When Sam Ke Ting was sentenced to six years in jail without bail and received an RM6,000 fine for reckless driving on April 13, two online petitions were kicked off on petition website Change.org to seek justice for her.
The petitioners argued that Sam should not be blamed for the incident – which occurred in the wee hours of Feb 18, 2017 and took the lives of eight teenagers riding modified bicycles – because she was not speeding, under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Each petition garnered over 200,000 signatures within 24 hours, eventually topping out at over 800,000.
Student Tony Tang, 22, who signed the petition, believes that it makes a difference even if only a few support the cause.
“It can give the person confidence to return to normal life. I sign petitions, especially if it involves a social issue, so that the person can get the help he or she deserves,” he says.
Content writer Ho Jia Wen, 23, feels the same, seeing petitions as the main way of raising awareness about issues affecting people in a disadvantaged position.
And her motivation is to be part of the voices yelling for change.
“The louder the better. I also love that people have the guts to take to the Internet and voice their concerns.
“Solidarity is what matters in online petitions, and the more people talk about it, the more it serves as a signal that an issue is worth investigating,” she says.
Sam has since been freed on bail of RM10,000 with one surety pending the hearing of her appeal by the Court of Appeal, which Ho is glad for and hopes will highlight the dangers of kids cycling on the road at odd hours.
Here, there, everywhere
Dr Ngu Ik Ying, a media and communications lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities and Health Sciences at Curtin University Malaysia, says petitions have long existed in many different forms but social media has amplified and widened their reach.
“In the past, petitions were ‘manual’ and written on a form and we would have to go to an association’s office to sign them. It can also be carried out by a community.
“Now, with the Internet, a petition can be signed on a website and dispersed through social media,” Ngu explains.
According to Change.org, a number of petitions had a tremendous impact last year.
It listed the petition “Justice For George Floyd”, which demanded the arrest of police officer Derek Chauvin for the death of Floyd, as its top victory for 2021.
Started by 15-year-old Kellen S, it became the biggest petition in Change.org’s history, with over 19 million people from all over the world supporting it.
During the arrest, an officer, identified as Chauvin, pinned Floyd to the payment by kneeling on his neck, causing Floyd’s death.Chauvin was sentenced to 22 and a half years in prison last April for second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.
He has filed an appeal to overturn the verdict.
In 2019, the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) launched a petition urging the government to grant seven days of paternity leave instead of the proposed three days, which garnered over 48,800 signatures. In March, WAO called the petition a success because the Dewan Rakyat agreed to amend the Employment Act so that fathers could take seven days off.
According to Ngu, the transition from offline to online platforms has changed the way people respond to petitions.
“Because of social media and online petition websites, anyone can start a petition.
“It does not have to be a person in a high position, at the top of the pyramid, or in a leadership position to start a petition,” she says.
What’s more, Ngu adds, online petitions can be set up in a couple of minutes and have the potential to reach people regardless of distance.
“That is the power of the Internet. But, the core purpose of petitions remains the same,” she adds.
Ngu believes that the online petitions open up opportunities for more people to share their concerns while providing a safety net.
“Technology empowers people due to its participatory nature. Ordinary citizens who have never participated in the past or are not ready to join street protests usually opt for online petitions because they are safer and more convenient.
“This method could appeal more to the silent majority. For activists or active social volunteers, they will prefer to do more than just sign (online petitions),” she says.
Fact or fiction?
However, it’s important to verify the validity of a petition before supporting it, as not all petitions are based on facts.
Foong Cheng Leong, Bar Council Information Technology and Cyber Laws Committee deputy chairman, urges people to be more wary about the information presented in a petition before signing or sharing one online.
“Petitions can be defamatory. A petition usually starts with an introduction using background facts, which can be untrue,” he says.
Case in point – an online petition launched in 2013 by “Patricia Carpenter” purportedly from Zimbabwe calling for the resignation of the headmistress Calliope Tardios of St John’s Preparatory School in Enfield, United Kingdom, due to “aggressive and abusive treatment” of students and their parents.
