A blogger takes office in Malaysia

Jeff Ooi joins activists and NGO workers as opposition members of parliament demanding reform.

Tim Chong/Reuters/Newscom
E-lection: Blogger-turned-legislator Jeff Ooi campaigned in person – and online – last March.

Five years of blogging has brought Jeff Ooi a measure of notoriety. His biting posts on Malaysian politics sparked police investigations.

A pro-government newspaper sued him for libel. A prominent politician compared bloggers to monkeys in a lawless jungle.

In January, as Malaysia braced for national elections, a new banner went up on his blog (www.jeffooi.com): Get a Blogger Into Parliament. Fueled by donations and manpower, Mr. Ooi easily defeated a ruling-party candidate to win a parliamentary seat on Penang Island.

The cyberspace critic turned lawmaker is part of a wave of fresh faces on Malaysia’s opposition bench after March’s upset election, many of them driven by a desire for reform. On Thursday, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was sworn in as opposition leader following a landslide by-election win that has rattled a shaky ruling coalition.

Ooi has no regrets about his career switch from IT consultant. “The keyboard is mightier than the sword.... Even a blogger can no longer tolerate the quality of governance that the country is having now,” he says.

Other first-time opposition members in the 222-seat parliament include human rights activists, professors, nongovernmental organization workers, and an entrepreneur who secretly videotaped a lawyer allegedly brokering judgeships. His tape triggered an outcry last year and an official inquiry into judicial corruption.

Many of the newcomers are relatively young, underscoring a generational shift in politics here after decades of leadership by an entrenched elite. One in three MPs in the Democratic Action Party, a coalition partner of Mr. Anwar, is under 40. By contrast, the youngest divisional chief in the ruling United Malays National Organization is 43, says Liew Chin Tong, a DAP lawmaker.

“A lot of people have come alive in the last 10 years. They’re the ‘reformasi’ generation, and they think about politics in fundamentally different ways,” says Bridget Welsh, a politics professor at Johns Hopkins University, using the Malay word for reform. Young MPs and party workers are the “glue” in Anwar’s coalition as they can cross the ethnic lines that define Malaysian politics, she says.

These politicians are likely to be online, as Malaysian cyberspace has emerged as an effective counterpoint to mainstream media that are either state-run or owned by government loyalists. About 52 percent of Malaysians are Internet users, compared with 71 percent in the US.

Online news outlets have exposed several scandals involving abuses of power that played out in March’s election, to the dismay of politicians who had written off the influence of such media. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi later said his campaign hadn’t done enough to get its message out via the Internet to young voters.

Online fame certainly helped Ooi’s campaign: He raised $25,000 in 11 days after posting an urgent appeal, though he also trod the traditional path of making speeches, handing out leaflets, and knocking on doors.

Entering politics hasn’t stopped him from blogging, though the pace has slowed. Ooi says he used to average six hours a day on his website, often rising before dawn to post his first entry. Like most bloggers, it was a labor of love. Ad revenue brought in $200 a month – which covered the cost of his bandwidth.

Ahirudin Atan, a veteran newspaper editor and codefendant in the lawsuit against Ooi, says he supported Ooi’s entering politics but believes it has cost him in online credibility, because he might be compromised by party loyalty. “I think a lot of people feel that Jeff Ooi’s following has diminished because of his direct participation in politics,” he says.

Ooi claims to be uninterested in climbing the party hierarchy and says he earns less now than in the private sector. “What I find exciting is to experiment with political thinking,” he says.

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