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Massive Disinformation In ASEAN Countries: A Political Lesson For Foreign Investors – OpEd


By S.K. Chia*

In 2013, World Economic Forum (WEF) released its Global Risks Report that alerted among all, the risk of massive misinformation in the next 10 years. Five years on, what was being overlooked by many quarters had now evolved into a new phenomenon hitting the political scenes of ASEAN countries today. Known as disinformation — a sub-set of misinformation which denotes deliberate articulation of false information to influence public opinion or obscure the truth — this new phenomenon had elevated into mainstream politics today, especially with the ammunition provided by hate and fear politics in the region.

To foreign investors who ride on stability in their investing countries, the impacts of such phenomenon will challenge their stability-driven inclination. With massive disinformation campaigns deliberated by both political divides in recent years, investors often caught within the politics of hate and fear that are intended to service political needs of either the ruling or the opposition parties. In this sense, there are two trends that produce direct and indirect impacts to foreign investors. 

First, massive disinformation produces direct impact to foreign investors (especially the Chinese investors) as they are now the direct target during election campaigns. This is evident in the recent Indonesian presidential election in which massive information became the issue of contention of the two presidential candidates and their running mates. As the incumbent president, Jokowi Widodo was the main target of fake news spread via Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp. And the accusations included him being a member of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), a closet Christian, and more questionably, a China apologist. It was due to such backdrop that the removal of the Facebook accounts belonged to Saracen, the online group accused of spreading fake news and hate speech, had made the headlines in various presses and commentaries. For one, this was the group responsible in jeopardising Jokowi’s associate, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama’s second bid for Jakarta governorship. Similarly, Prabowo Subianto’s running mate, Sandiago Uno, also caught into such a situation in which he became the focus of online attacks on his personal lifestyle.

But what is of grave concern is more than the purposeful and organised articulation of these massive disinformation online. Politicians who towed the nationalist-conservative line, are now empowered with such phenomenal widespread and intentionally used fake news to articulate hate and fear politics among the electorate. Again, the best case is demonstrated by Prabowo, a well-known conservative figure in the Indonesian political scene. From the recently concluded presidential election, racial hatred for the Chinese minority as well as anti-China sentiment had dominated his election discourse — with him using these unverified news in social media to attack Jokowi’s China policy and his Muslim identity. While such attempt did not win Prabowo the Indonesian presidency this time around, the real battle will be on the next presidential election when Jokowi completed his second term in office. At that juncture, the Chinese investors may yet again become the racial-conservative target which may possibly contribute to regime change 5 years later.  

Second, massive disinformation also indirectly impacts foreign investors through long-term campaigns to delegitimise and/or change political regimes in a few ASEAN countries. In Singapore, fake news has been a long-standing issue plaguing the PAP government up to the point that Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong recognised there are organised groups or individuals conducting disinformation campaigns (against the government) for their own financial gains, to create discord and to radicalise readers at large. The Singapore government’s response was swift — the passing of The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill which empowered the government to block contents which are not of Singapore’s interests or oblige the service providers to remove them. While it may help to reduce massive disinformation through removal of fake news in various social media and websites, such move also triggered huge outrage among rights groups, journalists’ organisations and tech companies. With Singapore’s general election slated to be held before January 15, 2021, it is unknown how much of this dissent will be reflected in the voting trend of the younger generation. 

As for its Malaysia, which just undergone regime change last May, the Pakatan Harapan (PH)-led government is also facing the onslaught of fake news articulated by politically organised groups. Unlike Singapore, this northern neighbour is in the new unchartered territory of massive disinformation since such phenomenon only occupied mainstream politics for the past year or more. As in Indonesia, the PH administration is confronted with disinformation campaigns that mainly revolved around the Malay-Muslim agenda. As reported by The Edge, the formation of UMNO-PAS political coalition stands to intensify the massive disinformation campaign started by the former’s cybertroopers as they can now engage in identity polemics to gain political power in the future. It is therefore, totally possible for a second regime change after 4 years if the PH government unable to substantially deliver their election promises to the masses and counter such massive misinformation effectively as a government. By all means, foreign investors should recognise such hard fact and plan for the necessary safeguards for their investments. 

In all, whether it is direct or indirect, there is no doubt that massive disinformation produces impacts to the foreign investors as shown in the cases of Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. With the rise of organised groups or political parties which derived hate and fear politics from these fake news, it is not an understatement to claim that massive disinformation is now closely tied to the political interests of these domestic actors. Henceforth, it is timely for foreign investors to include massive disinformation as a new political risk in their overall evaluation of ASEAN countries for investment choices. 

*S.K. Chia is Researcher for Anbound Research Center (Malaysia), a subsidiary of ANBOUND, a leading independent think tank headquartered in Beijing. The think tank is also a consultancy firm specializing in China-ASEAN cooperation. For any feedback, please contact: [email protected]. (This article was written on 13 May 2019)

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Anbound Consulting (Anbound) is an independent Think Tank with the headquarter based in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound specializes in public policy research, and enjoys a professional reputation in the areas of strategic forecasting, policy solutions and risk analysis. Anbound's research findings are widely recognized and create a deep interest within public media, academics and experts who are also providing consulting service to the State Council of China.

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