By Mathew Maavak
It was only a matter of time before the ruling powers in Kuala Lumpur began their assault on the only public domain in Malaysia - the Internet.
While all kinds of dissent, opinions and rants are taken for granted in a freer society, here the advent of the Internet provided not a new lease of life, but a hitherto unknown life of mass, communicable grassroots opinion.
For the uninitiated, here is a brief on the Malaysian media scene: We are a controlled democracy with a controlled mass media. Even live soccer matches are delayed by a few minutes, in case David Beckham does something subversive by scoring a goal. Dig that?
Before the Internet era, we had to rely on the sycophantic drivels of government-controlled dailies, now pretty much purchased for their ads. If you want to know where the sales are, that's the right forum, one for the intelligentsia of discounts.
The net offered Malaysians an anonymity from personal peril. Emails at major firms are regularly monitored - like elsewhere in the world - and if you were found contributing potent nuggets to the public domain, one that might damage the corporate-political nexus, you won't get the sack. Sacks are stuffy and they are noticeable; the cold storage of a dead end career is regarded more merciful.
While you are in deep freeze, you can spend time reading books, especially those penned by history's finest writers, some of whom had resorted to noms de plume to avoid persecution. Through their anonymity their works survived and they are quoted in Malaysian universities, where lecturers and students have a fair chance - emphasis needed - of understanding what was written, unless the inherent ideas are lifted from the Internet, especially from ultra-leftist publications which subtly proclaim: "US is Satan."
And here I must digress for perspectives.
For those writers who subscribe to this lunatic, monomaniacal philosophy, can you kindly migrate to Riyadh, Amman or Islamabad and exchange places with the likes of me? Your women will be treated well there. You will enjoy great freedom, including gay rights. You will be allowed to prohibit the Quran from schools or any public spot. Never take the copout clause of retaining your Western passports. There are people around who want a global, free exchange of citizenry; a tit for tat systematic UN Charter for the Disgrunled! This one would be an improvement to the toothless UN Charters on fundamental rights that cannot be applied to the oil-rich Middle East.
And as for Satan, he cannot be confined to one place. The horned one loves to hover over capitals, stock markets, on the Internet, and in the minds of anarchists and jihadists. If you want to kiss Osama bin Laden's ass, go ahead and enjoy the Crawford Cowboy's one as well. They are indeed conjoined butts, bonded together by "terror."
Digression and rant over. Back to Malaysians.
The potency of the Internet can be likened to the separate windows on our screens. Anyone, anywhere could compare different worlds, and the local one was found to be intolerably repressive. Malaysians began to express unfiltered demands for a little meritocracy, freedom of speech, and government/corporate transparency. In fact, the online media thrived on these topics, all watered down and cautious, despite the ostensible, protective garb of anonymity. The posts were still better than the lopsided exposes of the mass media. Blogs were also driving down the relevancy of news contents in major dailies, and more importantly, their profit margins.
Exposing corruption here can get you into trouble. Thinking intelligently can get you into trouble as well. Our political and corporate leaders are a hypersensitive lot and they do make George W. Bush look like a real man despite him dodging the Vietnam War. After all, doesn’t he allow criticisms and conspiracy theories to flourish in his nation? Dick Cheney's daughter can be reported to be a lesbian. Try that here and the courts will nail you for defamation. Your evidence is always "irrelevant," a common retort used by the judge in Anwar Ibrahim's sodomy and corruption trial. Years later, after a new administration took over, the courts cleared him of these charges. Only Dr Mahathir Mohamad who got him jailed in the first place, can continually sling that "sodomiser" slur. What about the other homosexuals in high office, doc? (see legal caveat below)
The elite here is untouchable. When the controlled media pounces on corruption in high office, you immediately know that someone has fallen from political grace. For decades, lawyers, activists and opposition leaders have been jailed and intimidated for speaking out. A few were knackered enough to provide democratic pretences.
One pioneer online news portal - www.malaysiakini.com - was targeted so often that I hardly check it out anymore. This site used to be quoted in essays as an embodiment of the liberating Internet. Not anymore. Malaysians can only excel abroad. I used the internet to get my writings published. Otherwise, I'd be a dead end sub editor - Grade C. It was later upgraded to B when the niggling issue of my writings popped up.
Real Crisis at Play
It's not corruption that is worrying the puppet masters. What they are worried about is any reference to terrorism, espionage, the Spratly Islands, the Straits of Malacca and the deliberate framing of local Muslims as terrorists. They are worried about any discussion on the looming, global economic crisis; stuff that keep Fortune 500 CEOs, Wall Street and the common man on the edge. The US media has headlines running on that subject round the clock.
