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Dr Mahathir on blogs and the media in Malaysia

This is an account of the speech by Tun Dr Mahathir at the Bloggers Universe Malaysia 2009 blogmeet, and some thoughts about blogs in Malaysia. It's a bit long, but I thought it worthwhile to recount what he said (about blogs) in some detail.

A very brief historical outline
Love him or hate him, most Malaysians would agree that Tun Dr Mahathir is the single most influential person in twentieth century Malaysia, and he still has enormous stature and influence as we near the end of this first decade of the twenty-first. Educated as a medical doctor, and initially working as a civil servant, he won a parliamentary seat for UMNO (the dominant Malaysian party since Merdeka (Independence)) in 1964. He lost the seat in 1969, and afterwards was sacked from the UMNO Supreme Council for openly criticising the then Prime Minister; he went on to write the controversial book 'The Malay Dilemma', which - although it was banned until 1981 - laid the ideological foundation of the 'New Economic Program', a positive discrimination scheme aimed at reducing poverty and redressing the economic balance between the different ethnic groups in Malaysia. He rejoined UMNO in 1972, and eventually rose to being Deputy Prime Minister in 1978, and PM in 1981. From then on until October 2003, he presided over a period of accelerated development that transformed the country (source: Mahathir bin Mohamad).

In terms of blogging, he has significance in three ways. Laws that restricted the action of the mainstream media (MSM) were passed during his time (namely - the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984), and he was also infamous for closing down newspapers in the Ops Lalang in 1987. He established the principle of no censorship on the Internet in the Communications & Multimedia Act in 1998 (however section 233 of this Act that addresses "Improper use of network facilities or network service" (MSC Malaysia) has recently been invoked to charge some internet users - e.g. here or here). Last but not least, in 2008 he started his own blog - Che Det - which rapidly became the most popular blog in Malaysia, attracting one million visitors in the first month, and almost 19 million in one year.

So, at the BUM 2009 gathering last week, it was as a SoPo blogger that he was asked to attend, and although unfortunately the attendance for the event was a bit disappointing, he was clearly the star attraction. The place filled up for his talk, with many media too.
BUM 2009, Bloggers Universe Malaysia blogmeet with Mahathir bin Mohamad

He spoke for about 30 minutes, then answered questions for about 40 minutes. I must say that he was an impressive public speaker, speaking clearly and with little use of notes, and with a disarming charm that kept the audience interested and occasionally amused.

The speech
He was introduced by Ahirudin Attan @ rocky, ex-editor of the Malay Mail, Protem President of All-Blogs, and President of the National Press Club - and of course a leading blogger himself. He explained that Dr Mahathir's engagement with bloggers went back to 2005, when bloggers were invited to the Perdana Leadership Foundation; this was a time when bloggers were at the margins of the political and media scene in Malaysia, which was similar to Dr Mahathir's situation at the time.

[Bloggers' (or more precisely, Social-Political (SoPo) bloggers) position and relevance has changed significantly since then. After the last election, where the agenda was set by the blogs in some instances, the government belatedly recognised their significance, and have made efforts to establish a friendly presence in the blogosphere. Dr Mahathir's hostile position has also shifted, and his speech was mostly devoted to explaining why he chose to speak out against Tun Abdullah Badawi's administration, and how his blog played a role in that.]
BUM 2009, Bloggers Universe Malaysia blogmeet poster

Dr Mahathir started by explaining that when he stepped down from the premiership, he expected to play an advisory and "father-figure" role to the succeeding administration; he did not want to pull the strings from behind the scenes à la Lee Kuan Yew, but hoped to be listened too and - importantly - for certain projects that he had initiated (such as the north-south double-track rail link, and the so-called 'crooked bridge' across the causeway to Singapore) to be continued. However, these projects were rapidly abandoned, he also found himself ignored by the government, and being denied a voice in the MSM - according to him this was in particular being implemented by a "press supremo" (whose name is a "combination of an Indian god together with a Muslim priest" - i.e. Kalimullah) who prevented the press from mentioning him. In addition, barriers were put up to him meeting formally with UMNO, and people were discouraged from meeting him [note: this disaffection with UMNO led to him leaving the party in May 2008, but he rejoined it this year after the change in leadership].

