Focus On...Malaysia

Malaysia is rapidly becoming the poster-child for the transformative power of social media.

Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia's capital
Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia's capital

Malaysia has endured its fair share of political upheaval during its 47-year history. Recent months, though, have raised eyebrows a notch higher thanks to escalating religious and racial tensions.

That the political stakes have risen so sharply is due in large part to the success of Anwar Ibrahim in galvanising opposition to the ruling Barisian National coalition. In this, Ibrahim has been able to circumvent state-influenced traditional media by appealing directly to an increasingly raucous blogosphere.

Ibrahim's success has had consequences. He faces a second trial for sodomy, 10 years after he entered prison for a six-year stretch, following a high-profile rift with former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohammad.

The influence of social media in sparking public opposition cannot be underplayed. In many respects, Malaysia perfectly illustrates the medium's ability to galvanise change, best illustrated by the election of prominent blogger Jeff Ooi to Parliament in 2008. Ibrahim himself is also an active blogger.

Bloggers are now also turning their attention towards corporates, as Fleishman-Hillard Malaysia GM Ku Kok Peng.

Ku points to a campaign by various socio-political bloggers, led by Sime Darby Watch and Rocky's Bru, which successfully derailed low-cost airline Air Asia's plans to lobby for a new carrier terminal some distance away from the capital city's main airport.

The lowdown

Malaysia's public relations market remains relatively underdeveloped. A confluence of factors, says Weber Shandwick Malaysia GM Rozani Jainudeen, including liberalised foreign investment regulations, is accelerating change.

'Demand for PR services have also grown, as evidenced by the sizeable presence of MNC consultancies as well as development of reputable local firms,' adds Ku. 'Nonetheless, the level of sophistication is behind those of matured markets such as Hong Kong and Australia, and much room remains for growth in quality and business volume.'

Controversially, the Government has floated plans to regulate the profession, a move that Ku maintains will be in direct contravention of Malaysia's WTO's obligations.The country's Public Relations Consultants Association is publicly opposing plans for a 'PR Act'.


Mainstream media, says Jainudeen, remain the 'mainstay for engagement' in Malaysia. Broadcast is led the semi-private Media Prima, which owns four terrestrial TV stations, including market leader TV3. Two government-owned channels, she adds, are important for reaching 'rural and civil service' audiences.

Radio is a powerful voice in the country, reaching nine out of ten Malaysians. AMP Radio is the key player.

Newspaper readership has shown a slight decline. The Star is the most-read English title, while vernacular newspaper such as Utusan Malaysia and Sin Chew Daily are also popular.

Business media is led by The Edge Weekly, alongside the Financial Daily and the Financial Daily.

Traditional influence is being rapidly deconstructed by the popularity of socio-political bloggers and online news sites, such as Malaysiakini, Malaysia Today, The Malaysian Insider and The Nut Graph. In 2008, Malaysia Today editor Raja Petra Kamarudin was detained under anti-terrorist security laws, before being released two months later.

The tension between Malaysian authorities and the country's blogosphere has continued with Kamarudin being charged for criminal defamation. He is believed to have left the country, but continues to post to Malaysia Today.

The Government itself is becoming considerably more active in its use of social media. Prime minister Najib Razak is a regular on Twitter, and makes active use of blogs and video-sharing.

According to Nielsen Malaysia currently ranks fifth globally in terms of digital media consumption. Facebook has overtaken Friendster, with a penetration rate of more than 50 per cent of the country's broadband users.

All traditional media titles now have active digital offerings. Blogs, once the preserve of political activists, are also diversifying, with Jainudeen pointing to the popularity of several celebrity bloggers.

The net effect is that digital campaigns are becoming increasingly powerful, particularly in terms of galvanising public opposition. When Malaysia's information minister referred to Twitter and Facebook as tools of the West, jokes about the politican became a trending topic on Twitter.

Similarly, a Facebook group protesting against the right of non-Muslims to use the word 'Allah', garnered 47,000 users in a matter of days. 'These examples illustrate the immense power of social media in influencing behaviours and also how the authorities are grappling to understand and deal with the phenomenon,' says Ku.

Bellwether brands

Low-cost carrier AirAsia is often considered the country's biggest branding success story of recent years, under the leadership of high-profile CEO Tony Fernandes. National flag carrier Malaysia Airlines has, however, responded through a series of thoughtful and effective comms campaigns.

Under the marketing oversight of PR veteran Indira Nair, Malaysia Airlines has successfully communicated an ambitious turnaround programme. 'The national carrier continues to defy expectations in the face of the worst aviation industry crisis and the challenges from the world's largest low-cost carrier in its own backyard, AirAsia,' says Ku.

Other savvy brands include Petronas, the national oil giant that has used a powerfully compellling marketing campaign to build an image that is based around social harmony.

Nazir Razak, who helms CIMB Bank, was named Communicator of the Year at the 2009 PRCA Malaysia awards. Ku points out that Malaysia's second-largest bank has been able to profile itself as a 'professionally run, dynamic and fast-growing brand.'

Mention should also be made of mobile operator DiGi, which 'punches above its weight perception-wise,' in the words of Ku.


While MNC networks have been active in the country since the Eighties, it has rarely been a focus of sustained investment or attention. This has enabled a variety of independent players to come to the fore, including Reputation Mercatus, Priority and Fox Communications.

Other key local agencies are Compass Communications and Ming KH & Associates.

'Local boutiques have their unique propositions, more often than not focusing on a single practice area,' says Jainudeen. 'They dominate the agency landscape - most are small to medium in size with principal consultant-cum-owners.'

Recent years have seen the global networks become more active. Hill & Knowlton counts, perhaps, the longest-standing country presence. Other fast-growing agencies include Text 100, Fleishman-Hillard and Weber Shandwick. Edelman and Ogilvy PR are also well-considered.

Structural economic issues, says Ku, mean that top talent often leave the country in search of better salaries. Corporate, consumer and tech are the key practice areas.


Lobbying in Malaysia remains unregulated and, according to Ku, is neither official nor professional. Expertise tends to be hired in-house. 'Malaysian political institutions while consultative and considerate of private-public dialogue and partnership, still largely makes policy decisions introspectively,' adds Jainudeen.

Government spend on PR, is however, rising, fuelled by such initiatives as the Government Transformation Programme, and various new economic zones. Even the country's police force, adds Ku, has called in external PR counsel.

The most significant political comms development, as discussed above, is the rapid adoption of social media. 'Digital came of age in the last 12 months,' says Ku. 'It has become the platform to galvanise public opinion and confrontation.'

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