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Why do people in Malaysia turn to social media to highlight wrongdoings?

Simple - they want a swifter and more transparent response from the authorities

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By R Dineskumar

On 22 February, Human Resources Minister Steven Sim said netizens should file official reports about labour rights violations before discussing them on social media.

“I know netizens have good intentions, posting on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and so on. However, this involves the law, so, we need official reports, for example, stating where, who and so on,” he said.

Sim’s comments came after a media report highlighted the case of a renowned ramen company facing brickbats online for allegedly imposing fees on workers taking sick leave and arbitrary fines for alleged misconduct.

It is understandable why Sim, as the minister responsible for overseeing the Labour Department, prefers the lodging of official reports. The department can then investigate each case. After all, the department has to be accountable and handle as many labour cases as possible.

But the minister also needs to understand why netizens make issues go viral on social media: they simply do not trust the authorities’ ability to respond swiftly to the issues raised.

Sim’s reported comments reminded me of a news article I wrote in March 2022. For that article, I sought the views of the then Klang MP, Charles Santiago, and a couple of human rights activists on why netizens turn to social media to highlight issues.  

That article was in response to comments made by the director of the department within the police that monitors integrity and standards compliance. The director, Azri Ahmad, said sharing certain issues on social media before an investigation could be carried out made netizens cast judgement without looking at the facts of each case.

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But Santiago said netizens use social media because they believe it is more effective than lodging a police report and that the authorities were slow in responding to public complaints.

I can attest to this view from my years-long observation of the authorities’ online interactions with the public on issues that have gone viral. The authorities usually act swiftly the moment cases receive vast public attention. 

I doubt the authorities will respond as quickly to these issues if the public decides to “use the right channel” and directly file reports with the authorities.

Encourage citizen journalism

I spoke to migrant labour rights activist Adrian Pereira of North-South Initiative about how Sim should have handled the matter.

Pereira said the minister should encourage people to learn labour and industrial relation laws, including forced labour, and citizen journalism. Once people are informed about the law, they will be able to pinpoint any abuse of  workers.

“Looking at the culture of labour inspection and labour enforcement – there is no harm in citizens highlighting these problems,” Pereira said.

After all, in citizen journalism, ordinary people are encouraged to expose abuse culprits, Pereira added: “I think there is no harm if people expose (labour abuse) and we ought to welcome it because we don’t have enough labour inspectors.”

The activist noted that migrant rights group Tenaganita has come up with a Change Your World app that allows the public to report cases of labour rights abuse. 

Holding the authorities accountable

Once a public interest issue goes viral, netizens can make the authorities answerable. 

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The public, through social media, can press the authorities for updates on their probes. Sometimes, relevant ministers are even compelled to respond to such online queries.  

These concerned netizens could never wield such ‘power’ if they go through the ‘proper channels’ by filing reports directly with the relevant authorities. The latter might choose not to respond, causing anxiety for those eager to know the status of their complaints. 

If the authorities and the government want the public to stop making issues of public interest go viral, they have to improve their service delivery by responding to complaints swiftly and transparently. 

Don’t chastise the public when they make issues go viral. Provide regular updates on the status of any investigation. No point holding regular press conferences; press statements alone should suffice. 

If authorities continue to respond slowly – and instead criticise powerless netizens – the latter will keep raising issues on social media to prompt a quicker response.

Social media is on track to become the country’s new ‘public complaints bureau. If the authorities do not want to be rendered ineffective and obsolete, they have to step up their game. 

Dineskumar Ragu, an Aliran member, is a former Free Malaysia Today journalist

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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