Not being allowed to speak out was "sheer torture" for a politician, and so he had to look elsewhere. Someone suggested that he try blogging [note: he did not say who, but it's pertinent to note that his daughter was already a noted blogger - RantingsbyMM]. However he hesitated, fearing that there would be comments and he would not be able to answer them all, especially if there were "nasty" comments. However in 2007, he finally decided that "come what may I was going to blog"; on 1 May 2008 he published his first post.
BUM 2009, Bloggers Universe Malaysia blogmeet with Mahathir bin Mohamad

There were in effect many comments, and he became "quite popular"; he could not answer them all, but it was nice to know what people reading the blog were thinking. Soon, however, he had some issues with the people who had the server, but he found out that they owned the '' domain, and also that someone had bought up all the main 'chedet' domains and was asking him to pay for the domain [i.e. he fell prey to a cybersquatter] - he didn't want to pay them, which explains why he ended up with the .cc domain name.

However, this was not a barrier to his continued popularity and he gets visitors from all around the world, even Israel. He mentioned one Israeli who left comments, but "a whole lot of Malaysians would jump on his head and say nasty things" - so the Israeli emailed him instead, and he answered him by email also. Overall, he is very proud that there are "so many people from different countries who want to read the nonsense that I write".
"So this is the world of today, while in the past we can close down their printing shops, we can seize their papers, we can do a lot of things; today it's just impossible. The only thing I'm glad is that I'm no longer the Prime Minister, so this is not my problem, it is a problem of the government of today, the Prime Ministers of today - I wish them good luck"

For him, the main significance of blogs is their ability to get around censorship: in his day you could close down printing presses, but now even if you delete a blog, the blogger can just start a new one and even do it from another country. He said that he had had his share of knocks from the bloggers and that he had wanted to shut them down, but wasn't able to [note: I think he was more likely referring to websites in the Reformasi times and after that - blogs were not a significant force before he stepped down]. Now, however, he regretted not being able to censor the Internet - not because of blogs, but because of the easy availability of pornography which could lead to rape, child molestation and murder.

As for bloggers, he said that they should stick to facts. As an example, he mentioned how a blogger may accuse someone of something; but it is difficult to sue "if you are not completely innocent, there is a little trace of truth in what you have done" - if that person were to go to court, the media would then report any "wild accusation" the person might say. He said that bloggers could develop a simple code of ethics: it would be based on bloggers sticking to facts when they use arguments, and being fair towards others - "Just as you don't like the government to be unfair to you, you must remember that the people who are your victims also feel that you are being unfair to them." If bloggers were to "stick to facts and ... put forward good arguments, I think you will be displacing the media completely" - especially amongst younger people who depend more on the Internet anyway. He said that bloggers "are the VIPs in the world today", and "they are very important, especially to their victims" - and so they need to be responsible too. The MSM needs to reinvent itself; bloggers will have their day, and may become the main source of information, but eventually they will be superseded by something else.

In the Q&A session, most of the questions were about his decision to criticise the Pak Lah government, and about the role of the MSM. I asked him a question about whether he reads and answers comments, and whether any comments had led him to change his opinion or perspective on things. Unfortunately he didn't answer the second part, but as regards comments he said that he tried to read them all - an assistant prints them out for him - but sometimes is not able; he definitely can't answer them all, that was "just impossible", but he does answer some of them to explain further what he said. His answer gave a glimpse into one thing that I was wondering about - does he engage in the practice of most bloggers, typing in front of a screen and reading online, or does he write his posts out and hand them to someone to type up and post online? My hunch is that he does the latter - which is not surprising really, given his age and other commitments.

I've only focused on what he said about blogging, he had much more to say about Pak Lah and his administration, but the main points were outlined above.

As for blogs - his views fit straight into the 'blogs as free speech medium' argument that accompanies SoPo blogging everywhere. This argument is more pertinent in Malaysia because of the control the government has over the MSM - he confirmed this in his own experience of being shut out, and also confirmed that during his time the MSM was likely to seek to please the government and/or himself (though he argues that this was not his doing, but self-censorship - here). As an individual, he has been able to reach straight into the homes, or computers, of millions of Malaysians - this is the unprecedented power of Internet publishing; however, the massive popularity of his blog would not have happened had he not been who he is. Bloggers are not rootless voices calling out from another galaxy called cyberspace - they are real people situated in interrelated on- and offline social networks. The impact of a blog depends on how well the blogger articulates and re-presents ideas, values, and discourses that operated in everyday life.

