Experts weigh in on Malaysia's obsession with online petitions

  • Nation
  • Wednesday, 20 Jun 2018

PETALING JAYA: It is no secret that Malaysians have been worried about the health of Malaysia's 92-year-old Prime Minister, so much so that a concerned citizen started an online petition asking Tun Dr Mahathir to have at least seven hours of sleep in a day.

The petition was launched a week after Dr Mahathir's swearing-in as a response to Tun Siti Hasmah's concerns that her husband is overworking himself.

This is only one of over 70 online petitions that have been published during Pakatan Harapan's first 38 days in government, starting from May 10.

While petitions are not new in Malaysia, there has been a proliferation of online petitions that mushroomed ever since the historic 14th General Elections as the rakyat has responded to nearly every major headline with an online petition while the new government find its footing in Putrajaya.

There is one calling for Malaysians to help settle the RM1 trillion national debt, one petitioning the review of the Langkawi New City Project, one objecting Dr Mahathir's ambition to start another national car project, one objecting a Barisan Nasional-PAS state government in Perak, and one calling for Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal to step down as state finance minister.

At the same time, the heated Dr Mahathir or Dr Maszlee Malik as Education Minister debate, Tommy Thomas as Attorney-General, and whether Pakatan Harapan should welcome party hoppers each saw six or more online petitions.

While Pakatan Harapan coalition parties negotiated each other's stake in Cabinet, Malaysians started petitions for member of parliaments Tony Pua, Nurul Izzah, and Wong Tack to be appointed as Ministers.

There is even a petition for Dr Mahathir to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and one thanking Datuk Seri Najib Razak for his contributions as former Prime Minister.

Not all the petitions were popular, as some received less than 100 signatories. The most successful petition, one appealing for the King to endorse the Pakatan Harapan government, saw a whopping 333,717 signatures.

"The mushrooming of online petitions is a good thing, as people are taking ownership," said political activist Dr Wong Chin Huat.

Dr Wong said citizen's political efficacy had soared after GE14 and online petitions became a low-cost and easy-to-organise way to advocate for a cause.

Further adding to the movement is the success of several petitions. As a response to the petitions and the public's response, Dr Mahathir agreed to relinquish the Education portfolio, Pakatan agreed not to accept the membership of party-hoppers, and the Finance Ministry launched the Tabung Harapan Malaysia.

"Before the elections, the petition to make May 9 polling day (Wednesday) a public holiday grew in such high speed that the Najib administration had to give in to it before it grew to be a barometer of public anger," he said.

Dr Wong said after the 2008 general elections, Malaysians started to believe in the power of ballots and expressed their opinions through three other means - demonstrations, donations and online petitions.

He added that online petitions had also taken an informal form, such as Malaysians liking partisan Facebook groups including the '1M Malaysians oppose the 100M Mega Tower'.

This page is now defunct but had garnered over 65,000 likes in Oct 2010.

According to University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute director Prof James Chin, these online petitions are a response to the euphoria of a change of government.

"There was a great sense of relief among the Malaysian middle-class after the elections ... They felt that previously they do not have freedom to speak, but now they have a chance to speak and the government will listen to them," he said.

Chin does not agree there is a rise in the number of petitions, but rather a rise in awareness, visibility and reach due to social media.

He said the first big petition in Malaysia was the Free Anwar Movement in the 1990s, aimed at getting Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim out of jail after he was imprisoned on sodomy charges.

"Petitions are a way of gauging public opinion. If I were to get a million people to sign my petition, obviously someone in the Prime Minister's Department will notice it," Chin said.

"Government officials do pay attention to these petitions in the background, but they would not admit it," he added.

Chin said governments do not want to encourage petitions, as it would force them to address every issue.

However, both Chin and Dr Wong agreed that the government should establish a mechanism where there is a mandatory response to popular petitions.

The White House has a "We The People" petitioning system promising to address petitions that receive more than 100,000 signatories in less than 30 days.

In its election manifesto, Barisan Nasional had pledged to introduce a similar public petition mechanism if they win, whereby petitions that see more than 30,000 signatories will receive government feedback.

"(Putrajaya) should have something like the White House petition site, but it must be handled in a delicate way," Chin said, adding that people may start petitions that encourage racism and intolerance.

As a tip for a successful online petition, Dr Wong said well-articulated opinions would have more impact in influencing public support.

"It is a numbers game," Chin said, "the more people are involved, the more likely it is taken seriously."

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