Malay Blogger Fights a System He Perfected
By SETH MYDANS
Published: November 5, 2008
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia In a vast office at the top of one of the worlds tallest buildings, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sits at a broad, glass-topped desk, scribbling his thoughts on a pad of unlined paper.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia blogs in English and Malay.
For 22 years, Mr. Mahathir was the most powerful person in this land, and his thoughts were commands as he reshaped the country in his own image.
But he has become an irritant and a spoiler five years after stepping down, turning against his handpicked successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and falling victim to the press controls he perfected as prime minister.
Where is the press freedom? he asked two years ago, apparently surprised at being suddenly ignored. Broadcast what I have to say! What I say is not even accurately published in the press!
This May, though, he discovered the power of the Internet. Like many other inconvenient critics, he joined what seemed to be a political wave of the future, creating his own blog http://www.chedet.com where he vents in English and Malay several times a week.
In March, political experts said, Malaysias bloggers helped influence elections, contributing to the biggest upset that the governing party, the United Malays National Organization, had suffered since independence in 1957. For the first time in decades, it held fewer than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, and it lost control of 5 of the 13 states.
Among the opposition winners in the national and state governments were several bloggers, most prominently Jeff Ooi, who claimed to have prodded Mr. Mahathir into starting his own blog.
The Internet has become the main battleground against censorship in Malaysia, where a system of self-censorship in an atmosphere of government pressure and intimidation has produced a constricted press.
Mr. Mahathir, 82, seems to be reveling now in challenging the system he once controlled, and he is as acerbic as he was during his days as prime minister.
It is time the so-called intellectuals realize they were being duped by the Master of Spin, he wrote on Aug. 21, referring to his bitter enemy, Anwar Ibrahim, who was his deputy prime minister and now leads the main opposition party. He also accused Mr. Anwar of being the pious Muslim, who is also the bosom pal of Paul Wolfowitz, the neo-con Jew, referring to the former United States deputy secretary of defense.
Blogging on Sept. 3, he offered a sort of mission statement. Many are with him as he harasses the government, he asserted. But they are not prepared to say it openly, he wrote. That was why I started my blog. About six million had visited my blog site, and tens of thousands have commented and supported me.
In case anyone doubts this, he posts comments to his blog by the dozens and hundreds, page after page, day after day. It turns out he has a lot of fans.
Amazingly brilliant! reads one comment. I cant stop laughing…you made my day Sir!
And just to clear up any possible misunderstanding, another writes, You, sir, are the most brilliant politician Malaysia has ever been blessed with.
Mr. Ooi, 52, a former advertising copywriter who was one of Malaysias first political bloggers, started in 2003 and built a loyal following at http://www.jeffooi.com.
The government began an assault on Mr. Ooi that included threats of imprisonment without trial, attacks in the government-friendly press and defamation lawsuits, which are popular among leaders in Southeast Asia.
But that seemed only to make him a hero, and when he decided to run for Parliament as an opposition candidate, he already had a big head start.
As a person that has consistently faced threats as a blogger, I had a kind of iconism and imagery that this is someone you can trust, someone the government fears, someone you need to put into Parliament, Mr. Ooi said.
But he said it was much harder to blog from the inside. The trade-off is that I have to write with measured words, he said.
Earlier this year, Mr. Ooi said, he attended a public forum with Mr. Mahathir. It was there that he claimed he persuaded Mr. Mahathir to begin a blog.
I threw him a challenge, Mr. Ooi said. A blogger shares a few prerequisites. One, he is strongly opinionated. Two, he could be controversial. And, thirdly, he is an agent provocateur on issues.
I thought Mahathir fulfilled all three.
The result, Mr. Ooi said, was a miracle, he scored about 10 million visitors within months.
Now, a convert to free speech, Mr. Mahathir is using his blog to champion the most recent victim of government censorship, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, the countrys most prominent blogger, who posts on http://www.malaysia-today.net, his Web site. The site has been blocked, but readers are redirected to another Web site, which continues to be updated.
The government has fallen back on the kind of tactics that Mr. Ooi faced. It charged Mr. Petra with sedition and jailed him for two years without trial for comments he had posted.
Mr. Mahathir sounded almost like Che Guevara when he said in his blog that the arrest showed a degree of oppressive arrogance worthy of a totalitarian state.
Furthermore, jailing people is futile, he said in an interview in his office. There is no way the government can arrest all the bloggers, even if it wants to.
At least, he said, I hope so. Otherwise Ill be in, too."
ISN’T HE SOMETHING?