His history shows that he has used various media strategically throughout his career: 'Che Det' was his by-line when contributing anonymously to the Straits Times in post-war Malaya, (here, or here); in 1969 he was expelled from UMNO for distributing a critical open letter to the PM, and later he published The Malay Dilemma - these were both effective moves that bypassed hegemonic control of information in the public sphere. With his blog, he seems to be repeating a strategy honed in earlier days.
BUM 2009, Bloggers Universe Malaysia blogmeet with Mahathir bin Mohamad
"if you cannot fight them, you join them" (Dr Mahathir, 16 May 2009)

The experiences he recounted mirror those reported by many bloggers: experiencing a certain lack of control of the comments, getting visitors from unexpected places, using other means (email) to communicate with readers, and finding out about the internet economy. He also derives obvious satisfaction from being able to communicate directly with his audience, and appreciates something of the rough-and-tumble of online debate. Being semi-retired probably makes it easier for him to adopt that opinionated and individualistic tone that is the hallmark of successful bloggers - in the main, politicians and public figures who take on a blog as a complement to their existing public role are not able to express themselves very bluntly, as they have many people to please and negotiate with, and this means their blogs are a bit boring (IMHO).

For me, it reminded me again of the highly significant role of blogs in Malaysia - how many other countries have such a major figure communicating via a blog? It's not only in the social-political field that blogs are influencing changes: the potential for blogs to be used to reach the 'Generation Z', or the 'digital natives' - i.e. those who are increasingly ignoring the old media and creating problems for marketing and advertising - has been developed by the successful blog-ad network, Nuffnang.

My gut feeling is that blogs in Malaysia have taken on a role not equalled in many, or any other countries, but it's a proposition that I cannot substantiate (yet) as there are no comparative studies done. Maybe in Malaysia there is a 'perfect storm' combination of a gagged and unexciting MSM; deep tremors in the political landscape; and a relatively high Internet accessibility that enables a relatively prosperous and educated middle-class to find novel ways to use blogs. Only time will tell, but for the moment it seems that blogs will play a major role in shaping 21st century Malaysia.

Other posts about the BUM2009 blogmeet (please add any I've missed out in the comments)

Also covered by the intrepid Edge journalist and twitterer (?tweeter?) @melodysong

• 84 Jalan Tangsi: Have the 4th Estate failed themselves?
• A Little Taffer's Room: Snippets From Dr. M's Speech at BUM 2009; At BUM 2009; A Case of Second Guessing By MSM
• The Ancient Mariner: B.U.M. 2009: The Event
• Another Brick in the Wall: BUM 2009: Interesting, fun ...
• BUM 2009: BUM 2009 - on Malaysiakini TV
• Cakap Tak Serupa Bikin:
B.U.M. 2009: NST Report (includes a scan of the NST take on the speech - interesting example of selective news...)
• desiderata-ylchong: Some BUMmy/Balmy Reflections... (it's the general domain link, he doesn't have permalinks for his posts)
• Din Merican: the Malaysian DJ Blogger: Che Det at BUM Meet: Rewriting the Record
• Jinggo's Foto Pages: Tun Dr M at BUM 2009
• The Malay Male: House of M: Degeneration M
• Malaysiakini: Dr M 'blames' editors for self-censorship
• The Malaysian Insider: Dr M mocks local press for self-censorship
• The Middle Ground: People with guns
• Pahit Manis: BUM '09 in pictures
• Reflections: Melayu Lama: Dr.M speaks at BUM 2009 (this was blogged live from the event)
• My Anger, It may be yours too: LIVE: BUM 2009 - The clash of the 4th and 5th estate
• Satria Asia: B.U.M 2009
• Screenshots: 4th Estate, 5th Estate... Gimme just good journalism
• The Star Online: Former PM among speakers at BUM 2009
• The "thirteen million plus Ringgit" guy rambles....: "Bloggers are VIPs"

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Display comments as Linear | Threaded

meldee on :

Hoho. Tweeter, friend. Thanks for the mention, good summary of his speech--very on-topic of you, too! No digressions even with his highly-entertaining accounts of his failing manly organ.

julian on :

OK tweeter makes more sense yes.
Thanks for the vote of approval - it was a long enough post without going to all the other details he talked about, the links at the bottom offer other viewpoints :-)

Bernard on :

Well, let us pray that I will get to go.
Oh...too bad, you are flying back to UK..

julian on :

Good luck :-)

kruel74 on :

You did go then. Thanks for the report. Wanted to go but was held back due to another event at home

julian on :

That's too bad, I think you would have found it interesting, there were also some very interesting talks in the other panels.

Shahnon on :

Thanks for the posting the event summary, Julian.
In my mind, Tun Dr M is a political genius!

julian on :

You're welcome :-) He certainly is a master at politics!

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