Sensationalism is Not Effective
One thing that must strike any reader of the blogosphere is how sensationalist it is. This is not just true of the Malaysian blogosphere, but of almost any blogging scene.
The vast majority of political blogs, of the "fifth estate", are actually nothing more than tabloids. They provide interesting, hyped-up stories, but not much substantial political commentary.
Two of the probably most well-known Malaysian examples are Screenshots (Jeff Ooi's blog) and Malaysia Today (actually a news site run by Raja Petra Kamarudin, with a lot of commentary written by him).
Ooi's style of writing itself is sensationalist, and his headlines provocative. Raja Petra is no less controversial; his site is most famous not for its hard-hitting political commentary, but for its gossipy exposť of scandals and intrigues.
These rantings and ravings do play their part in political process. They drum up interest in politics, and they draw attention to issues of interest. But if we are to compare change to an internal combustion engine, such gossip can actually act as friction rather than fuel.
What's lacking is fuel for change — commentary that not only identifies shortfalls, but proposes ways to fix them. There is a dearth of serious political analysis in Malaysia, but a lot of sensationalist gossip and rumours.
Sensationalist gossip, no matter how interesting, is rarely enough to effect substantial political change. American politics can actually present a number of relevant examples.
Compare the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, for example. Both presidents were hit by incredible scandals in their second term. But only one ended up as a lame duck and unable to effect his will.
Why? Because Clinton was hit with a personal, gossipy scandal — his affair with Monica Lewinksy — while Bush was hit with a huge political scandal — his incredible misconduct of the Iraq War and the increasingly obvious incompetency of his overall administration.
Or we can look again at Bush, and how he won his second term. The campaign was focused on sensationalist personal issues by his opponent, John Kerry. Kerry made a big deal out of being a veteran of the Vietnam War, while Bush's contribution to the war effort was playing truant from the National Guard.
Now, Bush's Swiftboating of Kerry harmed his reputation tremendously. But as others have noted, what probably played the bigger role in Kerry's loss was Bush's focus of the campaign on issues — namely the issue of fighting the war on terror, and arguing that he was the better man to lead America in this war. (Of course, as we all found out the hard way, this was not exactly correct.)
Sensationalism and harping on personal issues is interesting, but it is not going to win elections, nor is it going to effect change — the very best it can hope to do is to complement and supplement real political issues.
This is why I was so concerned about bringing up the issue of Altantuya in the recent Ijok by-election. What on earth did the murder of a Mongolian woman by people possibly associated with the Deputy Prime Minister have to do with the issues that affect Ijokians and Malaysians?
Although I hoped otherwise, Ijok turned out to be a bad loss for the opposition — the ruling Barisan Nasional won with an even bigger majority.
If the opposition is interested in winning future elections, it should avoid basing its campaigns on personal issues. Personal issues may be capable of supplementing a political issue-based campaign, but not the other way round. Sensationalism does not work.