KUALA LUMPUR: In a vast office at the top of one of the world's tallest buildings, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sits at a broad, glass-topped desk, scribbling his thoughts on a pad of unlined paper.
For 22 years Mahathir was the most powerful person in this land, and his thoughts were commands as he reshaped the country in his own grand image.
But he has become an irritant and a spoiler five years after stepping down, turning against his handpicked successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and he has fallen victim to the press controls he perfected as prime minister.
It is mainly a system of self-censorship in an atmosphere of pressure and intimidation that produces an obedient press and has seen the closure or banning of many publications.
"Where is the press freedom?" he exclaimed two years ago, apparently surprised to be suddenly ignored. "Broadcast what I have to say! What I say is not even accurately published in the press!"
Earlier this year, like many other inconvenient critics, he joined what seems to be a political wave of the future, creating his own acerbic blog - www.chedet.com - an online journal where he vents in both English and Malay several times a week.
Around the region, bloggers like him are becoming a fifth estate, challenging the government's monopoly on information in Singapore, evading censors in Vietnam and influencing events in places like Thailand, Cambodia and China.
In March, political experts say, Malaysia's bloggers helped tip the balance, contributing to the biggest upset the governing party, the United Malays National Organization, had suffered since independence in 1957. For the first time in decades, it fell below two-thirds of the seats in Parliament, and it lost control of 5 of 13 states.
Two months after that, in May, Mahathir went digital, cutting and thrusting with elan.
"It is time the so-called intellectuals realize they were being duped by the Master of Spin," he wrote on Aug. 21, referring to his bitter enemy, Anwar Ibrahim, who was his deputy prime minister and now leads the opposition.
"The pious Muslim, who is also the bosom pal of Paul Wolfowitz, the neo-con Jew, the killer of Muslims," he said, referring to the former U.S. deputy secretary of defense.
Blogging on Sept. 3, he offered a sort of mission statement.
Many people are with him as he harasses the government, he asserted. "But they are not prepared to say it openly. That was why I started my blog. About six million had visited my blog site and tens of thousands have commented and supported me."
In case anyone doubts this, he posts the comments, by the dozens and hundreds, page after page, day after day. It turns out he has a lot of fans out there.
"Amazingly brilliant!" reads one comment. "I can't stop laughing... you made my day Sir!"
"HAHAHAHA :) ...This is your BEST posting so far, my dear Tun!!" reads another, referring to Mahathir by an honorific.
"Dearest Tun," reads another, "You are sooooo right.. spot on.. bulls eye.."
And just to clear up any possible misunderstanding, another writes: "You, sir, are the most brilliant politician Malaysia has ever been blessed with."
In the upheaval of the March election, several bloggers, following an opposite trajectory from that of Mahathir, used their online popularity to win seats in the national or state parliaments.
The most prominent was Jeff Ooi, 52, a former advertising copywriter who was one of Malaysia's first political bloggers, in 2003, at www.jeffooi.com.
"The government doesn't have a clue how to handle bloggers," he said in an interview. "If I were a dictator I would be despairing. What do you do against this?"
The government's assault on Ooi - "very hostile," he said - included threats of imprisonment without trial, attacks in the government-friendly press and defamation lawsuits, which are popular among leaders in Southeast Asia.
But that only seemed to make him a hero, and when he decided to run for Parliament with the opposition Democratic Action Party, he already had a big head start.
"As a person that has consistently faced threats as a blogger, I had a kind of iconism and imagery that this is someone you can trust, someone the government fears, someone you need to put into Parliament," he said.
But he said it is much harder to blog from the inside. "The trade-off is that I have to write with measured words," he said. "I am no longer my old self. I thought I had to take it to a higher level, and a lot of readers are getting disappointed. It isn't the same blogger that they used to know."
Earlier this year, Ooi said, he attended a public forum with Mahathir, and he claims that he is the one who persuaded the old war horse to get blogging.
"I threw him a challenge," Ooi said. "A blogger shares a few prerequisites. One, he is strongly opinionated. Two, he could be controversial. And, thirdly, he is an agent provocateur on issues.
"I thought Mahathir fulfilled all three."
The result, Ooi said, was "a miracle, he scored about 10 million visitors within months."
Now, a convert to free speech, Mahathir is using his blog to champion the most recent victim of government censorship, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, the country's highest-profile blogger, who posts his slash-and-burn commentary on his site, www.malaysia-today.net. The site has been blocked, but readers are redirected to another address, which continues to be updated.
The government has fallen back on the kind of tactics that Ooi said it threatened against him, charging Raja Petra with sedition and locking him up for two years without trial for comments he has posted.
Mahathir, the country's former strongman, sounded almost like Che Guevara when he said in his blog that the arrest showed "a degree of oppressive arrogance worthy of a totalitarian state."
Furthermore, locking people up is futile, he said in an interview in his sky-high office. There is no way the government can arrest all the bloggers, even if it wants to.
At least, he said, "I hope so. Otherwise I'll be in, too."
6 months ago