KUALA LUMPUR, May 2 — On Monday night, I was at a barbecue dinner attended by stolid, solid tech industry types of various generations. You had the old guard, the hardware guys, the software chaps, the new wave of so-called “overnight” dotcom successes, and the like.
Of the first 10 people who turned up, it appeared that at least five of us were at the Bersih 3.0 rally for free and fair elections over the weekend.
At Monday’s barbecue, I spoke to an “uncle” type who had been tear-gassed on Saturday. His wife was at his side shaking her head at his incorrigibility. The two of them were from that generation who were told in no uncertain terms that only with “political stability” would come development.
That was in the past.
“We couldn’t deny the things happening around us any longer. With today’s technology, you can’t hide the truth anymore,” he said.
Two things struck me at the time: First, that despite their increasing use of the Internet and social media in particular, the government still does not get it.
Second, that while we go on about the younger generation and how they are finding their voices, we ignore the sea change sweeping across the older generations, too.
At one stage on Saturday, in trying to escape the teargas fumes, I drifted into a group of senior citizens gagging and retching from the attacks. We exchanged remedies — they had brought towels, salt and eye-drops, but had run out of water, which I shared with them. We chatted.
“Aiyo, what’s wrong with the government-lah,” one lady in her mid-60s lamented. “Why must they fire tear gas on us, their own citizens? What’s wrong with asking for fair elections? I always voted Barisan, you know. But I want fair elections.”
Guess who she is going to vote for the next time?
You’ve read the stories, you’ve seen the videos. You saw how it was a peaceful assembly, conducted in a fantastic spirit. How it was Malaysians from all walks of life, from all races and religions, united in a common voice.
And how it all changed in an instant and how groups of policemen ganged up on some protestors and proceeded to beat them up with a degree of vindictiveness and violence that made Rodney King’s abusers look like Gandhi.
You got all this mostly online, I bet — on independent news portals like The Malaysian Insider and Malaysiakini, on Facebook, blogs, YouTube and other video sites.
The authorities failed to dam up the information channels, despite confiscating equipment and allegedly assaulting journalists to prevent the media from recording the violent excesses perpetrated by our bastions of law and order.
They still believe that they have a monopoly on communications channels. It’s as if they learned all the wrong lessons from Bersih 2.0 last July, so let me state it emphatically: With today’s pervasive technology, sooner or later, the truth will out.
Here’s the thing: I don’t blame them.
Here’s my confession: I didn’t quite expect it either, but only because I have been hearing and reading about how the Internet was going to be the great leveller and the greatest democratization platform for so long, that the actualization just kinda crept up on me.
In 1997, Newsweek journalist George F. Will wrote, “It is no exaggeration to conclude that the Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace of mass speech that this country — and indeed the world — has yet seen.”
Around the same time, then US Vice President Al Gore said that the Internet was going to usher in an age of “participatory, Athenian democracy,” while Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates predicted it would become the ultimate “town hall.”
But I was a cynic. After all, this was at a time when the Internet was slow and expensive, and nowhere near as pervasive as it is today. I loved the idea, but felt that all we Internet enthusiasts were being too idealistic and naïve.
Dr Matthew Hindman, professor of Information Technology and Politics at the Political Science Department at Arizona State University, in asking if the term “democratization” is being used too broadly in terms of the effects of the Internet, notes that in the past just about every new technology — from telegraph and rotary press, to radio and television — have also been proclaimed “democratic.”
“Although there are differences between online and offline political participation, the bottom-line is that the Internet is giving ordinary citizens greater voice in the public discourse,” he however writes.
When it comes to the Malaysian technology-inflicted socio-political landscape, there have been so many comparisons to the Arab Spring, but I think the comparisons have been over-emphasised.
I quite like it that what we see happening around us has a very Malaysian flavour to it. Indeed, I think the technology-fuelled political awakening happening in Malaysia right now has more in common with an ex-rocker’s famous manifesto.
In 1996, John Perry Barlow, lyrics writer for The Grateful Dead, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and then a Fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, published from Davos, Switzerland, “The Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace.”
“I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather,” it states.
“We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.
“We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”
We’re doing it here in Malaysia.
* A. Asohan is co-founder and executive editor of Digital News Asia, a digital publication covering the tech ecosystem that will go “live” in May. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.