A lawsuit was filed for defamation in the UK High Court against Pamella Linton, parent of one of the students, and based on forensic evidence, the judge found that there was “no disputable issue” that she was in fact masquerading as Patricia Carpenter.
The High Court awarded the school and its headmistress £95,000 (RM518,000) in damages.
According to Foong, online petitions are treated the same as website posts in the eyes of the law.
“Perhaps the slight difference is that the court is able to see how many people have reacted to the defamatory statements by looking at the petition numbers,” he adds.
Even Change.org has been embroiled in a controversy due to a donation feature called “chip in”.
In 2020, former employees posted an open letter on Medium expressing concern over how the company handled donations raised by #BlackLivesMatter petitions, in particular the Floyd petition that had garnered more than 16 million signatures.
It included the chip-in feature, which encouraged users to donate US$3 (RM13) to help the petition reach its signature goal. The ex-employees – more than 90 in total – pointed out that the donations don’t go towards Floyd’s family or relevant organisations. Instead, it was being used to promote the petition via billboards and digital ads.
The letter demanded that the company publicly disclose how much money was raised from the popular Floyd petition and for the funds to be channelled to relevant parties.
They also asked the company to offer future petition starters the option to exclude their petition from generating revenue for the company.
According to The Verge, the company, in a response to the post, said it takes the concerns seriously and has temporarily disabled the chip-in feature on some of its popular petitions.
Stepping it up
The big question, says Ngu, is what happens after the petitions are signed.
Despite their potential to reach a large number of supporters, a petition remains a petition if no one takes further action, she adds.
“There are people who criticise petitions for that reason and eventually stop signing them after questioning their purpose,” she says.
Ngu adds that for a petition to be effective, it requires a form of activism that is “persistent and constant” as part of the effort to advocate change.
“I still think that online petitions are effective in the sense that they provide a platform for people to get a taste of how it feels to take action towards a cause. It can act as a good start,” Ngu adds.
Petitions, she says, can also serve as a good indication for organisers to see how many people support their cause.
“I think this number is important. It might not change society, but it gives the organiser an idea of how many people support a cause.
“Take, for instance, the Sam Ke Ting case. It may not have legal impact, but it informs the authorities about what the public thinks. They would not have been able to know this in the past. In this regard, it is effective,” she says.
Foong explains that online petitions have no effect on legal proceedings and that public opinion is not valid in court for ongoing cases.
“The court bases its decisions on facts and evidence, not on public opinion. Courts are cautious when dealing with public opinion as not to equate it with the public interest,” he says.
In the UK and New Zealand, citizens can petition their respective governments using official online petition portals.
According to the Petitions page of the UK Government and Parliament website, the government will respond to petitions with at least 10,000 signatures.
New Zealand, on the other hand, states on its Parliament website that, unlike other parliaments in the world, it doesn’t have a signature threshold for petitions, and those creating petitions don’t have to collect signatures.
Citizens can create a petition to request the parliament to take a specific action, such as asking for a policy to be changed or highlighting a private concern.
The petition will then be given to the parliament and sent to an appropriate select committee for review.
Is it past time for Malaysia to establish its own official petition platform? Foong says it will be a good start, as it will allow issues to be raised with the government.
“In the olden days, people started petitions in the hope that the mainstream media would report it so that the relevant people would become aware of the issue,” he adds.
However, Ngu thinks that an official online petition platform can’t be set up until the problem of accessibility is fixed.
“It’s important to ensure that everyone is able to access the platform, not just those living in urban areas.
“Another concern is the safety of the data because an official petition would most likely require personal information to verify identity,” she says.
She also warns that, while it would be a good effort, the platform could be used as a form of surveillance.
“How would you ensure the independence and transparency of the petition? I think that’s important,” she says.
In the meantime, Malaysians who want to create an online petition will still have to rely on third-party platforms.
Foong urges anyone wanting to post a petition to be careful about how they phrase their concerns.
“Like in any other online post, the text in petitions has to be carefully worded so that they do not defame or affect the livelihood of anyone adversely,” he says.