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Jeff Ooi: from local internet activist to Member of Parliament

February 13, 2009

This is the ninth in a series of posts on my working paper “Local leadership and personal media: a practice-theoretical approach”. See also previous and first post.

Jeff Ooi’s life trajectory bears a strong resemblance to that of Lee Hwa Beng. Like Lee, he was born in the mid-1950s and raised in a provincial ethnic Chinese household of modest means (his father was a lorry driver in the northern Malaysian state of Kedah). Similarly, despite these humble beginnings he managed to achieve professional qualifications and a private-sector career whilst becoming an ICT-savvy grassroots leader in Subang Jaya and USJ.  In Jeff’s case, the qualification was an MBA in international management and he went on to work as an ICT consultant for a transnational advertising firm.

Both are personal trajectories of social mobility and migration familiar to students of the new middle classes around the developing world. But there are notable differences as well between them. While Lee is generally regarded as an affable mediator and peacemaker, Jeff is renowned for his direct, even confrontational, political style. Moreover, as an MCA member Lee represents the political mainstream, whereas Jeff’s public persona is that of a proudly independent activist and political blogger who in 2008 became an MP with the opposition’s Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Jeff Ooi first caught the public eye in Subang Jaya and USJ in 1999 as a leading figure in a residents’ campaign against a steep rise in local taxation, as mentioned in a previous section. Following the success of this mobilisation, and having failed to set up an e-business venture for the township in the harsh post-1997 economic climate , Jeff turned his attention to local e-community building. This idea soon materialised in the local Web portal,  a lively online environment founded in 1999 that continues to thrive to this day, boasting some 20,000 threads, 315,000 posts and 23,000 registered members at the time of writing. 

The portal has two main areas: an online ‘e-community  forum’ and a citizens’ newspaper. Although Jeff  had originally intended the forum to revolve  around issues of local governance, he and his co-administrators have finally accepted that the forum has become a site of intense local sociality in its own right. Local residents use the forum to discuss all manner of topics and interests, both pedestrian and lofty, from local issues and world politics to sports, travel or eating out. The more enthusiastic among them even meet up offline on a regular basis over a cup of teh tarik, a tea beverage popular with Malaysians of all backgrounds.

The portal’s area devoted to local reporting was another of Jeff’s innovations. Although in theory this strand of activity is run by an editorial team trained in 1999 by a local Star journalist, the late Harpajan Singh, in actual practice it has always been Jeff’s preserve. The investigative nature and critical – sometimes acerbic – tone of Jeff’s editorials did not endear him to the municipal president, Ahmad Fuad (1997-2003), who often found himself on the receiving end of Jeff’s sharp prose.  

When I first met Jeff in May 2003, his para-journalism had found a far more visible platform: political blogging on national rather than local issues. Five months earlier, in January 2003, Jeff had launched the blog Screenshots which swiftly rose to national prominence for its bold denounciations of poor governance in Malaysia’s high corporate and government offices. At the local level, however, his fellow activists were concerned about this newfound fame as a blogger as they felt it was taking time and energy away from his grassroots work. Their misgivings were to be confirmed in the coming years.

One key ingredient in the success of Screenshots was Jeff’s growing network of well-placed sources across Malaysia’s corridors of power and knowledge (senior journalists, lawyers, politicians, internet activists, CEOs, etc.) These ‘little birds’ – as Jeff calls them-  often fed him information denouncing foul play by the powerful. For example, in June 2004 a New Straits Times editor emailed Jeff to inform him that their editor-in-chief had blocked access to Screenshots.

To be continued…

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