News website paves the way for Malaysia’s democratic transition

Malaysia woke to a new dawn of democracy on May 10, 2018.

For the first time since independence 61 years ago, the Prime Minister was not a member of the UMNO party. In the previous day’s election, the Malaysian people rejected authoritarian rule. They said no to control by a coalition of vested interests, to a government that exploited racial and religious divisions, and to the mind-boggling corruption of the 1 MDB scandal in which $4.5 billion dollars of taxpayers’ money disappeared – nearly $1 billion of it allegedly reappearing in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal account.

Few forecast a win for the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition. UMNO had six decades’ experience of holding onto power. It knew how to use patronage to secure business support, how to buy votes by distributing favours to ethnic groups and how to create institutional barriers to change. It even used more direct tactics, like jailing the long-time opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

But all that was swept aside by the will of the people, citizens who were better informed than ever before, voters who opted for a different vision of the future.

Though the result was a shock, it wasn’t a spontaneous, single event. Pakatan Harapan’s success was the culmination of years of disenchantment, a growing awareness of the decay that lay at the heart of government.

And the seeds can be traced back 20 years to the founding of Malaysia’s first independent news outlet, (Malaysia Now). For two decades, the pioneering website tirelessly shined the light of truth on Malaysia’s shady politics, paving the way for the momentous democratic transition.

Controlling the message

With Anwar in jail, Pakatan Harapan turned to an unlikely hero, Mahathir Mohamed, a 92-year-old former Prime Minister who had become disaffected with his former party. And it was Mahathir who had inadvertently sown the seeds for victory when Prime Minister in the 1990s.

Then, as now, UMNO understood that to control the message, you need to control the messenger. A central plank of the party’s grip on power was regulation of the media through a licensing system that let it decide which newspapers, TV and radio companies were allowed to operate. But there was a loophole online, a gap that Malaysiakini exploited.

In the 1990s, in an attempt to attract Western investors, Prime Minister Mahathir pledged not to censor the emerging World Wide Web. Journalists Premesh Chandran and Steven Gan had been denied a newspaper licence and saw this as an opportunity. In 1999, they founded, the only media company in the country that wasn’t aligned with the government. The website quickly carved itself a niche as the most reliable provider of political news and a natural home for diverse viewpoints.

From the outset, Malaysiakini strained at the chains of control, publishing uncomfortable truths and informed opinions that riled the government. For this it was subjected to repeated harassment, including law suits, computer confiscations and cyberattacks. But it stuck doggedly to its mission, providing information to people thirsty for news that wasn’t government PR.

Marginal gains

The first major political breakthrough for the opposition came in the 2008 elections, when UMNO’s ruling coalition lost its two-thirds supermajority in parliament. In the run-up to the election, Malaysiakini provided the only credible coverage of opposition demonstrations, including the first ‘Bersih’ (Clean) protests, capturing the real scale of opposition and contradicting the state media’s downplaying of events. Its consistent, balanced reporting increased its own credibility while also increasing disillusionment with the government and the people’s desire for change.

By this time, other independent websites were following in its footsteps, but Malaysiakini was by far the most widely read. And on election night 8 March 2008, it became the number one news website in the country, with more users than the leading newspaper, The Star.

The main draw was live progress reports on election results published throughout the night. In previous elections, only state TV would broadcast the outcome once every ballot paper had been counted, but in 2008 Malaysiakini gave real-time updates, providing a unique focus for voters.

The 2013 elections represented another step towards democratic change, with opposition parties winning the popular vote for the first time, though the ruling coalition won more parliamentary seats. Malaysiakini suffered several cyberattacks in the run-up to the election, but careful planning made sure it was able to again play a central role, with more than 4.3 million unique users visiting the site on election night. At the height of the vote count, its readership hit 500,000 users per minute.

Information for all

Malaysiakini’s extensive coverage of the 2018 election meant the vote was played out in full public view, and its live results coverage helped provide assurance against manipulation.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, it took down its paywall to ensure that anyone who wanted information on the candidates, policies and process could have it in English, Chinese and Malay. Coverage included a dedicated election site, with visualisations, interactive presentations and in-depth analysis.

Although regulators tried to block access, Malaysiakini managed to stay online on polling day without disruption. On election night, the site had 1.2 million concurrent users, and more than 10 million unique visitors on the day, half the entire adult population of the country. KiniTV, its internet TV channel, had 7.2 million viewers that night and 1 million more followed Malaysiakini on Twitter and Facebook. Pulling together data from various sources, it was the first outlet to conclusively call the election for the opposition at 2.28am. Moments later, other media followed suit.

As the dust settles, hopes are high that there will be real change. Early signs are good, with opposition leader Anwar pardoned and former Prime Minister Najib prevented from leaving the country as corruption investigators close in.

In his first press conference after being released, Anwar thanked Malaysiakini for staying committed to independent reporting “at a time when we had massive restrictions, where the media was nothing but incessant propaganda”, though acknowledged their reporting had been tough on him too. As if to prove their even-handedness, within a week of the election, the site published an article critical of the new administration, “New government: 4 days, 3 gaffs” (in Malay).

But no one – least of all Malaysiakini – will think this is the end of the story. However the future unfolds, one certainty is that the independent media, led by Malaysiakini, will scrutinise every move, doing all they can to make sure that this isn’t a false dawn.

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