Au contraire, if you read the local dailies, there are bright silver linings. One of them is our palm oil which is presented as an economic manna. Someone here has ingeniously figured out a way to transport them, on super tankers unaffected by the $70 tag per oil barrel.
Commonsensical questions can be an irritant. Anonymous posts can be more damaging than an article on a registered internet news site. So, kill the blogs. For this, laws are needed, or expanded to govern the Internet. Before that, you need to consult the Psyops Manual for Beginners.
Here is what the manual would suggest:
Create a situational crisis to achieve targeted results. Ramp up confusion, induce fear, hint at mayhem and, finally introduce controlled dissent.
That's it. Nothing more. I told you it was a beginner's manual.
The situational crisis in Malaysia would be the race and religion card. The real crisis, as I mentioned, is different.
First step. Frag the bloggers, from different locations, round the clock. Forget that the semantics look suspiciously regular. Forget that software can break them down into startling symmetries. That's what the courts are for. Nothing more needed. We have no other mass-media outlets.
After that split the bloggers, engage the amenable to keep the public domain restricted.
The first step seems to have started. Two bloggers have lodged police reports over a bombardment of racists posts. A sensible move before someone lodges a report against them. The most touchy slurs were directed at Muslims. The Muslims are not taking up arms; but the ruling elite have always used this tactic. Racist slurs are common in schools, along the roads and in high office. Kuala Lumpur is the perfect place to study the art of kicking below the belt. You sometimes need them to address grievances.
Unusual Sympathizers and more questions:
The Malay Mail scooped up the plight of the bloggers. It was soon joined by its senior partner, the New Straits Times. The NST is a daily which permanently floats above the riff-raff terrain of blogging, under the firm conviction that Citizen Journalist can only exist in New Orleans. And dig this: One particular blog is denied access at the New Straits Times.
And that psyops manual, if it has anything extra, will tell you that the recent incident in Singapore, where two bloggers were charged for sedition, was a mere cosmic coincidence. Some Karma binds Malaysia and Singapore together. They have found a new orbit now, one cornered on every side by the Thais, Vietnamese, Americans, Chinese, and God only knows who else.
Patsies will be needed to regulate the last public domain in Malaysia. This is not the first time that Malaysia has been used as a testbed for tracking technologies. People have been jailed here before for spreading a silly rumor. Where did that technology come from? It couldn’t do much when Nick Berg's beheading was posted on a Malaysian server. Where were the international sleuths then? Is anyone keeping track of servers that host Al Qeada websites?
What can bloggers do?
Years back, I chanced upon Daniel Pipes' blog. I am quoting this prominently placed caveat from memory:
Daniel Pipes is not responsible for contents of this blog
A very sensible caveat. The man travels around. Local bloggers could add this: "Offensive blogs will be removed at the earliest opportunity."
Is there really a solution?
It's still a no-win situation. What about anonymous public whistleblowers? Are they seditious or they patriotic? In a democracy, members of the legislative are vested with anonymity when they cast secret ballots. Government informants, some of them criminals, enjoy that anonymity as well.
Here, that fundamental question have gone off a tangent into law and internet ethics, some of which come straight out of the likes of Harvard University .
Have you noticed the recent spate of assaults on Indymedia? And off all places in Europe, the land where you can sling both mud and rotten eggs at politicians? Where is our freedom of speech, guaranteed under the UN charter?
There is one thing about Malaysia few understand. It's a set piece society of moveable herds. I have very, very few friends here, after going through my own situational crises. The last reliable friend is moving to the United States. If you think I am kidding, read the account of the Anwar saga. When he was removed from power, tens of thousands rallied to his Reformasi cause. It was something Malaysia had never witnessed. Months later, after brutal official crackdowns, the numbers trickled down to hundreds and then tens, which, gathered outside the court where his appeals were heard.
That is authoritarian power at its best, where your friends or allies can ditch you for convenience. That's an old story.
Right now, is Malaysia being used to herald a New Online Order?
Kuala Lumpur, Sept 18, 11.36pm
Originally drafted on Friday Sept 15, 2005 9pm.
Copyright @MathewMaavak 2005
**Legal Caveat (for the rich and powerful): Extraordinary public service. Others can be cooked.
There is a possibility that Dr Mahathir is throwing a monkey wrench into this latest maneuver against dissent. A fine twist indeed, and a very smart move!
 Global Voices Online provides anonymity tips for "bloggers living under regimes that do not respect freedom of speech." Here is its manifesto. Lets live up to it!
Mathew Maavak's older commentaries can be read here, or visit the Panoptic World homepage.