KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - The Internet is changing the face of Malaysian politics, becoming a virtual political party of its own as the country gears up for elections next month.
Three high-profile bloggers, all opponents of the ruling coalition which has effectively governed for five decades, are standing for the first time as candidates on March 8, hoping that their popularity on the Net will translate into votes.
"Everyone of us has a stake in the country's future, but talk is cheap. We now need to walk the walk," says Jeff Ooi, a well-known blogger contesting a seat in northern Penang state for the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP).
A 52-year-old former advertising copywriter, he has made his name writing a political blog, "Screenshots" www.jeffooi.com, one of dozens that have found an active readership outside the pro-government mainstream press.
Another popular blogger, also running on a DAP ticket, is 34-year-old Tony Pua, a fresh-faced Oxford graduate who started blogging three years ago after setting up a high-tech firm.
"I've had opportunities to migrate but I decided that Malaysia is my home," Pua said as he dreamt up campaign slogans at a cramped DAP office on the second floor of a shophouse, above a Chinese restaurant, on the outskirts of the capital.
"So the next question is what should I do to make it better?" His blog's address is: tonypua.blogspot.com.
Pua, like Ooi, is running from an urban constituency where Internet penetration is highest and opposition sentiment runs stronger than in the countryside.
A third blogger, Badrul Hisham Shaharin, said he is struggling to spread his message because of the limited Internet access in the rural Malay majority seat where he is standing.
"I admit that is difficult because my blog is not accessible here, but I am getting a lot of help from fellow bloggers," he said by phone from his electorate of Rembau, a sleepy farming district south of Kuala Lumpur.
Badrul, who is running on opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's party ticket, will take on Khairy Jamaluddin, the prime minister's son-in-law and an ambitious politician. Badrul's blog: chegubard.blogspot.com
Considered a thorn in the government's side due to their often critical political and social commentaries, Malaysia's blogging community offer alternative views in a country where the government keeps a tight control on mainstream media.
The government said last year it might compel bloggers to register with the authorities to curb the spread of malicious content on the Internet.
Government backers doubt whether bloggers turned opposition politicians could make their presence felt.
"Beyond the major cities like Kuala Lumpur and Penang, there's not much the bloggers can really hope to accomplish," says Mohamad Norza Zakaria, a leader in Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's UMNO party (www.umno-online.com)
The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) dominates the 14-party Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
Only a fifth of Malaysians have access to the Internet, official data show. There are 10.9 million voters in a nation of 26 million people.
Blogger Ooi spoke of the difficult challenge ahead. "Compared to the BN, we are behind on the three M's - money, machinery and media access."