The following opinion piece was in the Sunday Star (9th November, 2008). Maybe the title should have been the "wind vanes" of political change instead of "windmills".
In any case, socio-political bloggers in Malaysia who are worth their salt should be able to understand this piece between the lines or should I say between the sheets. As blogosphere struggles to define "mainstream bloggers" we in Malaysia have our own brand.
Windmills of political change
By SUHAINI AZNAM
Since ‘serious’ bloggers are also socio-political commentators, any change in the political seascape will also mean a shift in bloggers’ orientation.
BLOGGERS are the windmills of political change, shifting with political winds. When Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi announced that he was no longer going to defend his post as Umno president, he took the wind out of the sails of his sharpest critics.
One such is Syed Azidi Syed Aziz, 38, of sheih kickdefella fame, who now has to “do some soul searching”. Before the March 8 general election, bloggers were either outright pro-Opposition or pro-establishment but against the Pak Lah administration. The latter “had such a huge impact that they swayed the final majority,” said Sheih.
In 1999, those who opposed Dr Mahathir had not had such great an impact because they were preaching to the converted.
“Blogs then were just to update. The DAP and PAS had only 500 to 3,000 hits per day. They did not appeal to the masses,” added Sheih.
Former New Straits Times journalist and editor Ahirudin Attan, better known as Rocky of “Rocky’s Bru”, concurred. In March, “all three categories were blogging for change”.
But “almost overnight, post March 8, all bloggers who had been critical of the Government, toned down.
“We are seeing the true colours of the socio-political bloggers,” explained Rocky. “There is a change in attitude. Bloggers are shown to be political activists.
“Those claiming they are for change are not walking the talk,” he said, citing the Selangor Government’s stand on the latest temple demolition. People are rearranging their hierarchy of trust. Before, trust was very high. Now we are slipping very fast.”
“I used to support Pakatan,” declared Zainol Abidin, 50 (aka Mahaguru58). “I felt we needed a change. I expected change. Now they have taken over five states and there is no change. So I am aligning myself to no one, not the Barisan, and I will whack Anwar (Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim) left, right and blue!”
Former journalist Nuraina Samad, whose 3540 jalan sudin has over a million hits, was more philosophical. The Government had come under “unbridled attack and some people now feel that enough is enough”, she said.
“Umno lost because a lot of Malays voted for the Opposition,” observed Nuraina.
“A new group of bloggers, more pro-Barisan, emerged because a lot of people realised that maybe it was not such a good idea to vote the PKR. These were people trying to go with the renewal of Umno and trying to counter Opposi tion bloggers like Elizabeth Wong and Jeff Ooi.”
Before March, a lot of MPs and politicians who blogged were from the DAP, PAS, and the PKR. After Abdullah said the Barisan must counter this trend, several Barisan politicians answered the call, “opening Facebooks and using the tools that were said to have given them a miserable time”, said Rocky.
Jebat Must Die, Demi Negara, Chedet are all very influential, he added.Even Abdullah’s warkahuntukpm was launched after the general election to deal with thorny issues and people’s complaints.
Divided for change
Bloggers are very political now, on both sides of the divide, said Nuraina.
“Bloggers during the general election were for change,” she noted. “We walked together many times: the penguin walk, freedom walk, yellow march.”
If after the election, the PR had expected bloggers to continue with this line, they were disappointed. “We can’t attack the DAP, Anwar, Teresa,” said Nuraina.
When bloggers try to point out corruption in Pakatan-held states, they become very combative and go on the offensive.
“Those Opposition bloggers even view neutral ones like me as pro-government. I am accused of not being supportive,” said Rocky.
If readers have noticed a slight change in his stance, particularly after Abdullah said he was stepping down, Rocky maintained that “bloggers are divided more by political agenda, beliefs, than who they are rooting for as prime minister.”
With the changing of the guards to Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, the future of bloggers actually depends on Najib’s strategy in the local mainstream newspapers. Najib already has his own people who manage blogs for him, said Rocky, citing Najib’s 1malaysia, launched last September.
Already, the pressure on Pak Lah has eased, agreed Sheih. “Bloggers who endorse Najib will monitor him but won’t be that critical of him. The ball will be in Najib’s court”.
Speaking of NST and Berita Harian, how they will behave under Najib will depend on whether the Government changes its old ways in terms of media control, said Rocky.
“If the Government can show it is more liberal – meaning if they put me there (laughing) – intervention is vastly reduced, the relevance of blogs will be severely tested. It has been proven that “wherever the media is most free, blogs are dependent on crumbs”, hoping for that one big scoop a year, he noted.
