JAKARTA — When Mahathir Mohamad’s Alliance of Hope coalition surprised the world — and perhaps even themselves — by winning last May’s parliamentary vote in Malaysia, it was not just the first-ever opposition election win in the country’s history. Some saw it as the result of the first “WhatsApp election,” where the platform’s encrypted private messaging provided a sanctuary for citizens to discuss politics away from the raucous finger-pointing of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. WhatsApp “offered security in that messages would come from ‘trusted’ contacts and thus be more ‘believable'” than open services such as Facebook or Twitter, said Serina Abdul Rahman, whose election research for the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute took her to rural areas in the south and north of Malaysia. Apprehension over commenting publicly was likely heightened by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s anti-fake news law, which was announced ahead of the elections. Some saw the law as a tool for Najib to avoid public discussion of corruption allegations related to the scandal-riddled sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB.
KAMPUNG BUKIT, KEDAH, MALAYSIA — With police investigating him under Malaysia’s new anti-“fake news” law, Mahathir Mohamad, the nearly 93-year-old former prime minister turned opposition frontman, says his country faces its dirtiest election on Wednesday. The governing coalition “will cheat like mad, they will steal votes, but still I think we can win,” Mahathir said in an interview with The Times, stepping off a makeshift stage and into a nearby BMW waiting to take him to yet another campaign rally. Defying his age, Mahathir had just wrapped up a half-hour stump speech in this farming area about a 20-mile drive from Aloh Setar, the capital of Kedah state, his home base. Kedah has typically been a government stronghold, although the green flags of Malaysia’s Islamist party also flutter along its roadsides. Mahathir wants to swing the state, and enough rural Muslim Malays across the country, to his four-party opposition grouping known as the Alliance of Hope.
SINGAPORE — The recent exposé of how polling firm Cambridge Analytica mined Facebook for information on voters was focused mainly on the United States. But the investigation, which aired on the UK’s Channel 4 last month, has caused ructions in Malaysia after Mark Turnbull, a Cambridge Analytica executive, was filmed bragging that they helped the governing coalition retain power in the country’s last elections in 201, apparently by using social media to profile voters and deliver campaign messages. “We’ve done it in Mexico, we’ve done it in Malaysia and now we’re going to Brazil,” Turnbull said. With another election due anytime between now and August, Malaysia’s opposition predictably seized on that claim. The government in turn said it had nothing to answer for, blaming Mukhriz Mahathir, a former ally turned opposition member, for personally hiring Cambridge Analytica.
JAKARTA — The region’s jarring social media jousting means that platforms such as Twitter are not really “social” anymore, but have become “weaponized” according to Indonesian political analyst Wimar Witoelar, who has 439,000 Twitter followers. “So interaction is more often divisive than not. You cannot form a consensus. Instead you sharpen your differences,” he said via WhatsApp. Even Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, is not immune to savaging on social media, taking to Facebook in September to make his point. “I was asked, ‘President Jokowi, how is the state of social media in Indonesia?’, I replied, ‘In Indonesia, it can get very vicious,” he posted.
MANILA — Four years after a colossal Pacific Ocean storm battered the city of Tacloban in central Philippines, Jerby Santo remembered how as one of around 10 million Philippine expatriates, he was waiting anxiously for news of Typhoon Haiyan making landfall at his home town. Even though the Philippines often bears the brunt of storms veering off the southern Pacific, Haiyan had prompted an unusual level of uneasiness. “I was in Phnom Penh on the eve of the storm, the internet was abuzz, what was going to happen?” he recalled, speaking at a commemorative event organized by the Newton Tech4Dev Network and De La Salle University in Manila on Nov. 9. The biggest damage of the hurricane was caused by a storm surge, a wall of seawater like a tsunami that swept inland, quickly flooding ground levels before people could escape.
DOONBEG — Every time President Trump rails against big “pharma” over the jobs that have been shipped overseas, his pledges to streamline regulations and lower taxes to lure them home prompt grimaces 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. More than 50,000 people are employed with pharmaceutical and medical device companies here in Ireland, with most of the companies refugees from America. Baxter, a medical equipment manufacturer based in Deerfield, Illinois, employs a thousand people in Ireland. Pfizer, Boston Scientific and Johnson & Johnson all have substantial Irish operations. Dublin’s Silicon Docks neighborhood earned its nickname after Facebook, Google, Twitter and other U.S. tech companies set up in glossy offices, often mammoth European headquarters, close to the River Liffey. They are among an estimated 700 U.S. companies which, attracted by Ireland’s low corporate tax rate and English-speaking work force, have helped drive a multinational invasion on the Emerald Isle that once turned it into the “Celtic Tiger” of Europe, employing around 170,000 people in all.
YANGON – The national election commission has been widely criticized for partisan statements made by its chair, former general Tin Aye, who said he wants the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party to win. The commission has also come under fire for a chaotic update to the voter list, which saw thousands of complaints from people who had been left off the list at their presumed polling stations. “Before the apps came out nobody knows which constituency they are in, where to vote, who to vote for,” said Thiha Aye Kyaw, of Phandeeyar, which describes itself as an information and communications technology hub “designed to support social innovation, civic tech and ICT4D/M4D in Myanmar.”
JAKARTA – Widodo has come under fire in social media for aspects of his presidency so far, with critics and supporters alike lambasting his perceived indecision after Indonesia’s unloved national police filed charges against leaders of the country’s popular Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), which had branded Widodo’s nominee for new police chief a corruption suspect. Widodo’s electoral success had partly been down to his own clean image and his anti-graft rhetoric, so it is little wonder, perhaps, that Widodo has kept his own fingers off the “send” button as millions of Indonesians weigh in, often using hashtags such as #SaveKPK and #Shameonyoujokowi.