Longkang Politicians vs Web 2.0

By Tony Savarimuthu

The best spin-doctors I’ve seen throughout this election season are probably the guys who were earnestly fresh-tarring the perfectly good road in front of my house. While there are serious issues being debated on whether or not the soul of the country is being usurped by corruption, crime bosses or constitutional misdemeanours, the “longkang” politician’s capacity to influence voters by implementing some well-timed brand activation programmes cannot be underrated.

The political party, the prospect (in this case the voter) and the product meet in a bizarre confluence of local activities that strangely out-bid the vociferous ceramahs and seasoned campaigners arguing national issues across the country. Issues like toll hikes and fuel prices are made to seem like loose change in ceramahs where many turn up for the sheer entertainment value of watching prospective parliamentarians slapping themselves in the face or holding comedy court as gas-bags full of vacuous platitudes.

While many prospective parliamentary candidates set up shop and work the constituency conscientiously in their bid to serve their communities, many an unknown have also turned up unexpectedly at the door of the electorate and presumptively hope that party loyalty will return favours at the ballot box. Rising party stars get parachuted into safe seats, while some others confront those with marginal wins in the past, in the hope that the need among the electorate for alternate voices might see them elected, or at the very least see their “manly” behaviour deemed worthy of a more winnable seat the next time round. Nothing has changed, it seems, on this level.

But is the battle for the soul of the nation a serious one? Has there been a serious and unexpected up-turn in the campaign that has emerged over the last few days of campaigning?

Certainly a more dynamic strain of candidates has emerged in GE2008, with the ability to engage younger audiences through their message of political change, poverty eradication, gender equality, protection of minorities and the disenfranchised, and many contemporary issues that the younger, more conscientious voter would be concerned about.

With 13 million Internet users and 22 million recorded mobile phone subscriptions, the sheer intensity of email blasts and pervasiveness of YouTube links, social networking sites and sundry political jokes or texted messages being sent, is new media going to trump the estimated RM15 million already spent in traditional media like newspapers, television, billboards and radio?

With corporations staking their claim to the affection of the sitting government with a series of supporting campaigns, celebrity endorsements being sought across the political divide and allegations of scantily clad dancers gyrating on stage to boost attendance, the mix of media influences being used in GE2008 has probably never been higher.

The emergence of a variety of latter-day political brand ambassadors underscores the point that politics makes strange bedfellows and adds a strange twist to the election. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad himself has been spotted on the YouTube hustings, having lost none of his wit and providing good value with a number of entertaining and well-targetted barbs.

Many have asked if this is indeed the dawn of Web 2.0 in Malaysian elections.

Sadly, from our research, over 60% of the Web 2.0 generation have disqualified themselves from the political process by not registering as voters. Some say they were rebuffed by the bureaucratic process and have not returned.

Perhaps the Election Commission needs to think of new ways – mobile phone and Internet registrations are not inconceivable, nor kiosks that can accept MyKad registrations. Or the fall-out from both the apathy and the inability of bureaucrats to court the young into the political process may see a whole generation of young adults unbothered about whether the country is worth a damn or not.

Meanwhile one can’t underestimate the power of the local constituency politician. It may be about clogged drains, blocked access roads or attendance at the parent-teacher association, but in the majority, it can still hold sway over Web 2.0, serious national issues and even the expensive but vacuous political campaigns and supplements.