Malaysians will vote this weekend in what’s likely to be the most closely fought election since the nation’s independence.
Analysts say this year’s election is a threat to the ruling coalition’s rein over the country.
In the 2008 election, virtual campaigning was the key for the opposition, who won 5 out of the 13 states to deny the ruling coalition a majority.
And today, the Internet is the new political battleground, with Prime Minister Najib Razak calling it Malaysia’s first social media election.
Alexandria Lok is a 22-year-old university student in Kuala Lumpur. Like many young Malaysians her age, she is highly dependent on the internet.
“Basically most of my information and understanding are all from Facebook,” Alexandria explains.
“Since new media is free so we might as well make full use of the internet. I read many forms of media so I trust it more because I see a lot of background to it, more sources to it. All my friends just read from the new media. I don’t think they touch the newspapers either.”
Most traditional media companies in Malaysia are controlled by political parties from the Barisan Nasional ruling coalition.
And these media agencies are said to be biased in favor of the incumbent coalition.
“You see the control of these outlets coming out much more stronger. More often newspapers that were much neutral before; become pro-owners,” explains Tam Chi Mei, journalism lecturer at the Monash University Malaysia.
“So it could be pro-Barisan Nasional, mostly pro-ruling coalition at this point. So you see a lot more stories of their campaigns, their messages, which leave little or no room for the opposition to air their message to people who don’t have access to the internet.”
Today more than 60 percent of Malaysian households are connected to the Internet – three times as many as in 2008.
And almost half of the country’s 28 million population is on Facebook – as many as the number of registered voters.
Ahmad Kamal Nava is a social media consultant with Politweet Enterprise, a company that studies Facebook and Twitter trends in politics. He says both coalitions are hoping to reach out to the new breed of new media users in this election.
“Barisan Nasional is making use of Facebook and Twitter but I guess the problem is how they are using it. You don’t have that many supporters having conversations with users, having to build up rapport to get them to switch over to your side. Instead they are trying to employ methods where they flood the channel with links to articles on their blogs or new of what the politicians are doing. That is different from the Pakatan style. Maybe they don’t have many paid people doing it, but whatever supporters they have are usually very strong. They will invest the time in conversations to help change the people’s minds.”
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In the 2008 election, the opposition was denied access to government-controlled traditional media.
Since then the opposition has ramped up its online presence to capitalize on the growth of Internet news media... with live streamings of political rallies, to smartphone applications to track campaign events.
But at the same time, the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition has strengthened its tight grip on traditional media – from newspapers, roadside billboards, adverts on public transport and online campaigns.
But lecturer Tam Chi Mei says many Malaysians are uneasy about their tactics.
“In my opinion the ads taken on by the Barisan Nasional are very malicious,” says Tam,”They want to spread lots of fear amongst the communities. They go on really on baseless allegations associating a vote for certain political party with an increase in HIV, AIDS for instance. The ruling coalition seems to be up to its old tricks again.”
But despite the fear mongering, young voters like Alexandria Lok aren’t deterred.
“I don’t think that these advertisements has affected my desire to vote for whichever party that I choose for because I believe Malaysia is now mature enough not to make the wrong decisions.”