Tag Archives: Political Economy

The Politics of Social Media in South East Asia

Malaysia currently has about 13.6 million Facebook users – this is 48% of the population. It also has the highest Twitter usage in the world. And with such an audience, it is understandable that social media would become an extremely important part of the political sphere.

Today youth under the age of 30 [pdf] makes up more than 50% of Southeast Asia’s population. This population is mostly middle class, which is a traditional engine of consumption. And in Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia there is an increasing investment in infrastructure and education which creates a high penetration of social media. Even in less affluent countries, like Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand, low internet penetration rates still mean large numbers of users due to dense urban populations.

There has been a mass scale digitisation of the ASEAN countries and in the next few decades this population will adopt more digital services to meet their needs. Apart from digitisation, the other important trend is urbanisation. This will create more access to social media, technology and the internet.

The biggest manipulator of online communities in most of South East Asia is the government as it has the largest claim to authority and can exercise censorship. There are two forms of government usage of social media: for political popularity, power and control though censorship; and for development and community building, which of course, does not have to be government led. Many people also use the internet for political change.

In the government influence sphere, the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, or SBY as he is known, joined Twitter last year. Within two weeks, SBY had over 1.7 million followers and a spike in his popularity. His Malaysian counterpart Prime Minister Najib Razak has been tweeting since 2008. Najib had about 1.3 million fans on his Facebook page, while opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has only 428,371. There is a clear correlation between political popularity and social media usage in South East Asia. Although these political strategies might not work so well in poorer countries where people don’t have access to education and internet.

The spread of the internet access through smartphones is also enabling political parties to connect with individuals and even entire families that may otherwise be hard to reach. As the smartphone gets cheaper and cheaper so there is penetration of the internet in rural areas as well, especially in Cambodia. The government has been able to use this as a propaganda tool in the same way it uses traditional media, and it has accelerated the adoption of Facebook and other social media platforms.

Along with the government, political parties and corporations, the other stakeholders are the people. Sometimes all it takes is one person to shake up the government. In one instance in 2010, Philippine President Benigno Aquino directly answered a Facebook question by a critic. This was unprecedented direct engagement with the masses by a national leader.

During the 2011 floods in Thailand, social media was an important tool and surpassed the mainstream media’s efforts in providing emergency relief.

Facebook helped build a community around the response to the crisis, providing minute-by-minute information and thus mobilising communities. However, the energy that sustains such online communities tends to dissolve after the crisis is over.

Resistance and criticism by the common man is also prone to censorship. In Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia the government is increasingly emulating China’s example of suppressing online freedom. The Technology Crime Suppression Division of the Thai police intends to monitor the country’s most popular chat site, Line, which has 15 million users in Thailand.

In Vietnam there is the controversial Decree 72 which will enforce bans on posting news articles on blogs or social websites so that the site is used only for “personal” sharing. The government has even made cyber attacks using bots on some bloggers causing them to move their servers outside the country.

Thus as much as the internet can offer participation and engagement, a global public sphere is a utopic dream. The internet operates within socio-political structures that influence how the technology and information can be used and disseminated. Additionally, in Vietnam, government agencies are now developing local language alternatives to Facebook and Google. If these services are formally banned these alternatives can fill the vacuum to the benefit of the government. The public sphere of the internet will be co-opted by the government in the future and we may see a confrontation between international technology companies and Vietnamese authorities.

In Myanmar, social media has been instrumental in political change for the population. In 2007 videos and pictures of anti-government protests were shared on YouTube and Flickr. This was the only way to publicise tyranny and create external international pressure. The country has been infamous for jailing bloggers, journalists and poets. Yet democratic reforms have led to the unblocking of Facebook, which has become a new ground for political protest.

There is a growth of citizen journalism and this has been recognised by mainstream media. In Thailand mainstream media outlets have begun to offer training to citizen journalists. In Malaysia, social media is used to watch trends and mainstream news outlets track sites to pick up news and trends, while international news often uses postings on social media to report stories.

The growing popularity of social media is changing how the public perceives official channels of information. Due to enhanced penetration of the internet there is a greater demand for accountability from traditional power. Yet traditional power can still hold the reigns of this information through censorship and information production.

Today, like any social system, or any community or society, how social media is used depends on social structure and how traditional political power can balance itself against new types of social power derived from information technology. Only time will tell precisely how this will evolve.

July, 1, 2014- International Data Group.


‘Change comes from policy, not budgetary handouts’- Nadeem Ul Haq, Planning Commission Chief

Saadia Gardezi talks to Dr Nadeemul Haque, deputy chief of Pakistan Planning Commission and chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, about the new budget and the new growth strategy- The Friday Times, 11th June, 2011

TFT: To what extent do you think the Ministry of Finance has been successful in making a budget that can draw Pakistan out of its current downslide? Economists like Shahid Javed Burki have said it is a disappointing budget. Are these concerns well founded?

