From the December issue of Chrome
Jeff Ooi is Malaysia’s most prominent news-blogger, voicing out opinions and criticisms that no local newspaper dare publishes. While regarded as the nation’s controversial uberblogger, OON YEOH finds a man who, on one side, is driven in the pursuit of liberal media, but on the other, is a little tired from so much typing.
Jeff Ooi has attained heights that no other blogger in this part of the world has come close to achieving. His blog gets over 200,000 unique visitors and over a quarter of a million page views per month. He's won the Reporters sans Frontières' Freedom Blog Award for Asia. He's been invited to give talks at Harvard University and the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).
These are things most bloggers would die for. Yet, when I interviewed him over a Japanese dinner at the Bangsar Shopping Complex, Ooi doesn't bring up any of these accolades. Instead, he talks about his disappointment that after nearly three years of blogging, he has few peers in the local blogosphere.
Ooi set up his blog, Screenshots (www.jeffooi.com) in January 2003, because he was "fed up with those idiots monkeying around in the press and government" and wanted to voice his frustrations in an impactful way. But more than that, he was hoping that his efforts would inspire others to do something similar—use the Internet to hold the media, the government and big corporations accountable for their actions (or in some cases, inaction).
"In that sense, I've failed," he says, shaking his head.
When Ooi talks about blogs, he's not referring to the navel-gazing variety that dominates the local blogosphere but those who write about current affairs.
Ooi is hardly a traditionalist but his blogging style follows the classic blogging formula of Excerpts + Links + Commentary, initially used by tech geeks in the late Nineties when they wanted to share information and articles they found with other geeks.
For a blog to be meaningful it has to have "substance", and to do that, you need to have embedded links, which allows for proper cross-referencing, Ooi says. This is in line with the vision of using the Internet as a democratic media tool, forming informed communities around the world that media prophet, Marshall McLuhan, first thought of when he coined the phrase “global village” way back in the Sixties.
While it's true there isn't any other Jeff Ooi around—not even close—he has inspired a handful of people to find their own niche in the blogosphere.
One such person is Tony Pua, who runs the Education in Malaysia blog (www.educationmalaysia.blogspot.com). "The reason why I started my blog is Jeff Ooi," Pua says. "I'm sure there are others who will tell you the same thing".
I spoke to many prominent local bloggers, and it is indeed amazing how many of them cite Ooi as a key influence.
You might notice, however, that Ooi rarely links to local blogs. There are two possible reasons for this. Either he doesn't read local blogs or he reads them but think they are crap.
I suspected it's the first and to find out in a diplomatic way, I asked him to name five of his favourite local bloggers. He starts off well by quickly naming Aisehman (www.aisehman.org) and then promptly stumbles and admits, "It's hard to come up with five names."
What's clear is that he doesn't care much for the personal diary kind of blogs—the type where outpourings of broken hearts, man-bitching, and cutesy baby stories abound—which, more often than not, incites the same excitement as Aunt Gertrude’s narration of her favourite holiday tour in Perth. Ooi calls it the “Syiok Sendiri Syndrome”. Sadly for Ooi, the Malaysian blogosphere is full of those.
It's interesting to note that those who are clearly influenced by Ooi, however, tend to follow his Extract + Links + Commentary approach. Pua does it that way and so does Aisehman.
Another one is S.K. Thew (www.skthew.com), a young blogger who—uncharacteristically, given his age—doesn't blog about what he ate for breakfast or his argument last night with his girlfriend. His blogs are about politics. "S.K. is pretty good," Ooi says. "There should be more bloggers like him."
Although Ooi tends to blog more about politics these days, he is also very much into information and communication technologies (ICT).
Before he became Jeff Ooi the uberblogger, he was the head honcho at USJ.com.my and a technology columnist for Malaysian Business. He is also a member of the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission's Consumer and Content Forums. "I'm fully networked in the (ICT) industry," he says. "I'm a true believer of technology.
You would expect someone like him to have a technical background but all of his ICT knowledge is self taught.
Raised in a Malay kampung called Pendang in Kedah and coming from a poor family—his father was a lorry driver—Ooi worked for a couple of years as an advertising copy writer before enrolling in Universiti Sains Malaysia in 1982. He graduated in 1986 with a BA (Hons), majoring in comparative literature and a minor in political science.
After a decade in the copy-writing business, he ventured into the client side and became a marketing and communications officer for the local franchise holder of Yamanouchi-Shaklee, a multinational pharmaceutical company. To equip himself with management skills, in 1995, Ooi enrolled in an MBA twinning program with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. One of the papers he took made a great impression on him. It was about ICT's impact on business.
