Malaysia’s Special Freedom Zone

Blogging:  Malaysia’s Special Freedom Zone  (Exchanges With Din Merican)

Dear Bakri.

I was at the inaugural meeting of Malaysian bloggers held at the Lake View Club, Subang Jaya, on May 19, 2007.  I was invited as a guest of Desi Chong, presumably because I was identified with your webblog.

There were well over 100 bloggers participating, representing a broad political and social spectrum.  It was well organized, with a panel of speakers followed by substantive discussions.  It was also an opportunity for personal interactions and social networking.

It was not all business and intellectual feast however.  The two roasted lambs, compliments of Club owner Soh Chee Wen, together with the usual Malaysian fair, made for a fine social evening.  There was also some red wine for those so inclined, as well as a karaoke session afterwards.

The panel included Jeff Ooi (Screenshots – www.jeffooi.com), Marina Mahathir (www.rantingsbymm.blogspot.com), Tong Pua (Economic Advisor to DAP’s Lim Kit Siang – www.tonypua.blogspot.com), Rocky Bru (Ahirrudin Atan – www.rockybru.blogspot.com), Nadeswaran (Citizen-Nades of the Sun), Desi Chong (Chairperson – www.desiderata2000.blogspot.com), Thian Chua (KeADILan Information Chief), Raja Petra (www.Malaysia-Today.net), and a lecturer from the Institute of Press Relations.

The evening’s theme was “Embrace and Engage; The Role of the Fifth Estate.”  There were also various books on sale at the event, including your latest, Towards A Competitive Malaysia.

Raja Petra and Rocky Bru mentioned and acknowledged your contributions to the development of blogging in Malaysia and your ongoing efforts to keep the public informed of your perspectives on contemporary issues.  Rocky in particular admired your writings.

Raja Petra forthrightly told the audience that his blog was intended to “bring down the Government” of Abdullah Badawi!  He left no doubt in our minds where he was coming from, with the full knowledge that there were, as usual, Special Branch plainclothes officers in our midst.  He proudly mentioned that when he started his one-page blog in 1995, there were only 250,000 Internet users in the country.  Today, the number has shot up to 11 million.  His Malaysia-Today regularly gets daily hits of nearly two million.  He feels strongly that there is a desperate need for an alternative to the government-backed and political party-owned mainstream papers.

Raja Petra encouraged all, including our family members and friends, to be involved in a determined and sustained basis.  He urged us all to do three things.  First, register to vote; second, re-check the electoral roll to make sure that you are properly registered; and third, cast our ballots on voting day – even if it were snowing! – in favor of any opposition party.

He feels that the Abdullah Administration is corrupt and inept, run by a courtier of individuals around his son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin.  They include Kamal Abdullah (the son), Kallimullah, and Patrick Badawi.

As for personal and press freedom, Raja Petra argued that there was no material change under Abdullah.  It is the same as under Mahathir, but more subtle.  As long as there are the ISA and Press laws, we are never truly free.  Raja Petra revealed that he always received threats from the authorities whenever he was critical of Abdullah’s actions and policies.

Rocky Bru, who together with Jeff Ooi are being sued by the NST, said that he and a few friends had established a Bloggers Alliance Group, but was waiting for approval of the Registrar of Societies before they could commence activities.  This Group was intended to be a networking mechanism, and to provide some assistance with legal suits, especially of the “class action” variety.

Tony Pua urged bloggers to be balanced and responsible.  Only those blogs that are credible would have an impact on public opinion.  His personal blog was intended to provide up-to-date information on the state of the economy and an objective commentary on government policies.

Nadeswaran reminded us that the government could be heavy handed with bloggers and journalists critical of Badawi personally and of his Administration.  He pointed out that the Special Branch could literally turn up “in the middle of night and take you away from your family,” using “disrupting national unity” as the pretext.

While politicians like Minister of Information Zam, for whom Nadeswaran showed nothing but utter disgust, had threatened the public with the specter of May 13 and Ops Lallang, Nadeswaran reminded the audience that he was not intimidated.  He made sure however, that his facts are accurate.

Marina related how her friends encouraged her to blog when her 17-year Musings in The Star became constrained over the 800-word restriction.  She is often criticized as a “copy and paste thing” because she posted articles of topical interest to stimulate public discourse.

Bakri, you should consider doing a piece on our blogging community and how they could mobilize public opinion.  Highlight Raja Petra’s three suggestions on preparing for the upcoming elections.  Finally, you may wish to send your best wishes to all the bloggers mentioned above for their timely initiative.

