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Saturday
Dec032005

Jeff Ooi - Screenshooter

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.

References (4)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    Response: internet marketing
    internet marketing
  • Response
    There's a Forum organised by the KL Bar this Thursday on Blogging and Defamation laws . I'll be checking it out, and it's probably a good idea for any blogger who has a reasonable audience and likes to talk about other people.The thing that has alway
  • Response
    OK I'm dead tired - been a long day and tomorrow will be too. But here is my thought for the day.Going back to 2004, when I first started blogging (you couldn't upload pictures to Blogger in those days), blogs were not well known at all. Mention 'blog
  • Response
    Response: AMG music label
    New Media Guy - chrome - Jeff Ooi - Screenshooter

Reader Comments (16)

Just carry on with the excellent work, Jeff!
December 4, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterbayi
hi jeff,

good work. as bloggers, we are independent and are able to present our own version of news and events, the way we see it.

it is preferable to be critical and present an alternative version without being too vicious or personal in the attack. treat the issues and not to overdo it. we are not gaining anything to put our heads on the block.

best regards.
December 5, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterredbean
Jeff, you were born with a built-in recognition of your own goodness. You were born with an inner recognition of your rightness in the universe....You are a cooperative species and a loving one.

Your arrogances, your crimes, and your atrocities, real as they are, are seldom committed out of any intent to be evil, but because of severe misinterpretations about the nature of good, and the means that can be taken towards its actualization.

Your ideas of good and evil governance are highly important for instance. If you are bound and determined that "GOD" creates only good, then any physical deficiency, or illness or deformity becomes an affront to your belief, threatens it and makes you angry or resentful.

Quite simply, a belief in the good without a belief in the evil may seem highly unrealistic to you. This belief, however, is the best kind of insurance that you can have, both during physical life and afterwards.

It may outrage your intellect, and the evidence of your physical senses may shout that it is untrue, yet a belief in good without a belief in evil is actually highly realistic.
December 5, 2005 | Unregistered Commentermwt
Thanks Oon Yeoh for the write up. I've always admired Jeff for his guts, wits and energy. We should have more young men like him. He has taken the tremendous effort to raise social and political awareness from a neutral wiew point and added a whole new meaning to it. I hope he succeeds in creating more people like him for the sake of our country and future generations. I wish him luck too.
December 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterLC_Teh
Jeff,
In your dream of dreams you cannot hope to change the state of affairs currently faced by the Malaysian society at large with your lonely voice in the wilderness. Even if you can trained up a group of hopeful bloggers things will not change that much.

There is nothing more stimulating, more worthy of actualization, than the desire to change the world for the better. That is indeed each person's mission.

To change the current situation when dealing with seemingly insurmountable problems of racial, political and social structure, we need “shared” or “mass” dreams. In these, we dream individually and collectively of ways in which change could occur.

These dreams can actually help bring about the resulting change. The very energy, direction and focus of these dreams will help change the situation.

But alas, we do not share the same dreams. Each has his or her own dreams (especially the majority with all the attending benefits and comforts would not share your dreams) and so all our problems recurred and will remain unsolved and Vision 2020 will only be a piped dream
December 5, 2005 | Unregistered Commentermultidimid
People like Jeff deserve a Datuk title, not the useless once who seem to get them nowadays
December 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAlbert
Jeff Ooi mission is fundamentally flawed. His mission is to create more bloggers like himself. In order to create a blogger who has as much to say, they need to find a topic or an area that attract as much attention. The problem is that Jeff ooi has covered most major topics himself mainly politics, governance and economics (which is usually political in Malaysia). Tony Pua has taken on education which he has done a good job but that topic cannot be compared to Jeff's. Lim Kit Siang who has limited time has taken on politics to match or better Jeff Ooi. What else is there in blogosphere that could attract more attention but sex whuch would be shut down in a minute if anyone dared to venture too much into it?

