Democratech: Can technology make petitions relevant again?

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 13, 2021 - September 19, 2021.
Democratech: Can technology make petitions relevant again?
-A +A

After Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s resignation as Malaysia’s eighth prime minister, a Change.org petition was created to protest against Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob becoming the nation’s new prime minister. 

Despite the online petition garnering more than 350,000 signatures, even featuring a prominent “victory” tag highlighted in bold, the petition’s creator declared it a failure when Ismail Sabri was sworn in a week later. There are many other seemingly impactless petitions like this, from vague notions of ending police brutality to specific ones such as the #AzminLetakJawatan campaign, both of which garnered six figures in terms of signatures and supporters.

This begs the question: Are petitions still relevant in the Malaysian democratic landscape, and is it possible to leverage technology to make citizens’ voices heard?

 

Just a number

Although capturing such a high number of signatures for a petition is impressive, it is essential to understand that internet users are a minority compared with the entire country’s population, says Terence Too Yang Yau, a fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS).

He points out that even if a petition goes viral, it is most likely circulated among a group of like-minded people expressing similar views. These signatories are a subset within a subset of the entire country’s population. Hence, it is unreasonable to expect national policies to change just because a petition has a relatively large number of signatures.

However, this does not mean petitions have no role to play in a democratic society. Too gave the example of California’s ballot initiative process, where signatures and votes play an essential role in turning initiative petitions into state legislation. Still, such direct democracy practices are few and far between around the world. 

“Petitions, especially online petitions, lead to greater political participation from the public, which is important for any democracy. Governments around the world have a tendency to centralise power, so petitions help them remain in sync with the wishes or sentiments of the public,” he tells Digital Edge.

Too explains that petitions fall under a larger pyramid of citizen feedback mechanisms needed for any direct democratic process. The first layer is social media, where citizens voice their concerns but sentiments are diffused and spread out. Petitions serve as the second layer, where sentiments are converted into tangible initiatives that can be seriously considered. Referendums sit on top of the pyramid as the ultimate formal process of putting matters to the vote.

Thus far, Malaysia has yet to conduct a single referendum, with the closest one being the 1962 Singaporean referendum to integrate the island nation into the Federation of Malaysia. Since then, public consultations and public hearings are the most direct forms of citizen feedback mechanisms we currently employ.

In this regard, technology can play a pivotal role in making the process much more democratic. For example, public hearings no longer need to be held in a physical space. They can be conducted through Zoom calls, opening up such outlets to larger sections of the population. 

However, Too stresses that implementing any technology within these systems must address two key fundamental problems of any democratic process — integrity and accessibility. 

Integrity ensures that the opinions expressed and votes given are authentic. Technology claims to have resolved much of this through blockchain and anti-spoofing technology. The system also needs to be accessible to large and different sections of the public, including those who are not technologically savvy and from areas without adequate internet connectivity.

“Tech or no tech, these problems still exist. In the past, a village would probably go around a circle raising their hands to vote. Pen and paper have helped break the circle and expand the physical limitations to a larger village. The problems have not changed, but we are getting more tools to address some of these problems better,” says Too.

 

Using tech where it matters

Dr Zokhri Idris, director of external relations at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS), points out that Malaysia is a highly constitutionalised country where parliament is the only legal body recognised to enact laws and implement policy changes.

Hence, regardless of the number of signatures, petitions alone have limited impact on affecting change, says Zokhri. However, petitions and technology can play a larger role in assisting key players who do command change, which are the members of parliament (MPs) and senators.

“The senators should utilise technology and petitions to garner the people’s opinions towards their portfolio, and MPs should use them to garner opinions from their respective constituencies. They can then process these and bring the information to the august house, where intellectual and constructive debates can happen,” he adds.

“The least we can have is the assurance that what is being debated in parliament is reflective of the people’s opinions. Although decisions may not follow through, the rakyat can feel that their voices have been heard and were presented in parliament. Technology posits the point that direct democracy can still be established via the framework of our Constitution.”

Combining petitions with other data-driven approaches is more democratic than the status quo. According to Zokhri, MPs currently gauge citizen sentiments through three major channels — special officers with frequent interactions with the grassroots; political party general assemblies, where motions are debated; and policy divisions within the respective ministries. Although these channels capture opinions from large swathes of the demographic, they may not represent the entire Malaysian population at large. 

In an ideal scenario, the government would launch an app designed to collect citizen feedback on particular issues to help facilitate the policymaking process. While Zokhri believes that having such an app is a direction we are striving towards, it is akin to putting the cart before the horse.

More important than capturing citizen feedback and empowering them through votes, civic technology can instead be better used to educate the public on the nuances behind these votes in the first place. For example, he explains that IDEAS has utilised civic technology to track Chinese investments into Malaysia through the Belt and Road Initiative and showcased them publicly to promote transparency and good governance.

Instead of presenting white papers and reports that are pages long, it used interactive portals, heatmaps and infographics to disseminate this information to the public as quickly and as attractively as possible. 

“WhatsApp advocacy is emerging right now. Information-sharing through pictures and infographics via the app is a trend we have seen, even before the 14th general election in 2018. The spreading effects are undoubtedly effective, even reaching the outer circles of one individual’s contacts,” says Zokhri.

“If WhatsApp can be used to responsibly educate the people, they can make better-informed decisions, be it through elections, petitions or other means.”

 

Walk the talk

Dr Pauline Leong Pooi Yin, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, believes that petitions are still an important part of the democratic process as it still indicates public sentiment on issues affecting society at large. However, she points out that championing changes in sociopolitical causes requires more effort than just clicking on an online petition, which media scholars deem as “slacktivism” or “clicktivism”.

“Online petitions are useful to bring public awareness about an issue, but they cannot be the only strategy in a campaign. There needs to be a concerted effort online and offline to effect change,” says Leong.

“For example, #BenderaHitam was an online campaign to get netizens to share pictures of black flags on various social media platforms. The strong support gave rise to the #Lawan campaign, which led to a street protest that gained even more media attention. The online buzz helped fuel the momentum for the offline protest.”

Another successful case study would be the Kinrara-Damansara Expressway incident, with the Selangor government cancelling the project after strong pushback from local residents. Some 4,000 houseowners in Petaling Jaya had erected banners protesting the project, with the “Say No to KIDEX” Facebook page garnering 5,500 likes. However, Leong pointed out that the petition was accompanied by heavy public demonstrations and lobbying. 

Despite its importance, online petitions alone are unlikely to have a strong influence over public policies due to issues surrounding the credibility of the petition itself. Leong says it is possible for someone to create multiple accounts to artificially inflate the support for a cause, muddying the actual public opinion on the issue.

Still, new advanced technologies have emerged in recent years aimed at addressing this problem. For example, electronic Know Your Customer (e-KYC) technology has matured to the point where it can reliably verify and authenticate account creations. Blockchain technology can also be utilised to ensure that each signature is unique and non-fungible. While these existing tools are up to the task, technological advancement is not the bottleneck in terms of putting these into practice. 

“The use of digital technology has been quite evident in the area of political communication since it was introduced in Malaysia as part of the government’s drive to embrace the knowledge economy,” says Leong.

“However, when it comes to issues such as electronic voting, referendums or virtual and hybrid parliamentary sittings, legal amendments may be needed to introduce such developments into the Malaysian political system.”