Malaysian leader laments ignoring Internet

EILEEN NG Associated Press March 27, 2008 at 8:18 AM EDT

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia . Malaysia's prime minister has said his ruling coalition made a blunder by underestimating the power of the Internet, which the opposition used extensively to win a record number of seats in recent elections.

"In the last election, we certainly lost the Internet war, the cyber war," Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told an investors' conference on Tuesday.

He said it was "a serious misjudgment" on the part of the ruling National Front coalition to rely on government-controlled newspapers and television.

The opposition, denied fair access to the government media, wooed young voters with text messages on cell phones and blogs online.

They talked about rising prices, corruption and racial and religious tensions - subjects that struck a chord with disgruntled Malaysians who were also fuming at the mainstream media's partisan coverage.

The coalition lost its traditional-two thirds majority of the 222-member Parliament, the worst setback in its 51-year rule, though it remained in power. The opposition increased its presence in Parliament from 19 seats to 82 seats and won five state legislatures.

The ruling coalition spent millions of dollars on print and television advertisements during its campaign.

"It was a very, very serious mistake on our part. It was painful ... but it came at the right time, not too late," Abdullah said.

The government does not censor or control the Internet under a commitment made by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad when he was wooing foreign investment in high tech in the early 1990s.

But a government-linked newspaper filed defamation lawsuits against two prominent bloggers last year accusing them of posting libellous statements about the paper's editors and executives. Separately, the government also has accused bloggers of spreading lies and undermining public stability.

Also last year, police detained an opposition party blogger for five days over comments posted on his Web site linking a deputy minister to corruption.

-- AP