Rocky remains the bloggers’ favourite, as “Rocky’s Bru” not only has the numbers – a total of seven-going-on-eight million hits – but it also enjoys peer acclaim. Rocky, how ever, feels he has reached optimum point.
“Bloggers like me are finding that there are limitations to what a blog can do. At the rate I am doing (working alone), I get 30,000 unique visitors per day. Chedet gets 60,000 to 70,000 per day. To go beyond that is perhaps not possible,” he admitted.
He thinks the logical next step would be to “turn blogs into news portals, add new features, thereby increasing readership, while maintaining Rocky’s Bru (which would) occupy a small corner on the news portal.”
He thinks chedet.com, former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s immensely popular blog, would also go the same route, and may be enhanced with a photo corner of his life’s experiences.
“This solo act is very tiring,” sighed Rocky, referring to the tremendous effort involved in researching and writing, plus sifting through the comments of their fans and detractors. “I can’t go on like this.”
What then drives bloggers in the absence of monetary rewards?
Whatever their political stripes and personal idiosyncrasies, bloggers are crusaders.
Dr Mahathir’s daughter Datin Paduka Marina (rantingsbymm) feels that “blogs grew exponentially because of people’s almost uncontrollable need to speak out. People were bursting to express themselves.”
Pride in growing their blogs is another motivator, and certainly there is idealism.
In April 2007, Rocky set up the National Bloggers Alliance, which has yet to be registered. It is being managed by a pro-temp committee of which Rocky is president. The Alliance is non-partisan and is intended to protect bloggers and promote responsible blogging.
A year ago, Zainol formed the Muslim Bloggers Alliance “to pool together the thoughts of Muslim bloggers, safeguard the good name of Islam, clarify and teach about Islam and to correct misconceptions about Islam, especially online”.
Applications for membership have flooded in but Zainol is careful. He vets through their blogs and has pared them down to a select 93. Once registered as a mutual benefit society, its monthly contributions will go to a trust fund to take care of legal fees and dakwah activities.
Political affiliations can also be ideals. A new, small grouping called the Barisan Rakyat bloggers, born during the March general election, became most prominent during the Permatang Pauh by-election in August.
Bernard Khoo (blog name Zorro Unmasked), Harris and Raja Petra Kamarud din (Malaysia Today) were all either “inspired or sponsored by Anwar”, said Rocky.
“It gives more variety, choice. It is good for the three to finally declare where their allegiance lie.”
Nuraina noted that “a lot of racialism has reared its head since the general election”. Like other responsible bloggers, she would edit for sedition and slander.
She steers clear of race and religion because “I might have to be brutally frank”. If commentators to her blog are racist or slanderous, she would have to address their issues.
For others, ideologies had emerged from blurred racial lines. Sheih has about three million plus hits, mostly from non-Malay and non-PAS visitors. “The majority read me for my stand on a few things like justice and equality.”
Span of influence
Public Relations consultant and The Star guest columnist Raslan Sharif feels that although most bloggers, especially those from Umno, may be younger people, their target audience are not necessarily so. “They just target voters, irrespective of age. And more people in their 40s and 50s are also getting tech savvy.”
Even among those who are not, “a lot of the issues I hear in the kedai kopi were (first) brought from the blog,” said Raslan.
The trend-setters, however, are not the socio-political bloggers but the personal bloggers, lifestyle, entertainment and business bloggers who form the bulk of the community. And while lifestyle bloggers are known to sell space, socio-political bloggers blog for free.
“We make the noise and they make the money,” said Rocky flatly.
“Lifestyle bloggers like kennysia.com have a huge following,” noted Raslan. “They are an advertising goldmine since readers are mainly in the 25-35 age bracket who tend to spend. In Kenny’s case, ad space would earn him about RM10,000 per month.”
It is a time-consuming task for “a serious hobby”, said Nuraina. “When bloggers carry google ads, you are not in control of what comes out,” even though you appear to have endorsed the products.
Being original is tough work and only the best succeed in stamping a distinctive mark.
“Most socio-political bloggers pick their topics from the newspapers, then dissect, deconstruct the report and analyse or comment on them. But their primary source is the newspapers,” said Raslan.
But Sheih, who does “not see bloggers as reporters, they are columnists, they analyse. People read them to see how they view (events)”, said he seldom picks items from the newspapers, preferring to go to “the source itself, my “informers”, people who e-mail me something”.
He would not, however, call his blog neutral. “They (readers) want a bit of emotion.”