Dr Nadeemul Haque: I think the ministry did as well as they could with the situation they have. We tend to think that the budget solves all problems of the economy. It cannot and it does not. That’s what the finance minister also said: the budget is just one part of government policy. The budget is just there to clarify expenditures and revenues. In Pakistan, we expect too much of the budget and seldom focus on the policy.

TFT: Do you think the current budget removes barriers to private investment mobilisation?
NH: I don’t know if it is the responsibility of the budget to do this. The budget is about what is and what is expected to come. For the impediments in the private sector you need a good growth strategy. And nobody reads the growth strategy.

TFT: One proposal of the budget is slashing subsidies, including those to the power sector, from Rs395 billion in 2010-11 to Rs166 billion. In the current fiscal, power sector subsidies alone remain more than Rs200 billion. What problems do you foresee with regards to cutting subsides?
NH: If the cutting of the subsidies means creating efficiency, it’s not going to cause problems. With subsidies to the power sector there’s a lot of wastage and theft. Line losses have to be decreased. On the other hand, subsides to the agriculture sector have not been touched.
The creation of efficiency and the movement away from protecting and subsidising is an important part of a reform we are trying to push for. Yes there will be opposition and some short term problems with cutting useless expenditures but hopefully we will grow.

TFT: The budget speech also promises to reduce inflation by half, to 9% in 2011-12. Do you think this is possible or is the government being too optimistic?
NH: Yes it can, I don’t think there is anything to stop us from moving in the right direction. If we control money supply, stop printing more money and keep the deficit small, inflation can come down. This requires strict fiscal discipline, but why not? Just because you get into trouble doesn’t mean you can’t grow up.

TFT: There has been a lot of discussion in the media that this is not a pro-poor budget. What is a pro-poor budget and is this budget pro-poor?
NH: I don’t think the budget allocations can be thought in terms of being less or more pro-poor. There a set amount that has to be given out. Now there is a huge allocation made for the Federal Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP), and I suppose you could call that pro-poor. The budget makes allocations for these sorts of development expenditures. It doesn’t make policies to tackle poverty, unemployment or underdevelopment.
For policy you have something like the growth strategy. A policy strategy that can guide the government towards better growth and expansion. With growth, employment will be created so that people can benefit. Making a concerted effort to reform the economy to encourage investment, entrepreneurship and growth to create new jobs is what is pro-poor. Handouts given in the budget are not pro-poor, creation of new jobs is. It doesn’t make sense to rely on budgetary handouts for poverty alleviation.

TFT: In the Planning Commission’s new growth strategy, the private sector is the growth-driver in an open market environment. Do you think the budget is structured according to this growth strategy?

NH: Yes it is. The budget simplifies the tax structure and the tariff structure and so encourages the private sector. This fits very well with the strategy to build an open economy. We have an economy that is often closed down for the sake of a few and we protect sections without viable economic reasons to do so. If we can stop doing that, stop regulating the economy for the sake of a few people, then we can create more space and create competitive markets. The budget is complementary to the growth strategy.

TFT: Are the provinces on board with the growth strategy?
NH: The growth strategy does not operate in a command economy, where we tell people what to do. It is a vision and a way forward. It talks of creating space for knowledge, for entrepreneurship, technology and capital formation. With the strategy we talked to the government and various ministries and everyone seem to largely support it and appreciate it.

TFT: Previous governments have also focused on growth led by the private sector. What is different about this growth strategy?
NH: Simply advocating private sector growth does not mean much. We have been talking about private sector-led growth for a long time. We are talking about entrepreneurship in this report. Encouraging entrepreneurship is going to create much more innovative competition.

TFT: How long are the reforms outlined in the growth strategy going to take? 
NH: A time frame has not been specified in the strategy. Reforms will take a long time, and at the end of the growth strategy we have defined the process. The government will need to stop competing with the private sector and provide public goods that have a higher social rate of return than the private rate of return, as well as transparent rules.
If the leadership takes an interest, then reforms can be implemented successfully. We have to create an open economy and society. The old 3-year and 5-year plans don’t work. They only worked in the Soviet Union. We are talking of gradual reform.

TFT: Can these reforms happen in the current political scenario? Will there be political opposition?
NH: Political opinion does not exist in isolation from public opinion. If the society wants change, then it cannot be stopped. I am looking towards ownership of these ideas in the society. If you accept these ideas, if universities buy into this type of a strategy, if people are wiling to talk about reform, then the political leadership will as well.

