Imagine this: it’s the 14th general election (GE14) and your darling politician is contesting in in your constituency. But through sheer luck, you stumble upon some random website that has all the legitimate information about your idol – including a host of nasty stuff from sexual harassment to conflicts of interest.
Question: will you still vote for that politician and his or her party?
That is what non-partisan outfit Sinar Project is unveiling in a few months’ time. “Think about it. We don’t know much about our members of parliament (MPs) or their background, and that’s pretty scary… electing our representatives without any knowledge,” says Khairil Yusof, one of its co-founders.
Founded in 2011, Sinar is the country’s only open parliament outfit. Its maiden project was a simple database of cabinet members, their constituency boundaries and their work, called MyMP, which is freely available online and powered by open source technology.
It has also worked on other projects, among others, a searchable index of selected public documents such as the Auditor-General’s Reports. Most recently it worked with Serdang MP Ong Kian Ming to upload comprehensive sets of parliamentary replies.
Its latest project is called the GE14 Candidate Blacklist Criteria, and it’s a subset of a special general candidate website which will provide as much background information on all the candidates running for parliament and state seats. The site will be parked under Sinar’s official website but the page is still a work in progress.
The project is inspired by the People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a non-governmental organisation in South Korea advocating for participatory democracy and human rights, and its Blacklisting Campaign.
“That’s our agenda for GE14. We hope to get the IT infrastructure in place so that we will be able to have better information on the candidates before people start electing them.
“This is also to press for the selection of better candidates. So even before the candidates are selected, we are planning to publish a set of public guidelines on what would be an ideal candidate and if the candidates fail some of these criteria, we will actually put them on a blacklist.”
The criteria covers human rights, corruption, and basic personal transparency, to name a few, and at writing time, aside from basic information and CV, it has developed three categories: accountability and corruption; human rights; and hate speech. The most developed category thus far is human rights.
Tentative Human Rights Subcategories
- prevention of discrimination (race/racial prejudice)
- rights of indigenous peoples & minorities
- rights of women
- rights of children
- rights of disabilities
- freedom of expression
- freedom of religion
“This is still just in the initial stages, and we will publish additional points or questions for public feedback, and improve the blacklist,” quips Kharil.
Unlike data analytics firms such as Invoke which are usually linked to a political party, Sinar bases its work on transparency. It publishes its funding sources – of which 90% are mostly foreign donors – on its website and the money goes to building systems for anti-corruption initiatives or supporting research on internet censorship.
In fact, if there is one fear when it comes to running outfits like this, it’s ensuring a steady stream of cash to fund these projects which cost thousands to put up. It is not that Sinar’s work has not received international acclaim. For example, it recently bagged the Open Contracting Innovation Challenge, a worldwide competition run by the Open Data Institute and the Open Contracting Partnership.
But foreign grants are hard to come by and local options are limited for a host of reasons, from its non-partisanship to the nature of its operations. So it goes without saying that Sinar depends on volunteers to fill up those vacancies when it comes to getting things done.
Emmanuel: what do you have to say to those who might accuse you of influencing elections?
Khairil: that's the reason we are familiar with working with transparency. So we will have guidelines and they are pretty clear from the outset. Also people will have a chance to make sure they are not biased in any way.
And we hope to get feedback from both sides and we would prefer citizens and not just political parties. At least it will be relatively neutral and it won’t hurt both sides.
Emmanuel: Is Sinar a vigilante group?
Khairil: No. For one, we don’t break any rules and we don’t – despite people thinking otherwise – hack stuff. All the information we get is actually publicly published. So, yes, we might be writing some scripts to automate it and get it done, but we don’t go after any specific person.
We generally put the information out and it is actually on the journalists or anti-corruption agencies or even politicians to use the data. But we don’t attack anybody as an organisation.
Emmanuel: And here I thought you were the Batman of Malaysian politics.
Khairil: I would say the Wikipedia of Malaysian politicians? We actually try to be just like Wikipedia where they have this neutral point of view guidelines and we aspire to similar guidelines.
Our goal is transparency and if you notice a lot of our data, it is just data on everybody. And we don’t care about which side of the political divide someone is from. For example, if we are doing a project on contracts, our politicians’ database includes both sides so if your name matches, it’s not that we picked that name – it's just that the data matches your name.
