointed out that the site is slow to load and has skimpy information — apart from officious content — that would allow readers a sense of what the deputy premier stood for. She also said the name of the site should be easily identified with Najib, citing the websites of Barack Obama and John McCain.
John McCain (Public domain) According to an aide in the deputy prime minister’s office, who could not be named as part of office policy, Najib wanted his site’s name “to represent united Malaysians and the idea that we all belong to the same country.”
Since the site was launched, Najib has posted seven times on his blog, the latest being on 20 Oct 2008. The most comments he has received for a posting, as of 21 Oct 2008 at 9am, was 31 responses when he first launched his site. Since then, he has only received about 15 or so responses per posting.
The aide admits that reader comments are currently limited. “[We] will work towards increasing reader comments once he (Najib) blogs more regularly,” says the aide, adding that Najib still does not have time to reply to individual comments.
Indeed, the aide says it is difficult for the deputy premier to update his blog because he constantly has to attend to people. “But, he issues statements to the public from time to time,” says the aide, who adds that Najib’s responses to comments on his site would be no different from his public statements made through the traditional media.
“Najib reads [comments] on printouts, and sometimes he reads them when he logs on to his website at night,” says the aide, who explains that comments are not censored unless for abusive language, and criticism is allowed.
The aide adds that the site is privately funded, but it was not revealed how much was involved in setting it up.
Pak Lah (© Wan Leonard) Even before Najib’s foray into the internet, Abdullah’s Warkah untuk PM had already been launched on 1 March 2008, urging visitors to grab the opportunity for their voices to be heard by sending the prime minister an e-mail.
The site promises the rakyat that they are welcomed to speak to Abdullah directly, especially if they want a reply from the prime minister. Unfortunately, the site does not display how many comments have successfully reached the prime minister, or even what these comments are. And there is no way anybody can tell if Abdullah himself has responded.
The Foundation of Malay Studies and Strategy, which manages the site, would not be interviewed when contacted by The Nut Graph.
Media lecturer and analyst Dr Mustafa K Anuar says the requirement that visitors provide their contact details, such as e-mail address and mobile numbers, when posting on the Warkah untuk PM site is a put-off. Indeed, the visitor is also expected to put in his or her racial category before being able to e-mail Abdullah.
Dr Mustafa says neither Abdullah nor Najib’s sites is user-friendly, both in terms of format and presentation.
Najib Razak “I think Abdullah and Najib still suffer from a top-down communication paradigm,” says Mustafa in an interview.
He also notes that criticisms against Najib are absent on his site. “Too many of the responses are of the apple-polishing type,” he says.
On top of that, Mustafa observes that by and large, the information provided on Najib’s site is similar to what can be found in the traditional media. “Nothing new and challenging,” he says.
Ahead of the game
In contrast, politicians in the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), who have not had fair or equal access to the traditional media, have long used the internet as a main tool of communication with the masses.
Mustafa cites the website of PKR’s state assemblyperson for Bukit Lanjan, Elizabeth Wong, which features a virtual map-guided complaint centre. He says Wong’s site should be the template for elected representatives in making themselves more responsive and sensitive to people’s needs.
Even before DAP MP for Petaling Jaya Utara Tony Pua got involved actively in politics, he launched a blog, Education in Malaysia, in April 2005 with Ong Kian Ming. Pua says the blog was their way of discussing how education standards in Malaysia could be improved.
In 2006, he launched his now-popular English blog Philosophy Politics Economics. And in 2007, he launched a Chinese-language blog. Pua’s blogs gained popularity and prominence after he joined politics.
Although Pua’s postings don’t receive significantly more comments from readers compared with Najib’s postings, he does post more frequently and tries to respond directly to readers.
Tony PuaPua, who looks after his English blog personally, said it receives 3,000 to 7,000 page views daily. It enjoyed approximately 18,000 page views, the highest ever, in a day during the 2008 general election.
Pua says the blogs are not necessarily effective in terms of gathering public opinion.
“It’s more effective to read other people’s blogs to do that. However, it’s effective in gathering public sentiment about my own opinions, and whether they stand up to public scrutiny,” says Pua.
For Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, blogging began as early as 1997, when he designed his own website on Geocities.
Today, his blog is important for his constituency because it is used to raise issues, and submit complaints and suggestions to his office.
“They can get in touch with me directly instead of waiting for my open days. At the same time, they can keep in touch less formally with me through Facebook, Friendster and MySpace, as well as through my blog,” the PKR assemblyperson for Seri Setia tells The Nut Graph.
Nik Nazmi’s blog attracts about 1,000 to 2,000 page views daily. He reads and responds to comments personally.
Nik Nazmi“For opposition politicians in the past, it was always a challenge to secure a crowd for a ceramah due to various restrictions. However, with a well-read blog, you’ll be ceramah-ing to between 2,000 and 5,000 people on a daily basis,” says Pua, who writes on average about 20 articles per month.
Both Pua’s and Nik Nazmi’s blogs serve as a critical platform for them to communicate their ideas to a mass audience, especially in an environment when only BN parties have access to the traditional media.
Hence, readers would flock to blogs such as Pua’s and Nik Nazmi’s because that’s the best way to learn about what these politicians have to say about an issue. Readers don’t need to do that for BN politicians, whose views are readily available in the traditional media.
Additionally, it would seem that opposition politicians are more able and willing to respond personally to reader comments — something that leaders such as Abdullah or Najib are unable or unwilling to do.
For now, it would seem that the opposition is still very much ahead of the game in exploiting the internet. But that could change quite rapidly if BN leaders such as Abdullah and Najib learn quickly what it takes to attract readers to their sites.
(© Gözde Otman/sxc.hu)