Around that time, the parent company stopped franchising and asked Ooi to help them set up a Malaysian branch instead. He remembers setting up a server and using a 9.6 kbps modem which he would switch on after office hours so that the overseas programmers could do some off-site work for the KL office. Ooi marvelled at this and thought to himself, "Holy shit, if this is the way the business of the future is going be run, I'll soon be out of a job!"
After he got his MBA, in June 1997, he embarked on a world tour. On July 2, he found himself in a hotel room in London watching the Thai baht crash. He stayed glued to CNN for the whole day, fearing what he would come home to in Malaysia. He left his company in December that year and formed a start-up with a group of friends to do WAP applications. That business floundered, and with some time on his hands, he launched USJ.com.my on September 23, 1999 . He had hoped to build a cyber-community where he could hawk products and services to.
As a business, it too failed. But as an e-community, USJ.com.my quickly became the most active one in the country. It was through this platform Ooi started making a name for himself as a cyber-activist on community issues. But it wasn't until Jan 2, 2003 that he began his rise to national prominence with the launch of Screenshots.
His first blog entry was about the state government's attempt to tear down posters of beer advertisements. "Selangor MB Mohd Khir Toyo can do two things: Go attempt a victimless crime, or seek a cure for his premature ejaculation of policies," Ooi wrote, setting the tone for his blog. There are many who may have dreamed of putting the words "premature ejaculation" and "Selangor MB" in the same sentence, but it was Ooi who set it in HTML.
Ooi is undoubtedly a phenomenal force in local blogging, but just how influential is his blog? "Among a small group of people—media people and the Malaysiakini crowd—his blog is widely followed," says P. Gunasegaram, an executive editor at The Edge, who reads Screenshots daily. "But outside these circles, maybe only three out of 10 even know what a blog is."
Practically everyone in journalism follows Ooi's blog, though, probably because he comments extensively about the media industry. Some of his information—which he gets from his team of "little birds" in every newspaper—can be contentious.
"Many times, I get irritated when Jeff provides inaccurate information about the media," says Wong Chun Wai, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Star. "Sometimes, I am upset if I sense that he is being used without him knowing, particularly on the media scene or if my friends—even if they are from rival papers—have been misjudged."
His main criticism of Ooi, though, is that he is too defensive when others criticise him. "Journalists or bloggers, I guess, must learn to face criticism if they wish to criticise others," Wong says, rather diplomatically, stressing that his comments are his personal views and do not represent the views of The Star.
The Edge's Gunasegaram is more direct: "Jeff's weakness is that he takes any difference of opinion too personally and he hits back in a vicious manner, sometimes to the point of personal vilification."
Ooi denies that he goes on any personal vendettas and insists that it's just a matter of perception. Besides, according to Ooi, bloggers are supposed to be highly opinionated.
Although his abrasive style has ruffled some media feathers, he actually respects senior media folks like Wong and Gunasegaram, saying they are "essentially good guys". Ask him about New Straits Times' recently-retired Group Editor-in-Chief Kalimullah Hassan, though, and what you'll get is largely unprintable.
It's said that everyone needs a nemesis to spur them on to greatness. Think Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. For Ooi, it's Kalimullah who pisses him off and yet spurs him to produce his best work.
Their feud, which began in March last year, just before the general election, was sparked by an article Kalimullah wrote in which he criticised Subang Jaya MP Dr. K.S. Nijhar. "I have stayed in Subang Jaya for almost 14 years and yet I have not seen my MP nor have I heard much about his activities," Kalimullah wrote.
Ooi, a friend of Nijhar's, lambasted Kalimullah, making cruel fun of his name in the process. It was a low blow but Kalimullah's response was equally childish. "He sent me a nasty e-mail, whacking me all the way. Basically, he told me I was a complete unknown entity to him,” Ooi recalls.
And so the two became the local version of the Hatfields and McCoys, with Kalimullah occasionally making snide remarks about a certain blogger in his columns, and Ooi shooting back, each time making fun of Kalimullah's name.
This drove Kalimullah crazy. On October 2, Berita Harian ran a front page story entitled "Laman web siar pandangan hina Islam Hadhari" (“Website publishes insulting view of Islam Hadhari”) after a Screenshots visitor posted an entry that equated Islam Hadhari with faeces and urine.