So we don’t specifically say we target that person. It’s more likely the case that we are going to run this set of information which are publicly verified or credible or from the government themselves.
And if he or she matches that information, then that’s for that person to answer or for a journalist or politician to use it however they want. We don’t deny anybody to use that information.
One of the criticism levelled towards Sinar Project’s efforts is what they are offering is just names and numbers void of any context. So what if you knew the dealings of a senior public official? Does it matter?
To answer that question, one has to look at how open Malaysia is to publishing statistical information. On paper, the country seems to be on the right track. Despite having limited technical staff, the Statistics Department releases figures regularly. There’s also the Open Data Portal which serves as a repository for all public data. But the choices are limited.
Then, there’s that problem with parliamentarians: they are not required to declare their assets and potential conflicts of interest. What outfits like Sinar does is collect the bits and pieces and aggregate them into one source.
“You might not get information on a contract on a bridge, but you’ll have a news article that announces a bridge being built, and then you’d have a launching ceremony that says something about the build and then Bursa Malaysia might make a public announcement of the contract that this company received.
“So from these bits and pieces, you’d actually have this information.”
Sinar’s approach to building a profile of a particular public figure or official is using a set of data standards. This acts like framework or template and all it needs to do is define what criteria it needs and fill it up. It’s like a form or a CV of sorts.
“In the case of a politician, we are looking at pieces of what we should know about that politician and then we source it from ten different sources to build a profile of a politician. One problem is where actually every piece of information requires a citation, but even these bits and pieces you can pull from our system and they include all the sources from every bit of information.”
This is quite different from a traditional transparent government like in the UK where one gets everything from the UK parliament. But for Malaysia, for something to be credible, data outfits need to actually get these bits and pieces from different sources such as from The Edge or Bursa.
AS FOR THE BLACKLIST, “the criteria applies to both sides. If any of these parties put somebody that fails one of these criteria, they will know that this candidate is on the blacklist,” says Khairil, adding that it is also open to crowdsourced information from YouTube and Facebook.
“This means we can capture a lot of more information. Anybody can video a ceramah, anybody can take pictures of campaign leaflets and either send it to us or post it on YouTube and that again doesn’t require much infrastructure. So, what we will be doing is mostly aggregating information.
“The other interesting this is that we have also been able to download a lot of information through government sites like procurement sites to be able to find out beneficial ownership.”
And on the question of a possible raid by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), Sinar has that sorted, too.
“We have a team on that but since MCMC is censoring sites arbitrarily, we have plans to fall back on. In the worst case scenario of possible being raided, we have a group already planning for those moments on how to keep the site up including having it on overseas servers.
“But I’m hoping that doesn’t happen because if that does happen, then our elections is going to be quite bad.”
Generally, the country lacks credible outfits like Sinar who provides information for both sides of the political divide for anyone to use. Of course whether political parties even understand Sinar’s role is another question altogether.
But its blacklist is timely especially when there are rumours of a low voter turnout. If anything, there’s a survey that found nearly half of Malaysians saying candidates would influence their voting choice more than political parties, up from just one in three in 2013.
If that’s to be believed, then Sinar’s work is going to have some impact come GE14. Ultimately, even the future of Sinar is riding on its ability to pull off the project.
“If this works, and we do get better candidates, it becomes a model that can be reused in other countries as well. And not only that, it would actually provide a hard case to Malaysians of why we are worth any value.
“What worries me more is that we do this and nobody cares. Than it would show that we didn’t have much value and only little impact,” says Khairil.
Maybe the bigger problem here, aside from getting the data on these candidates, is that Malaysians will still vote based on pure resentment and outrage, meaning pushing through a politician regardless of his or her chequered record.
The previous two general elections serve as precedents of how far anti-establishment outrage can go in shaping parliament and politics. There are also problems with patronage, gerrymandering, and malapportionment – all of which influence and shape electoral outcomes.
Can voters see past these and vote based on information packaged to be as neutral as possible? While that question has yet to be answered, it's at least enlightening to know that at one point in time, the country needed a bunch of geeks to make elections great again (yes, pun very much intended).