MAY 29 — In many ways the Teluk Intan by-election is a dry run for the next general elections due as early as three years from now or even sooner. The tipping point probably depends on how well social media is used to engage the electorate. This will re-define politics where the electoral demographics is shifting to a more youthful and social media savvy profile.
Malcolm Gladwell, author of the non-fiction best seller “Tipping point – How little things can make a big difference (2000),” points out that one dramatic moment when everything can change all at once is called the Tipping Point. His says there are three characteristics for this to happen, one, contagiousness; two, the fact that little causes can have big effects; and three, that change happens not gradually but at one dramatic moment.
Social media featured prominently in the 2008 general elections (GE12). There was no tipping point to bring about a regime change. But the ruling coalition lost its crucial two-third majority in parliament that has allowed it to amend the constitution at will since independence. Barisan Nasional (BN) also lost five states out of 13 -Penang, Selangor, Perak, Kedah and Kelantan. It eventually recovered Perak under questionable circumstances. Nonetheless, BN’s loss was unprecedented and the cutting edge was undoubtedly the social media campaign engaged by both the opposition coalition and civil society groups that were seeking a regime change.
Its popular vote was reduced to such a level that the then incumbent Prime Minister Pak Lah was forced put of office rather ungracefully by factional infighting within Umno, the dominant party in the coalition. In came the new Prime Minister Najib Razak only with a party mandate.
Najib had declared that GE13 would be the country’s first “social media elections.” Barisan Nasional lost the popular vote but managed to win 133 or 60 percent of the parliamentary seats under a highly skewed electoral system.
As pointed out by Bridget Welsh, an associate professor in political science at Singapore Management University, the results, conduct of the polls and aftermath have raised questions about Najib’s maiden mandate as ironically he has emerged weaker out of the contest than before he went into it.
The ruling coalition treats the threat by social media seriously. As Prime Minister Najib Razak has acknowledged, Malaysia, along with Brazil, has the highest Twitter use in the world. Undoubtedly, 140 characters can possibly influence a regime change in Malaysia.
DAP, one of the three major parties that make up Pakatan Rakyat coalition, had even brought social media strategists. Yeo Bee Yin is one of DAP’s such strategists. Her job is to leverage the power of social media to increase exposure for the party, to “compensate for the lack of or biased coverage in the mainstream media.”
The Cambridge-trained chemical engineer was quoted as saying, “Social media is not a one-way communication, it’s where your fans are willing to share your materials (what we call earned media). We have a strong fan base in social media, that’s how our news spread.”
Yeo, who returned from her overseas posting stood and won hands-down as a lawmaker in the Selangor state assembly in the general elections last year.
Umno supreme council member, Saifuddin Abdullah, a former MP and who was previously deputy minister is cited as saying BN had learnt an important lesson from its worst electoral performance in 2008 elections due to its failure to conquer the cyber-world which was then dominated by the opposition coalition.
Saifuddin pointed out, “We were not there (cyber world) in 2008... we handicap. We lost at that time, because of that we lost young voters. But now BN is prepared, we have a team of bloggers and new media known as ‘BN cybertroopers.”
Recognising the importance of engagement with the youth on social media, Barisan Nasional youth chief, Khairy Jamaluddin started the youth’s new media unit in 2009 and has recruited 10,000 “cybertroopers” for GE13. Still the task remains daunting and he acknowledges, “The cyber world is the opposition’s home ground as they have been using this platform for a long time.”
In the end, the results of GE13 show that it was a social media elections after all. According to Norwegian online intelligence solutions provider Meltwater’s monitoring of Twitter during the country’s 13th election (GE13) on May 5, there was an average of 300 tweets per minute using the hashtag #GE13.
About 61 per cent or nearly 18 million of Malaysia’s population of 28 million has access to the Internet, according to 2011 data from the World Bank, and 80 per cent of its Internet population has Facebook accounts.
Meltwater also points out, although Najib’s official Facebook page has 1,720,255 likes, the engagement level was a very low at 12 per cent. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s official Facebook page has nearly half of Najib’s at 826,586 likes, but had an extremely high engagement rate of 75 per cent on May 5 in GE13. Numbers itself can be deceiving in social media.
There are no issues in the Teluk Intan by-election. It boils down to old politics versus new. The new is defined by new media. Whichever party understands social media well has the cutting edge this Sunday.
The Teluk Intan results may well indicate whether we would see the tipping point in GE14, which according to Gladwell, is that one dramatic moment when everything can change all at once.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of the Malay Mail Online.