The Smartphone as the “Weapon of the Weak”: Assessing the Role of Communication Technologies in Malaysia’s Regime Change

Ross Tapsell


This paper examines the role of new communication technologies in the regime change of Malaysia’s 2018 elections. I argue that growing Internet penetration in semirural areas of Malaysia’s Peninsula “heartlands” allow for new forms of campaign message to be spread in unique and compelling ways. Facebook and instant-messenger platform WhatsApp are playing a prominent role in shaping political discourse in contemporary Malaysia, and this was evident in the election campaign that brought an end to Malaysia’s ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional’s, 60-year hold on power. In this article I use James Scott’s (1987) Weapons of the Weak as the theoretical foundation for assessing the role of WhatsApp and other social media sites as tools of resistance, specifically in spreading information about the corruption and nepotism of Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife, Rosmah Mansour. Given the prominence of the smartphone for news and information in Southeast Asia, this article explains how the digital era is changing the avenues via which the region receives and shares political information – as well as outlines the consequences that it brings for elections campaigns and democracy.

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