Civil rights leader S. Ambiga fields questions on Yahoo!

  • Bersih leader goes online for interactive chat session
  • Digital media portal Yahoo! hopes to give netizens a chance to ask tough questions directly

YAHOO!'s hosting of an online question-and-answer session with prominent lawyer-activist Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan today (June 14) at 3pm is aimed at enabling regular Malaysians to connect and interact with newsmakers of the day. 

According to Marc Lourdes, country editor of Yahoo! Malaysia, the main objective for the online chat with notable personalities such as Ambiga is to allow ordinary folk to find out for themselves what makes these characters tick and to witness how such people react to netizens' questions about them.

"Yahoo! Malaysia has been hosting the 'Question Time' live chat since May 2011," Lourdes told Digital News Asia in an e-mail interview. "In the past, we have featured personalities such as opposition leader Datuk Anwar Ibrahim, parliamentarian Khairy Jamaluddin and songstress Siti Nurhaliza."

Yesterday, The Malaysian Insider reported that the civil rights leader is going online to take questions from the public. "I’m taking part in this event so that the public can have direct access to me with their questions,” the news portal quoted Ambiga as saying to Yahoo!. “I hope to be able to reach out to as many people as possible and, in particular, to respond as best I can to issues that are troubling them.” 

Lourdes said Ambiga, through her leadership of Bersih (translated "Clean"), has influenced and affected the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Malaysians and "there is a lot of curiosity about what she is doing." 

"We hope to provide a platform for citizens to broach these questions and get the answers directly from Ambiga," Lourdes said. 

Civil rights leader S. Ambiga fields questions on Yahoo!Ambiga (pic, raising hand, courtesy of The Malaysian Insider), who co-chairs Bersih with national laureate Datuk A. Samad Said, is the public face of the 84-member civil society movement. 

The group has been pushing for reforms and attempting to lobby the government for cleaner and fairer elections in the past two years, ahead of key national polls that could see a change of government from the ruling Barisan Nasional to the fledgling Pakatan Rakyat.

When asked if such an engagement over the Net would foster better understanding of what Bersih is trying to do, Lourdes said Yahoo! hopes the online chat will help answer the many questions Malaysians have about the movement.

He added that Yahoo!'s role is not to influence or color people's opinions about Bersih or Ambiga, but merely to allow them access to more information on Bersih and its objectives.

"We don't expect to receive any opposition as this is a purely unbiased interview/ Q&A session," he said. "Yahoo! Malaysia is, and always has been, dedicated to providing non-partisan coverage of news and current affairs.

"We are confident that no matter what the public's view on Bersih may be, there is no reason to take exception to, what is at heart, a straightforward question and answer session."

On how Yahoo! measures if this event will be a success or not, Lourdes said success in this case is not a quantitative measure and Yahoo! will not be judging the success of this event based on how many people log on. 

He added that what Yahoo! would like to see is a robust, thought-provoking and enlightening discussion between Ambiga and netizens.

"We expect to see a fair number of questions relating to Bersih, the events after Bersih, as well as a fair number of questions pertaining to her stance on matters related to national politics, religious freedom and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender) rights."

Little impact to elections

An analyst Digital News Asia spoke to noted that engagements such as those organized by Yahoo! are a good thing. 

Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) Malaysia, said that  Malaysia has been ready for open engagements for decades, but noted that the platform for such engagements did not exist before.

Speaking to Digital News Asia in an e-mail, the head of the local think-tank said, "Any type of engagement is good. What we are seeing now is a growth in online engagements, and I welcome this.

"Now, with the advent of technology and tech-based news companies [such as Yahoo!], the platform has become accessible to many people."

Wan Saiful said that the brilliance of such engagements like these is that there is no censorship.

"People who write for the printed press, including myself, could be censored or edited by the press," he explained. "But tech-based engagements like these are direct and the chat technology allows for simplicity, interaction and frank conversations that other media cannot provide."

Asked who would likely participate in this forum, Wan Saiful said he suspects that the vast majority would be people from the larger cities, especially from the Klang Valley, an area comprising city center Kuala Lumpur and suburbs such as Petaling Jaya and Subang.

"If this group is the only audience, then I suspect the impact on the next general election is not going to be that much," he pointed out.

As for what impact it would have on the electorate, with the impending general elections -- which must be called by April 2013 -- around the corner, Wan Saiful said one can't generalize too much about the potential audience for two reasons.

"Firstly, the majority of participants will probably be younger voters and among this group, there are still many fence-sitters, and anyone who can influence them will have an upper hand in the elections.

"Secondly, once it goes online, the content can remain there on channels such as Facebook, Twitter, videos, blogs or even be printed and distributed to those who do not have access to the Internet," he said.

"Even though the immediate audience could be limited in terms of age group and demography, the mid- to long-term impact could be more widespread and so it all depends on how people use the content afterwards." 

For more information on the online chat, go to Yahoo! Question Time.

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