BERSIH 2.0 chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah waving to her supporters having been released from detention in Dataran Merdeka on 28 November 2016.NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.
Is internet a democratizing technology? Or is it first and foremost a tool for dictators to further control their populations? In a recently published article I used extensive quantitative research to demonstrate that increasing internet use has led to more protests in authoritarian regimes. However, although increasing use of the internet has facilitated mobilization, other research indicates that the existence of the internet has not contributed to the democratisation of authoritarian states. How to make sense of that? The authoritarian regime of Malaysia illustrates how the internet can enable collective action without truly threatening an authoritarian system.
Ever since independence in 1957 the same ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), has been in power in Malaysia. Strict control over the traditional media has always been an important pillar of its rule. However, when the internet became available to a wider public in the late 1990’s the Malaysian government promised not to censor the internet, in order to attract foreign investment. At the time, this was not seen as a huge political concession: there was no ‘dictators’ dilemma’. Internet was understood in purely economic and not political terms. Also very few Malaysians had access to the web: it was not perceived as a mass medium and hence not threatening.
The political ‘tsunami’ in 2008 led to a different view of the BN government regarding cyberspace. For the first time since independence it lost its two third majority in parliament and nearly all commentators acknowledged that the internet had been very important for the success of the opposition. In the years before the elections the vast majority of the Malaysians entered a cyberspace where they were exposed to information that would never see the light of day in the national newspapers, or on television and radio channels. Learning about government wrongdoings like corruption scandals or human rights abuses, Malaysians’ perceptions of the BN government gradually changed, and it was this that impacted greatly on the polls in 2008. Even the prime minister at the time admitted that the government had lost the online battle. He said: “We didn’t think it was important. It was a serious misjudgment. We thought that the newspapers, the print media, the television were important, but young people were looking at text messages and blogs”.
Since this wake-up call, the government has been much more active in cyberspace. Online dissidents have been increasingly persecuted, with bloggers who dig into scandals around the Prime Minister as well as netizens ‘insulting’ the Malaysian royalty or Islam often enough ending up behind bars. In addition, state resources have been invested in cybertroopers to influence public opinion, critical online websites have been blocked or are facing distributed denial-of-service attacks, and the government is known to possess sophisticated surveillance software.
Our traditional thinking on authoritarian regimes suggests that the primary goal of all these measures in the online realm is to suppress any further collective action against the state. More than anything else, we expect dictators to fear the threat ‘from below’. Very much in line with this is the finding that the Chinese authorities’ online censorship targets first and foremost content with a collective action potential.
In the Malaysian case however, the story is different. As a matter of fact, the Malaysian government does not censor online calls for collective action, nor does it immediately persecute activists that openly call for a protest. Why not?
The Malaysian regime is certainly technically capable of implementing ‘just-in-time’ blockings, to jail more online dissidents, or to modify its censorship more in accordance with the Chinese system. The fact that the BN coalition does not target online mobilization attempts also does not tell us that Malaysia is ‘not so authoritarian’. A glimpse at what the Malaysian state is doing in cyberspace nowadays is enough to conclude that the authorities are seriously undermining citizens’ access to alternative information.
But the strategy not to crack down on internet-enabled protest is a deliberate one and the explanation for it is very simple. Even though demonstrations are a nuisance for the authorities, they are not truly endangering the survival of the regime. Anti-government protests and authoritarian sustainability are often imagined to be fundamentally incompatible. The Malaysian example shows that it is not.
The 2008 election results demonstrated that exposure to alternative online information had led to an increased political awareness among the Malaysian urban middle classes. This not only manifested itself at the polls but also in the streets and squares. The Malaysian middle classes and especially the Bersih movement – demanding clean and fair elections – have taken to the streets on a frequent basis and been successful in attracting hundreds of thousands of protestors to these demonstrations. When these urban middle classes take to the streets they scream some slogans and take a few selfies. Yet after an afternoon of protesting they prefer to go home and have nice meal rather than staying in the streets for much longer.
Without discrediting their grievances in any kind of way, it is clear that these protestors are dissatisfied but not nearly desperate enough to truly threaten the Malaysian political system. An activist I interviewed, remarked: “Malaysians are way too comfortable with the status-quo. If you had a week-long protest, the PM might do something. If you just protest for two days, it's not gonna do anything”.
From BN’s perspective, there is no point in worrying too much about these folks taking to the streets. A majority of the crowd is opposition-voter anyway, and repressing them – online or offline – can only impact negatively on a domestic and international audience. Allowing protests can even count as good publicity for the regime. Ironically, by showing that protest is perfectly possible in Malaysia, demonstrations for more democracy become ‘proof’ of the democratic character of the country.
If not to prevent online mobilization, why then is the regime increasingly active in cyberspace? In order to survive, the BN coalition tries to prevent the electoral tsunami of 2008 from flooding the whole country. It does so not through winning back the hearts and minds of the middle class urbanites, nor in keeping them from the streets. BN knows this is a lost battle. Instead, BN’s primary job is to keep the rural Malaysians on board through extensive systems of patronage and cooptation, but also by reaching out to them online. Many rural communities have access to internet nowadays, yet whereas the middle class urbanites entered an opposition-dominated virtual world, the youngest Malaysian netizens have entered a crowded cyberspace.
The BN government not only frustrates the online activities of the opposition and civil society, but tries to communicate pro-actively its message on the internet. Most importantly, it started doing online what it has been doing in the traditional press for decades: playing ‘the racial card’. Malaysia is an ethnically divided country with a majority of Muslim Malays and large Chinese and Indian minorities. BN – a multi-ethnic pact – has ever since its foundation constantly stirred up tensions between different ethnic groups, only to present itself as the sole moderate alternative that can preserve the fragile racial harmony in the country.
As an illustration, the large Bersih demonstrations – demanding clean and fair elections – have constantly been bad-mouthed by the authorities as an attempt by the Chinese to take over the country. In addition, with every street protest against the BN coalition, the authorities tactically bring up the 13 May 1969 incident, when election-demonstrations ended in deadly ethnic riots.
Freedom online until the political ‘earthquake’ in 2008 played an extremely important role in making the substantial middle classes aware of the unfair political system in the country, as well as the BN’s divide-and-rule tactics. They no longer buy into their ethnic fearmongering. The lower-class, rural Malaysians however, are still very susceptible to BN’s messages. It is this group – and primarily their votes – that most concerns the BN. Traditionally they have reached and convinced these people through television, newspapers and radio. But ever since the wake-up call of 2008, and with more and more Malaysians online, BN is now well aware that cyberspace is an important battleground. So, while they might not bother to prevent the middle classes in Kuala Lumpur from organizing collective action, they do make sure that the rural population continues to believe that not supporting Barisan Nasional would lead to ethnic clashes and chaos.