As Malaysia enters an election season, the long ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is fast bidding to burnish its online image through a new web portal, therakyat.com, launched last week by Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The coalition’s move is belated recognition of the power of online and social media in swaying public opinion and capturing votes after recent poor showings at the polls, including a loss of the popular vote in 2013.
Recent research shows that over half the population spends more than five hours per day on smartphones.
“Since social media plays a pivotal role in disseminating information to Malaysians, the portal is key in determining BN’s success in the coming general elections,” Najib said in a speech this week to BN politicians.
The therakyat.com website will include information on Barisan candidates for the upcoming election and interviews, as well as the coalition’s manifesto, which Najib said would be its “best ever for the people.”
It was arguably the ruling coalition’s neglect of online campaigning that led to two consecutive electoral slips, first in 2008 and then in 2013.
“We lost out in social media [campaigning] to the opposition in the last two elections, but this time round we are ready to give them our best shot and fight their attempts to create a negative perception about the government,” Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said last month.
At the 2008 election, the ruling coalition lost its supermajority for the first time since the Malaysian federation’s establishment in 1963. In 2013, it failed to win the popular vote, again for the first time in its history, though because of skewed gerrymandering it maintained a majority in the lower house of parliament.
Before the 2013 election, Najib was quoted as saying that it would be Malaysia’s first “social media election.” This, however, was disputed by some analysts who thought the term ought to apply to the 2008 election.
Then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who resigned a year after that poor poll showing, admitted at the time that ignoring cyber-campaigning was the ruling coalition’s “biggest mistake.”
By 2013, BN had made some strides in adapting to new online campaigning techniques, though most analysts agree it still lost the virtual battleground. Even today, not everyone is confident that the ruling coalition is capable of competing online against a more experienced opposition, which is facing its own woes.
The popular Pakatan Rakyat coalition fell apart in 2015 when an Islamist component party pushed for hudud, Islamic jurisprudence, to be expanded in its northern heartland of Kelantan. Its opposition successor, Pakatan Harapan, is less coherent and more fractious since the inclusion of ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and his new political party.
But it’s not clear a new website will scrub the BN’s public image problems. Many Malaysians consider it aloof and elitist, stocked with aging men dressed in oversized linen shirts with receding hairlines. This isn’t helped by the fact that most of its policy-makers hail from the pre-Internet age and few appear enthusiastic to change with modern times.
While the therakyat.com portal might be important in spreading BN’s electoral message, the coalition already appears content to focus its online efforts on the personal websites and social media accounts of its more popular and relatable figures.
Last week, Najib’s personal blog, najibrazak.com, was given a modern, minimalist facelift to make it more user-friendly. Perhaps the most important addition was a new section called “The Truth”, in which Najib – or a ghostwriting advisor – rebuts 22 accusations directed at him by the opposition, including claims of corruption.
He also manages to weigh into debates about whether he is a better leader than former presidents of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the most important component party of the BN coalition.
The most popular social media figure among UMNO’s ranks is arguably Khairy Jamaluddin, the 41-year-old tourism and sports minister and youngest member of the cabinet who is widely tipped as a future UMNO leader.
Khairy has 2.3 million followers on Twitter, and almost a million on Instagram and Facebook. In November, he described himself as the abah (daddy) of social media and has played a key role in developing how the ruling coalition brands itself online.
“We have to be funny and relatable. We have to create a funny image… We have to be authentic, that’s when the people will like us,” he told politicians at UNMO’s social media convention held in November.
Importantly, Khairy also told his fellow party members to grow thicker-skins when it comes to online criticism, a problem considering that many UMNO politicians are not used to overt criticism from the public or mostly cowed local press. “We can’t lash out on social media. You have to keep your cool,” he said.
That advice, to be sure, hasn’t been followed by UMNO in the past. Najib, who in 2011 praised Malaysia’s online speech as “definitely one of the freest if not the most free” in the world, turned sharply towards censorship in 2015.
The media clampdown came in response to mounting criticism over his corruption allegations. In July 2015, the Sarawak Report, a UK-based news website, was blocked after it reported that hundreds of millions of dollars had been transferred to Najib’s personal bank account from the 1MDB state investment fund.
Online censorship worsened in 2016, but eased off slightly last year as the 1MDB scandal started to recede. However, it may now return as the next general election nears and the opposition looks to campaign on Najib’s and UMNO’s alleged corruption.
Local media reported that five people were charged last year for “insulting” Najib online. The Malaysian Insight, an online news portal, is currently under investigation by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, a media regulator, for also allegedly insulting Najib.
Upon launching the therakyat.com website, Najib directed his ire at the opposition’s use of online campaigning to disseminate false claims.
“In the  general election, we became the victim of fake news,” he said. “Fake news has become the opposition’s weapon and has brought consequences to us… We believe the same thing will happen during [this year’s] general election.”
Now, UMNO has its own cadre of thousands of volunteer and paid “cyber-troopers” who attack opposition messages on social media, the Malaysian Insight reported this month. The party reportedly provides local branches with as much as US$250,000 a year to pay online monitors.
But it’s not clear yet that and other online initiatives will be enough to outpace the more tech-savvy opposition.