On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Denial syndrome must end

THE SMS has got to be the most effective weapon in helping the Opposition knock out the Barisan Nasional. With over 22 million mobile subscribers, the SMS link connected urban and rural Malaysia such that news in one part of the country reached another part in mere seconds.

Three hours before polling closed, Malaysians were flooded with messages alleging electoral fraud in several constituencies contested by key Barisan leaders. That was enough to further raise the political temperatures of many Malaysians, who had already made up their mind to vote against the coalition.

There were more blows to come. Umno Youth deputy leader Khairy Jamaluddin was accused of being in a sex video. Those who took the trouble to check the blog found it didn't even resemble him, but the question remains – how many people were duped into believing this rumour or took the trouble to check?

Some of these messages were serious and direct but most poked fun at the Barisan. And certainly they worked effectively in this general election.

The bloggers and alternative media also inflicted serious wounds onto the Barisan but the impact may not be as strong as it has been made out to be. Admittedly, Urban Malaysia preferred these channels of information to the mainstream media, which certainly was part of the debacle of the Barisan defeat.

But it was the mammoth-sized ceramah, especially in Penang, that translated into votes, especially in the western states of Penang, Perak, Selangor and Kedah.

New Media analyst Oon Yeoh correctly commented in an article that the Internet was mainly for city folk. Many rural folk do not have access to the Internet and so did not benefit from information sent via online media, blogs or e-mail, he said.

During his visit to Jelutong, where blogger Jeff Ooi contested, Oon found out that most voters had barely heard of Jeff's blog and even fewer had visited it. It was the Chinese dailies, according to Ooi, who helped make him a known face to Penangites.

Oon wrote that one of the volunteers, a 42-year-old salesman who wanted to only be known as William, confessed he had never heard of Ooi before nomination day, much less visited his blog.

Ooi himself stopped blogging midway during the campaign period, preferring to give press conferences to the print media, speak at ceramah and meet his voters directly.

It was the traditional method of campaigning that played the major role. Certainly, it was the Rocket symbol, rather than Jeff Ooi the blogger, riding on the anti-establishment mood that led to his strong victory.

Some Barisan candidates also turned to blogging, hoping to connect with the young, but they gave up because the number of visitors was just too low.

Another development was that the Internet helped raise over RM100,000 in online donations, primarily for the Opposition candidates, with a large portion coming from overseas. It is probably the first time in Malaysian political history that political donations were raised this way.

Two news websites emerged during the elections, MalaysiaVotes.com and MalaysianInsider.com, but being newcomers, it was difficult for them to compete with the more established Malaysiakini.

The websites of mainstream newspapers had an even tougher time, being overly cautious on accuracy, particularly on results, and not wanting to rely too much on unconfirmed news.

In the end, the alternative media scored better as it did not have to worry too much about accuracy. An example was the newsflash on the purported 14 unopened ballot boxes in Lembah Pantai, implying there would be rigging. The report turned out to be false.

But this election was a wake-up call to the nation, not just to the leadership, but also the media. A serious and honest soul searching is required to truly feel the pulse of Malaysians. The mainstream newspapers have to learn, quickly, or face being abandoned by their readers.

As Bernama general manager Datuk Azman Ujang rightly said, Malaysians have spoken loud and clear, “not only on what kind of government they want but also the kind of media they prefer”.

Despite the mainstream media bashing, newspapers have sold well over the past two weeks, with the Singapore Straits Times quoting a media consultant G. Manimaran as saying that “for the first time in 20 years of journalism, I am seeing people queuing up to buy newspapers”.

With opposition parties now in control of five state governments, the media, including government-run TV stations, must be prepared to relook its editorial policies. Some vernacular newspapers, too, must end their communal slant as they should take into account that the votes for the Opposition came from all races.

The winds of change have swept through Malaysia and the fact is everyone, especially the media, has to wake up to that reality. It should be accepted, not resisted. The denial syndrome has to stop.