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Blogging in the Malaysian 21st century

I was kindly invited by the Centre for Media and Information Warfare Studies (CMIWS) of Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) to a one day seminar entitled "The National Seminar on Media and Technology: Bloggers - Issues and Challenges in the 21st Century" held on last Tuesday, on July 24th.

I immediately jumped at the chance to go, because that's really exactly what I am researching - the development of Malaysian blogs. Overall, the panel had a number of fine academics, as well as some prominent bloggers, and was well worth my while.

One criticism that I will make, however, is the surprising lack of internet presence of the event. By this I mean, when looking for online details of the event I couldn't find any, even when going to the Centre's website , and even their event announcer said nothing is happening on 24/7:



There was one blogger who mentioned it though.

Mahaguru58 was also there, and it was nice to meet him in person: he has given a summary of the talks, as well as the BM bits which I couldn't understand. I won't go over speaker by speaker, though they all deserve attention, but just give some overall thoughts. Click on the thumbnail to see a scan of the programme with details of the speakers, etc. Malaysian National Seminar Media Technology blogs


Before I arrived I was imagining what it might be like: at any academic gathering there are the usual individual and social motivations behind why they are initiated and attended (i.e. status, knowledge, networking,etc...), but this one is also about blogs in particular, something unusual - probably a first in Malaysia, and I think there haven't been many in the world so far... It struck me that what the seminar is is a group of academics coalescing around an idea of what blogs are.; so in that sense, in order to understand what the seminar is, one has to understand what the participants perceive a blog to be. i.e. What are blogs in Malaysia? What would be the substance of that idea?
From talking to people in general, for example when I tell someone that I am researching Malaysian blogs, Malaysians primarily see blogs as the SoPo type: i.e. more-or-less overtly political platforms that avoid the restrictions on public debate that are imposed in other spaces/forums, such as the MSM in particular. Three of the speakers also mentioned the way in which online media (which would now include some blogs) first rose to prominence in Malaysia was during the whole Anwar Ibrahim/Reformasi period.

As a cross-cultural comparison: I had some friends from Europe visit recently, and their (actually two men, to be accurate, one Dutch and one Zimbabwean/English) first reaction was associating blogs with people talking about their sex-life - and they mentioned a woman who had published a blook based on their blog (Belle de Jour is one example I know of, but they mentioned another one I think). They heard about this through the MSM and/or people talking about it, so that's the frame within which they saw blogs. The Dutch guy, who is a teacher, also said that he felt that blogs were not important for his teen pupils, that Facebook and MySpace were more important; on a related note, apparently blogging is more popular in Asia than Europe and America.

As Y. Bhg. Datuk A. Kadir Jasin, said, "Blogs by itself cannot popularise itself": the way in which most people hear about blogs is via the MSM, where in Malaysia blogs are typically reported in relation to contentious political issues. It was also interesting how, at the beginning of his talk he said that he assumed most of the audience were bloggers, but when he asked for a show of hand only about ten raised their hand (out of about 100 people): I think that bloggers (like anyone passionate about something) tend to assume others will be just as interested, and this opinion can be reinforced by the amount of attention the MSM give them. Most people in the audience had read a blog, and about a third had commented in one though. My experience is that more people nowadays (compared to a few years ago) have come across a blog, but still, few are regular readers; they have often come across a blog via a friend, or after Googling something specific and coming upon a relevant blog.

My assumption about the SoPo framing of blogs was borne out by the general content of the talk given: they revolved around issues of alternate spaces for expression, democracy, responsible blogging, challenges to established paradigms, and the like.

A few mentioned the relationship between the controlled MSM and blogging, with Prof. Zaharom making the most emphatic statement in this regard, stating that blogs' popularity were a "consequence of the pathetic state of media freedom" in Malaysia.

'Responsible blogging' was a strong theme too: Kadir Jasin emphasised that he moderated all comments, saying that if a blogger didn't moderate the comments s/he could get more comments, which was good for "self-aggrandisement", but not conducive to constructive debate. An interesting point he made was "when I write in English the quality of the debate is much better... more intellectually... not so much anger... so much hatred... but get fewer comments". Steven Gan, when asked (by me) about whether Malaysiakini would allow comments on stories, said that before this happened they would need to "inculcate a culture of responsible commenting... [there is a] long way to go". Others mentioned the need for an 'educated population' that would be able to make its own judgement on online content, eliminating the need for heavy censorship.

Malaysian National Seminar Media Technology blogs
The afternoon panel (L to R): Dr. Rahmat Ghazali, Prof. Madya Adnan Hashim (Moderator), En. Zaharin Mohd. Yasin, Prof. Madya Dr. Mustafa Kamal Anuar.


Mahaguru58 offered a robust defence of 'responsible blogging', arguing that free speech is his "god-given right", but rejecting anonymity, saying "those who have the guts to put up their faces, phone number, even address... those are the true bloggers"; his particular concern seemed to relate to matters of religion. He also mentioned the formation of the Muslim Bloggers Alliance. Another blogger, perhaps Ujie (?) made an interesting point relating to gender, that some women bloggers may find an outlet from an oppressive male-dominated world - even if they are 'just' blogging about household issues or something , also made a plea to consider that not all bloggers are irresponsible, and that some were trying to help humankind. There was also a quite passionate exchange between Sang Kelembai and a person from the floor regarding these issues - it was in BM, so I can only count on Mahaguru's account (link above) for what happened.

Another theme was the legal status of blogging: the promise of no online censorship made in The Communications and Multimedia Bill 1998 (interesting discussion here) has been upheld until now, but both Prof. Madya Dr. Adnan Hussein and Prof. Madya Dr. Mustafa Kamal Anuar noted how pressure was being exerted on bloggers and online media through the use of other laws such as defamation suits, and other media-related laws. They predicted that there would be more and more government attempts to restrict the current freedoms prevalent in the blogosphere.

So, regarding the "issues and challenges" facing the Malaysian blogosphere the general themes were: blogging as journalism (or not); blogging as an alternative or complement to the MSM; blogging as a tool for further democracy; and, 'responsible blogging' and the relationship with the state. In answer to the question I posed myself, blogs in Malaysia seem to be mainly seen as vehicles for free speech, with attendant good or bad consequences.

Overall, I felt that more attention could have been focused on blogs in the future - the whole of the 21st century; the seminar was very much focused on Malaysia here and now. Amongst other issues that could have been mentioned are: the relevance of video blogs, online radios and podcasts to television and radio; transnational issues such as family relations in dispersed families/communities; the role of blogs in socialising youth; the role of blogs in education; the role of blogs in religious discourse and debate; and, the role of blogs in the Malaysian economy.

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Richard on :

Not that I would be reading any blogs to do with sex lives, but possibly the other one is "the girl with the one track mind", which also became a book. Actually, only heard of them (Belle and the Girl)when their sites were mentioned in the mainstream media (the Guardian).

julian on :

Hi Richard,
thanks for the info - here's the link: http://girlwithaonetrackmind.blogspot.com/
I may have come across the same Guardian article - interestingly it talks about codes of conduct for bloggers and anonymous commenters - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2057133,00.html

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