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Why social media won’t be able to effect political change in Malaysia.

I know that it may be late for reflections on last year, but I think that it’s important to share some rather depressing conclusions.

As some of you may know, I was in KL this past summer doing independent research on social media and political activism.

Well, I came back to the States, compiled my data, filed a final report, and started working on a real argument. I had concluded that social media provides the space that is kept from opposition and anti-government/pro-reform activists in traditional media. My advisor took this as a casual observation and pushed me to formulate another argument.

So I looked through my material again.

I concluded that social media couldn’t and won’t be able to help Malaysia effect political change.

Political change depends upon protests that are massive and long enough to pressure government to step down or to change its ways.

Bersih was a wonderful example of how social media can facilitate protests. Yet, we can all observe that there haven’t been great strides in changing or reforming government or the electorate. Most of what has been “done” has been frivolous or has been immediately taken back. Or, it has been severely questioned and not taken seriously, such as the abolishment of the ISA.

So government hasn’t changed because the Bersih protests weren’t ‘successful’ enough?

In a comparative study with protests in the Middle East and even in the rest of Southeast Asia, I found that Malaysia’s corruption, poverty, and unemployment levels were not nearly as high as those of the nations who saw political change after weeks or months of protests.

Additionally, there is a very large urban-rural ideological and socioeconomic divide in Malaysia that limits protests to mainly the urban areas. Not to mention the fact that Internet access is greatly limited and manipulated by UMNO within these rural areas.

This became starkly evident by the short duration of the Bersih protests. In contrast, you will notice that mass amounts of people were protesting day and night for extended periods of time in Libya (9 months), Egypt (18 days), Bahrain (4 months), Burkina Faso (5 months), and others.

The energy and willingness to make potentially large sacrifices (job, prison, death, etc.) isn’t quite there yet in Malaysia.

Egyptian Protests | Source:

The Internet and social media help the cause but do not give it success or failure. Ultimately, success comes from the consequences of our actions… in real life.

So we’ve already discussed that we cannot simply tweet out our anger online but that we need to take to the streets. But we also need to keep that energy going.

I am always getting invites from Fahmi for Occupy Dataran events, which is an indication of this energy. But if just a small fraction of people going to these events, we will not accomplish much.

We cannot continue to rely on social media to relay our message to government and to the rest of the world. This may seem outrageous but maybe we need to revise our tactics here!

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Annah Kim is a Korean adoptee from the United States. She received funding from her university to come to Kuala Lumpur to conduct independent research. Her research project focused on the reaction of...

5 replies on “Social Media Fail”

  1. occupy Dataran is a failure because it does not understand the national political landscape. the same goes to the kill the bill rally (more like picnic than protest) and generation 709 yellow protest (more like congregation of people wearing yellow shirt is hardly a protest).

    all this protest can only mobilised a few number of people. from my observation none of this protest manage to mobilised more than 200 people. occupy dataran is the worst with less than 20 people attending. less than 20 people and you call it a kl assembly? they must be joking.

    what is the national political landscape? malaysia's national political landscape is not NGOs or civil society based. thats why all these efforts failed miserably. malaysia political landscape is political party based and thats the fact. and it is not just political party based but a dominant malay political party based. any streets protest without the mobilisation from PAS or PKR is doom to fail !

    you can just empirically look at all the demonstration and protest organized by NGOs, civil society, student groups or even DAP – the most participant you can get from such protest organized by these organizations will be less than 500 people. mostly only a handful will turn up. i

    the facts is without active mobilization by the malay based political organization of PAS and PKR no demonstration will exceed the thousand level number. do you think bersih 1.0 and 2.0 will have such a big number turn up without order from top leadership of PAS and PKR for its member to go down to the street?

    just try to exclude the malay based party of PAS and PKR the next time you organized bersih and see how many will turn up. the evidence is so clear from the so called civil societies, NGOs, occupy dataran groups and student groups demonstration and protest where you can clearly see only a handful of people attending their rallies, protests or demonstrations.

    btw all the demonstrations by the student groups is mostly organized by Persatuan Mahasiswa Islam or PMI and its parent body GAMIS which happened to be PAS student wings.

    those who do not understand national political landscape and the sentiment of the masses (particularly the majority of the malay masses) will fail in their strategy and tactics.

    1. social media did facilitate bersih mobilization process. however, bersih will still happened even without social media. reformasi 1998 which mobilized more people than bersih 2.0 happened with a minimum help of social media. 1998 have no facebook no twitter no bbm but yet managed to galvanized more people going down to the streets than bersih 2.0 in a period of more than a month with every saturday there will be demonstrations in jalan tunku abdul rahman, kl.

      social media can help and it also can hinder social movement because by venting their anger on the cyber space many feel that they have contribute to the resistance. armchair protest with a keyboard or ipad as the weapon is the other of the day in todays social media world. social media can also create an illusion of resistance as well as pseudo-cyber protest because at the end the target is not real but merely cyber while the entity named government is real and resides in a real space with its real apparatus in a real world and not in a cyber-world where the protest have been held.

      yes bersih happened with helps from social media but did all the demand of bersih 2.0 have been fulfilled by the government and its apparatus (election commission) ? obviously not. i therefore rest my case and totally agreed with the writer.

      maybe the writer want to check out an article in diskopi.wordpress on the futility of resistance through digital/cyber space. check it out:

  2. Social media in malaysia is bonded with contract with the government.therefore,here in malaysia its difficult in order to criticize the government.

    But somehow,the changes of situation will surely flowering some positive remarks to the policy-maker in malaysia so that the social media is upon their control.

  3. "I concluded that social media couldn’t and won’t be able to help Malaysia effect political change"

    I think you need to find a way to measure the impact of social media before you can form a conclusion either way. I just saw a report today saying mainland Chinese are increasingly turning to social media to vent their daily frustrations and the Chinese government has found that it is very difficult to control the online phenomenon. I think the same is happening in M'sia. You must recognize, a regime change, especially in Malaysia, will be extremely difficult given the routine abuse of power by the institutions. If you think online and offline chatters could topple a government, then I think you are being naive. But I won't go so far as saying they have no effect.

    Perhaps the first thing you should do is to measure the scale of the related online chatters, and go from there by perhaps measuring the chatter impact through some surveys. I think marketing literature will be helpful, it seems the whole marketing field is studying online social media effects now.

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