The next day, Berita Harian ran another story entitled "Tindakan ISA untuk pengendali laman web bermain api" (“ISA action for website firestarters”). The New Sunday Times, meanwhile, carried a story entitled "Khairy: Blogger should apologize."
Both publications belong to the NSTP stable of papers.
When a reporter from the NST called for his reaction to the First Son-in-Law's comments, Ooi's immediate thoughts were to say, "F**k you, Khairy, you're so easily manipulated". But he held his tongue and calmly replied (under advice from his lawyers), "I don't speak to the New Straits Times."
While NST and Berita Harian gave this story front page treatment, the rest of the industry gave it a large collective yawn. Neither The Star nor the theSun gave the issue much coverage, partially because they had no dog in that fight but more importantly, because they recognized it for what it was: a non-story. It was basically a personal feud between two men using the media they had at their disposal.
Ooi was getting plenty of support from his peers in the blogosphere, lawyers, NGOs and even mainstream media journalists but he felt under siege with the ISA hanging over his head.
"Kali probably thought he had me by the balls," Ooi says. But Energy, Water and Communications Minister Lim Keng Yaik quickly diffused the situation by saying that action would be taken on the person who posted the comment and added that Ooi had already tried to block the person from his blog.
Kalimullah declined a request for an interview, telling me he did not even want to know what the questions were. "Dear Oon: Thank you for your e-mail. I am retired. Let me have my peace," was his initial reply. I sent a second e-mail asking him to reconsider. His reply: "No, my friend, I am just tired of this. You do what you believe is the right thing to do. God Bless."
Ooi says the biggest pressure came not from the ISA threat, but from his wife. He had hid the newspapers from her but colleagues gave her a copy of the NST and Berita Harian and when she came back from work, she threw them at his face. She couldn't understand why he wanted to continue blogging.
"The domestic pressure was unbearable," he says. He pleaded to her, "Just give me some room to keep cool and think properly. I need to talk to the right persons."
A senior editor at a local paper helped him find three lawyers who were willing to take on his case. Meanwhile, Reporters sans Frontières ran a story on the matter and told him they were willing to take this case up to the Malaysian government if necessary. "I told them, I'm not actually a journalist but they replied that I was one of them."
Meanwhile, traffic to his blog shot through the roof. "I have to thank Kalimullah for giving me international prominence," he says.
In December last year, he was invited to give a talk at the Harvard Law School where he networked with some of the world's leading bloggers. He's since become an in-demand speaker. In February, this year, he was invited to give a talk in Bangalore and in July, he was invited to speak in San Francisco . Last month, he was in Tunisia for the WSIS and this month, he'll be in London and then, again to Harvard for more talks.
"I do these international talks to cover my ass," he says. "If I ever get detained or arrested, I know it'll be on CNN."
Blogging has changed his life—both positively and negatively. Ooi has always had an activist streak in him but in the early days, it was mainly on neighbourhood issues. Now, he deals with more macro and national issues.
He also used to be somewhat scared of authority—to the point that when he signed up for a subscription to Malaysiakini, he actually used a different name. Nowadays, he questions authority on a daily basis.
His notoriety as a blogger has affected his work as a freelance ICT consultant. He does a lot of strategic planning work for a prominent local company but he's not allowed to do presentations anymore and at certain meetings, he's simply not allowed to be seen.
Ooi gets about 100 e-mails a day. He says there are generally four types of e-mails:
i) those who want to privately share their viewpoints with him
ii) those who suggest blog topics
iii) those who pass him tips, and
iv) those who treat him like Michael Chong, the MCA Head of Public Services and Complaints Department.
He likes the first three but hates the fourth kind. "If you treat me as Michael Chong, I would have really failed in my mission as a blogger," he says.
Now, what is his mission again? "I'm on a crusade to produce more bloggers," he says, because "lone voices don't get heard".
Many senior media men agree with that view. "I hope to see more bloggers like Jeff Ooi emerge," says The Star's Wong, adding that it would be a good thing for the country if there were more quality material on the Net like Screenshots.
"I admire him as a blogger," says The Edge's Gunasegaram. "He's indefatigable."
Ooi doesn't seem to agree with the second part of Gunasegaram's comment. "It really takes up a lot of my time and my right arm has started to hurt from all that blogging," he says. Then, sounding ironically like the recently-retired Kalimullah, he adds: "I'm tired... I'm might just quit blogging, you know."
Perhaps what they say about the importance of having a nemesis to spur you on is true after all.