TED Fellows

Fellows Friday with Premesh Chandran

Posted by:

Founder of Malaysia’s most popular independent online news source, Premesh Chandran continues to connect and empower citizens despite the personal risks.
Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via TED Conversations. This week, Prem  asks:

We’re coming up with easy tools to build exciting online maps — what stuff would you like to see on a map?
Respond here

People say your independent online news source, Malaysiakini, was instrumental in establishing a two-party system in Malaysia.

Up until recently, Malaysia had a single-coalition government ruling party in control since the country became independent in 1957.  2008 was the first time, the ruling party lost a two-thirds majority: they won less than two-thirds of the total seats in the Federal system. They also lost control of five states. It was the biggest defeat ever for the ruling party.

The evidence shows that Malaysiakini and the Internet played a major role in generating the political change in the country. Obviously it’s not just us doing this work, however. There are key political parties that formed over the last ten years. Civil society has grown and played a major role. Yet most people agree that without the opportunity of the Internet, that change would not have happened. The Prime Minister himself, after being asked what he thought went wrong, said his single biggest mistake was to underestimate the power of the Internet.

In Malaysia, Malaysiakini is by far the biggest online news organization. We have covered practically every major story in the country for the last 10 years. We’re also the most popular online news source in the country: we’ve now reached 2.5 million readers per month. We are published in four languages: English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil, which are the four key languages in Malaysia.

What are the risks you run by operating Malaysiakini, and what compelled you to found Malaysiakini despite those risks?

There is great risk: laws that allow for detention in jail without the right to a trial, or media laws like sedition that allow you to be jailed, depending on what you publish.

In the late 1980s, when I was an undergrad studying physics in Australia, I became a social activist. At that time, Asian students were at the forefront of the protests for democracy. With the Tiananmen Square massacre, students challenging Suharto in Indonesia, protests against the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines … everywhere in Asia young people were changing the political shape of the continent.

A lot of students like me had come from all over Asia to study in Australia, and it was obviously a very hot discussion about what was happening in our countries, what did it really mean, and what we could contribute. It was a phenomenal education about politics, ideology, and other crosscutting issues.

In Malaysia we have laws that render traditional media outlets very controlled by the government. But in 1995 the government officially decided to keep the Internet free of censorship. Following the “reformasi” protests in 1998, my former colleague Steven Gan and I decided to set up an independent online news source. Steven and I have been arrested and jailed before, but that’s very much a part of what social activism is about. You have to accept certain risks in order to voice dissent.

Malaysia has some laws based on race. As an ethnically Indian Malaysian, how have those laws affected you?

In Malaysia’s constitution, it defines certain Malays and indigenous groups as “Bhumiputera,” which literally translates to “son of the soil.” The constitution actually gives special preferences to Malays. We are one of the few countries in the world that has a race-based constitution.

So although I am a citizen of Malaysia, I have different rights than Malay Malaysians. Often when you’re very young you’re not really aware of it, but when it comes to getting in to universities or applying to jobs, you become particularly aware that there are differences in terms of citizenship in the country. That’s when the discrimination really hits you.

I was particularly affected when my father’s business was not allowed to grow because he was ethnically Indian. Eventually my parents had such a difficult time that they migrated to Australia.

There are lots of other people in Malaysia who have it far worse, however. I come from a middle class background. The working class and other communities not only face ethnic discrimination, but because of their class background, they don’t have access to basic facilities. You can see acute differences in how people are treated based on race. That kind of inequality colors my desire to fight against injustice and to remedy the institution.

What things can we expect to see from Malaysiakini going forward?

In regards to news, we’re heading towards another election, and it’s going to be a very interesting one. We’ll see if the government can recover the ground it lost last time. There’s been a lot of political upheaval in the country since 2008. The old prime minister resigned, there’s a new prime minister, there have been protests, there have been arrests … a huge number of activities going on in the country, and Malaysiakini’s been in the thick of things, so these are very interesting times.

One thing Malaysiakini is doing as an entity is promoting citizen journalism. Since 2008 we’ve trained over 300 citizen journalists. They are now producing thousands of videos and articles from their own countries, towns, and cities that can be viewed on www.cj.my.

What I want to do is ensure that citizen journalism happens everywhere, and not just on our site. We set up four chapters in four towns. This citizen journalism is not just eye-witness reports where citizens go out and take a picture and are done. It’s citizens exploring issues, understanding issues, and reporting it like a journalist would report it: being balanced, having credibility, and keeping it fact-based. It’s been a huge movement in the last couple of years, with quite outstanding results.

In Kinilabs you incubate new projects that promote the mission of Malaysiakini. What are you working on now?

We’re developing two new technologies that we hope to bring to market next year. One is called Jiranku, which translates to “my neighbor.” Jiranku is a mobile app that enables devices to link up directly with each other without a wifi network, 3G, etc. It’s a new type of communication between devices — laptops and mobile phones. Within a closed “society” you will be able to exchange files, share videos, and share photographs, even if you aren’t connected to the Internet. It will be a very useful application, especially in this part of the world, which doesn’t have 3G in excess.

The other thing we are doing is called FeedGeorge, which works with geolocated data. There are lots of online maps these days, and going forward we’re seeing data and maps coming together. With FeedGeorge we take all kinds of data —  SMS data, Twitter feed data, foursquare data, traffic jams data, health hazard data, videos from YouTube, and photographs from Flickr — and combine it with maps, so people can learn about what’s happening in the particular location they are in.

Currently these data sets are static — you aren’t easily able to apply them to maps. With FeedGeorge you can combine data with the maps, and keep updating it, and engage with other data sets and maps. Everyone is tracking different sets of data, but with FeedGeorge we are tracking data together.

For example, if a hurricane is going to hit Atlanta or Miami, which US companies will have their stock go down? You can plot all the companies based on where they are, and you can say well, if it hits here or here, these stocks are going to go down. That’s an example of how one app can work off another app: weather patterns, stock market prices, and the projected returns on these companies.

We are already pumping our data — Malaysiakini news stories — into FeedGeorge. So you can see where the news stories are, you can see stories around these stories, and you can see related stories, sorted by geographical region, and things like that. But the new version of FeedGeorge will be much more advanced than that. 

You’ve said that in 10 years you want to transition away from Malaysiakini so it doesn’t suffer from Founder’s syndrome. What do you want to transition to?

At the moment, we’re trying to get Malaysiakini on stronger financial footing and to institutionalize its independence, precisely so it does not depend on the founders. I think once I do that, I will look at a few more ideas about what I want to do.

But something a couple friends and I have started to do outside of Malaysiakini is a program called AllStars. It’s an idea like TechStars, or Y Combinator, where a bunch of entrepreneurs are put through a program with mentors to help them accelerate their start-ups.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What one piece of advice would you give them, based on your own experience and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation’s Social Citizens blog.

I do a lot of entrepreneurial training, I speak a lot about entrepreneurship, and I also speak a lot about social entrepreneurship.

A lot of the rules and the experiences of social entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship apply in both areas. It’s still about being an entrepreneur. It’s about the idea, the concept, the execution, about resilience, about how to build teamwork, leadership … every single thing you learn about entrepreneurship also applies to social entrepreneurship. I’m very much a proponent of social entrepreneurship, but I tell everyone that just because you’re a social entrepreneur, that doesn’t make you any less an entrepreneur.

A lot of social entrepreneurs have experience in the non-profit world or charity work, and they don’t understand what it means to be an entrepreneur. Approach social entrepreneurship with a capital “E.”