Pakistans Growth strategy can be downloaded as a pdf here


Poli-tickle theory

If I had a nickel for every time I told someone that I have a degree in political economy and was met by the response, “Oh, maybe you can fix Pakistan’s politics and economy!”… I probably could fix everything. Truth be told, Pakistan’s politics and economy baffle me. The tangled web of bureaucracy, MPA’s, local politics, corruption, Shahbaz Sharif’s edicts, the suo moto’s sitting in the courts, the pear-shaped police, Altaf Hussain’s rambles… my reaction is to place my fingers on my forehead and stare at my palms. And then Shoaib Akhtar and Shahid Afridi keep scratching and chewing cricket balls.

Though I might be dazed by Pakistan’s politics, the good thing is that everyone else is not. Everybody has a theory, and is kind enough to share it, and keeps sharing it.

It is good that I get to hear so much theoretical analysis of Pakistani politics. As luck would have it, I teach politics to wildly clueless third year students, who most of the time cannot tell their political left from right. They regularly ask me to revise my Weber and Waltz… they’ve absolutely got it wrong, all wrong. And truth be told, which of our current news pundits and analysts have ever tried to apply political theory to the events of Pakistan? Their own theories are enough, who cares about Chomsky and Foucault. Foo-who? Never mind.

So there I was, in the faculty lounge, trying to make out the handwriting of one of my students, when I was interrupted by the new Chief-Administrative-Manager-Head (or some combination of these words).

“Who are you?” he inquired very politely, to which I replied I was a teacher. Hoping he would leave it at that and just assume I taught advanced econometric analysis, I went back to my big red crosses (with a side of student gibberish).

“What do you teach?” he inquired extremely politely, to which I sighed… “Politics.”

Achaaaannnn … then you can tell me what the problem is with Pakistan, ehhh?” I had shot myself in the foot again.

“I am really very busy sir, gotta check these quizzes, clock is ticking,” I responded curtly.

Achaaaannnnn … then we should talk about politics when you are free sometime. But if you have a minute, let me tell you what I think we should do.”

I put my pen down, and stared at him blankly. Nothing would stop him from blurting out THE THEORY. Might as well try to get this over with.

“So once a long time ago I was on a train to Karachi from Lahore. And we were talking about politics the way friends do. And believe you me, Believe. You. Me. We came up with the perfect solution.”

And then the build-up began.

“First, you have elections. Then you form a parliament from those who win. And then… you shoot everybody!”

The punch line was like a wet fish thrown in my face. He smiled, very pleased. I thought it was over, but it wasn’t…

“You see, some corrupt politicos who lost the last election will be left. Also the chamchas andchailas and brethren of those we shot will also be enraged and motivated to do something. Democracy after all is the best revenge. So then you have another election and form a parliament with them. And then…” oh dear, it was coming again, “You shoot everybody!”

Not over yet.

“Then… have another election! But let those people live; the first two shootings will have rid the system of corruption.”

He had just trampled all over that thin line between dull humour and insanity tossed with absolute seriousness. I nodded my head, “Excellent, ha ha, excellent… let’s continue this later,” and hid behind my quiz.

There are so many ideas like this floating around. From meta-theories that say that the US is the Dajjal , to the highly common, insensitive and mindless, “You know what God is punishing people in our north for, don’t you?!”

Another howler has been making the rounds very successfully, brought to my attention through a colleague at an Ivy League institution (and here I thought the best education in the world can cure silliness). Gather round and listen closely friends, the US has a secret weapon called HAARP. It has been using this to cause natural disasters. In fact Hugo Chavez has been quoted saying that the US testing of this ‘tectonic weapon’ led to the Haiti earthquake. The US also caused our 2005 earthquake, and now the floods. Time is nigh. A tsunami is coming. Believe you me.

HAARP, theHigh Frequency Active Auroral Research Programme is apparently an ionosphericresearch programme jointly funded by the US military and the University of Alaska. The purpose, allegedly, is to develop better technology for radio communications and surveillance purposes (such as missile detection) based on the testing of the ionosphere 85km above the earth’s surface as it influences radio waves and transmissions. But I’m no physicist.

You’ve heard them all before. 9/11 was a Zionist conspiracy. Faisal Shahzad’s botched plan was a Zionist conspiracy. The US is a Zionist conspiracy. And Altaf Bhai is an alien.

And rest assured, the Indian Cricket Board was behind the spot-fixing scandal. It was all RAW. We were framed. Believe you me.

Saadia Gardezi is not part of any ideological mafia, and is open to your theories. Do write and send your views to TFT.

The Friday Times, October 15-21, 2010, Vol. XXII, No. 35