Given the limited bandwidth access (remember that broadband penetration is low in Malaysia) its unrealistic to expect a lot of bloggers to emerge that is equal to Jeff.
December 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterBigjoe
Albert, I beg to differ on Jeff being conferred a Datukship. I believe we have all moved beyond the days when it really meant something. I think Jeff would be better of being the everyman that he is - critical, bold and refreshingly non-conformist.

I think Jeff has mostly showed us that 'we're allowed to think aloud'... or at least we ought to be.

Thanks Jeff for what you've done and for what you continue to do.

Thanks Oon for this piece. Brilliant!
December 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJoachim Rajaram
Jeff is a good guy on a noble mission. But he is not perfect.

To add to the list, Jeff himself has "exposed scandal" at other places, while at the same time having some vested interest.

Remember him and his attempts to expose and destroy Photo Malaysia, its administrators and the fake NG photographer?

A couple of weeks later, he endorses and becomes the Godfather of some other new photographic website.

Not that there's anything wrong with his crusades, but sometimes I do think he has a very selfish agenda for himself.
December 5, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterJack D
I got jeff's blog from a friend whom I must thank and now its jeffooi.com everyday !
I now have a blog to vent my opinion on the matters raised and I feel like I have been heard albeit within a relatively small community although by now we know his blog is well monitored by powers that be and thats a big plus !
All I can say is I agree with jeff that we need more jeffs !...but even if not than we still have one jeff to turn to .
God bless jeff and his family and i wish him the very best in his endeavours that will lead eventually to a more open Malaysia (sorry for being so local )
3 Cheers to jeff ooi and his community of Malaysians with all differing viewpoints .
Semuanya OK with jeff around.
December 6, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Leong
it's good that there's a write-up about jeff ooi, but it should have been in the mainstream media which unfortunately tend to ignore such critical (and perhaps abraisive) personalities who are nevertheless newsworthy. the star's wong nailed it when he acknowledged the need for journalists or (and?!) bloggers to accept criticism, but i wonder if he realised what he was saying. can star say it has been fair in covering the opposition? (i'm not a true supporter of the opposition, only by default because the devil i know is enough to put me off it to the point that i would welcome any other devil, even unknown ones.) yes, the structure of ownership and legal restrictions leave little room for newspapers to adhere to the basic principles of the profession, but does that mean that the papers have nothing else to report but inconsequential ego/advertising-pandering stories and editorials that don't challenge us to open our minds but dumb us down instead? it seems like the only way the papers can ever improve is, as in everything, through people power. Demand for legislative changes such as on freedom of information, whistle-blower protection, and the repeal of the OSA and PPPA. Please start by signing the petition for FOIA here: http://www.petitiononline.com/foiMsia/petition.html
if malaysia can advance in so many fields, in business, technology, science, arts, why not its standard of journalism? the damage done to public psyche is, to me, as bad as what our politicised education policies have done to so many 'lost' generations.
December 12, 2005 | Unregistered Commentersiew eng
Hai Jeff,
A new follower of bloggers.Frankly I dont even know whats the meaning of the word bloggers.After some research, I manage to find out more about blogging and will now on participate in subject-matters which needs the attention of rakyat and will give my honest opinion on politics and legal problems.

Thanks

February 26, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterP.J.Pereira
everyone talk about changing the world, but no one talks about changing himself.

jeff should look at himself in the mirror...and ask himself...how can he change himself, rather than keep on condemning ppl.

if he's really that good, why not he goes into politic himself, and walk the talk!! do what he has been championing all these while, instead of just standing at the side, shooting at every chance he can get.
April 26, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterjoker
Datuk for Jeff?
You must be kidding, because datukship is for the filthy rich politikus.

I would say Tun for Jeff so that he can get immunity from the FUCKIN' ISA threat.
June 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterOverthefence
I can assure you that I will be a better blogger when I start my blogging in the coming winter break.
Haha you are better, Jeff.
June 10, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterOverthefence
Sometimes I support Jeff 'cos:-
- some of his comments on issues were damn right;
- we need a hero who is not afraid of being blacklisted;


And I know some people associated with politics do not like him, even though he only stated facts.

Cheers,
August 19, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterSimon the snow blower

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