Kind regards, Din

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Dear Din:

Thank you for your update on the Bloggers United meeting, dubbed BUM 2007 (thanks to someone’s sense of humor!).  Malaysian bloggers’ dynamism is anything but a bummer, except perhaps to the authorities!

            I read some of the comments on the other websites.  Someone had also thoughtfully videotaped the sessions and posted them on YouTube. Isn’t it amazing the power and reach of these new technologies!

In 1978 Deng Xiaoping, in thinking of ways to rebuild his country after the disastrous Mao decades, came upon the idea of Special Economic Zones to nudge his stagnant communist country into the modern economy.  From that early seed grew today’s modern China, with capitalism now embracing the whole nation and with that, a quantum leap in the well being of its citizens.  China is today only nominally communist, or as Deng would wickedly put it with a wink in his eye, communism with Chinese characteristics!

I look upon blogging specifically and the Information Technology (IT) generally as Malaysia’s Special Freedom Zones.  From this seed would sprout greater freedom in other, and ultimately all, spheres of Malaysian life.  At least that is my hope.  Unlike China’s Special Economic Zones that took decades to have their impact on the rest of the country, Malaysia’s Special Freedom Zone will exert its influence much more rapidly.

Unlike China’s Special Economic Zone which was a deliberate official policy, Malaysia’s Special Freedom Zone was an unintended (at least by the authorities) consequence of the country’s eagerness to embrace IT.  Prime Minister Mahathir, who spearheaded this, grudgingly accepted this trade off.  Even today, despite the obvious personal benefits to him after being shut off by the mainstream media once he was out of power, Mahathir still has second thoughts about granting this freedom.  It matters not as the genie is now out of the bottle.

Mahathir may not realize it, but his granting freedom to the IT sector may well be his greatest and most enduring legacy.  There is no stopping this movement towards greater freedom; the metaphorical Berlin Wall that blocks access to information in Malaysia is now broken.  It cannot be put together again.  On the contrary, the momentum of the wreckage will break down other barriers.

When I was writing for one mainstream paper, I would be lucky to hear from one or two readers occasionally.  I was not sure whether anyone was reading my commentaries or the editors were not publishing my readers’ letters.  Today I get hundreds of letters here on my blog as well as on Malaysia-Today.

Bernama bragged about getting half a million hits a day on its website because of its coverage of the Perak royal wedding.  Bernama editors obviously had not looked at Malaysia-Today’s figures.  The Star and New Straits would drool at figures a tiny fraction of MT’s!  No wonder Michael Backman named Raja Petra among the Top 20 Asian Progressives!

The blogs’ influence will expand and be even more powerful.  This is reflected in the declining circulation, readership and influence of the mainstream papers; they are fast being reduced to irrelevance.  NST is today nothing more than an UMNO newsletter.  It is noteworthy that Ahiruddin Atan is now more widely read and influential than when he was with the mainstream media.  Raja Petra’s aggressive investigative journalism reduces the mainstream journalists to sophomore reporters.

The authorities are forced to respond however ineptly to issues raised by bloggers, from Abdullah absconding to Perth during the devastating Johore floods to his ordering a luxury corporate jet.  The threat to register bloggers reflects this increasing reach; likewise with mega libel lawsuits.  These lawsuits will be futile.  As can be seen, with skillful lawyers these lawsuits can backfire on the plaintiffs.  Thanks to court filings, we now know of other instances of plagiarisms.

Even if the suits were successful, they would be meaningless.  All they would do is to make people use pseudonyms, Internet cafés, work on-line, and use overseas servers.

Even China is not successful with reining in the Internet.  Whatever success it has is through the unwilling help of IT companies.  Those companies are now being sued in California by Chinese nationals who had been detained by the Chinese, allegedly based on information provided by those companies.

However, as Raja Petra rightly noted, we need to go further.  The Abdullah Administration must be humbled, and the only way is through the ballot box.  I am with Raja Petra on this:  vote any opposition party.  You do not need to defeat the government in order to teach it a useful lesson.  Look at Bush with the recent midterm elections; Abdullah too is teachable.

We must bring out the jantans in our voters to impart the lesson to Abdullah.  To get rid of him however, we must encourage if not instigate the jantans in UMNO, if there are any left.

The organizers and participants of BUM 2007 have done the nation a great service.  Individually and collectively, they are cultivating the soil and planting the seeds of freedom.  I join you and others in thanking them for their untiring efforts.  I am humbled that folks like Ahiruddin Atan, Jeff Ooi, Nadeswaran, Raja Petra and others, despite the obstacles and threats hurled their way, bravely march on.  Raja Petra in particular, despite having been detained under the ISA, remains unfazed, in fact he is invigorated – a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit.

May they, and Malaysia, have continued success.

Sallam, Bakri

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