A critical history of internet activism and social protest in Malaysia, 1998-2013

Just as there is no single timeline that can accommodate the full range of events, routines and trends that have shaped the struggle for freedom and justice in Malaysia, so there is no simple account of technological progress from the email messages and listservs of the 1990s through blogging and web forums in the early 2000s to today’s social media and smartphones. As we have seen, Malaysia’s activists operate within a highly differentiated media ecology in which old and new media, actors and issues interact in complex ways. In other words, a replacement model of media – the idea that newer media replace older media – would not be of much use in trying to explain such an environment.

That said, no two media technologies are the same, and like activists around the world, Malaysia’s freedom fighters must adjust their individual activities and collective actions to the specific technical and political affordances of each platform (or set of platforms). For example, we saw how Malaysia’s police took advantage of Twitter’s central location as the country’s preeminent public arena to counter accusations of brutality and to call for the public’s assistance in tracking down allegedly violent Bersih 2.0 protesters. Meanwhile, Facebook and YouTube provided Malaysians living abroad with new digital avenues through which to participate and ‘share’ in the protests remotely.

A hard to quantify factor, yet one that is in evidence throughout this 15-year history, is the sheer ingenuity and resourcefulness of protesters’ media engagements, as well as their courage when confronting the riot police, to the great admiration of liberal-minded Singaporeans following their progress through social media – sympathetic outsiders whose own civil society is far less vibrant than Malaysia’s. Through a long process of trial and error, Malaysia’s online activists have found creative ways of bypassing the authorities and of reaching out to constituencies lying beyond the digital divide.

Future studies should regard the techno-political past not as a foreign country, but as a research area full of comparative potential. More research is needed on many aspects of the history summarily covered here. Thus there is much to be investigated about the class and gender dimensions of this realm of political action, and about reformist campaigns and trends in Malaysian locales other than Kuala Lumpur (where most of the research has concentrated to date), especially in the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak which, as usual, have been largely sidelined. We also know very little about the internet practices and actions of Malaysia’s labour movement, a literature that remains divorced from the mainstream activism research considered here (see Grieco and Bhopal 2005). Finally, much more research is needed into the part played by computer geeks and hackers in recent Malaysian protests at a time when we witness a worldwide profusion of collaborative endeavours linking these experts to less tech savvy participants.

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