ICT and Social Activism


ICT consultant, Poomjit or fondly called by her nickname – Moui, lectured me on the behaviors of fellow Thais when it comes to their fascination and obsession of social media. Me being a Malaysian social activist possessing little knowledge of Thailand, I was stunned as she quickly and passionately explained the psyche of Thais and their love for anything that resembles a tablet, BlackBerry and iPhone. As if to prove a point, days later she took me to meet her friends who were equally passionate about gadgets and technology. In South East Asia, there are only two countries that does not have 3G, military-ruled Myanmar and Thailand. Its amazing that for a nation that has not enjoy third generation system, the Thai people are addicted to absorbing ICT like no other country that I have seen in the region.

Anyway, the reason I was in Bangkok was mainly to assist a training of trainers on harm reduction. I had noticed that the participants were equally dependent on ICT for their work with young people who use drugs and substances. These participants are experienced hard-core harm reductionists from Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal and Vietnam. From my discussions with many of them, their primarily method of learning and communicating is through emails, Facebook, SMSes and other social media tools. Building local networks, sharing information and case studies, and work coordination is partially reliant to these available online user-friendly platforms. Gone were the days when you had to contact your peers who live hundreds of kilometers away with a phone and bear an expensive bill at the end of the month. Prevention and intervention work is effectively enhanced through the multimedia channels.

I think many of my fellow Malaysian social advocates are not effectively using the social media to inspire change for community-based campaigns or empowering positive behaviors of the general public on societal concerns such as poor public health approach, disability, indigenous people living in rural areas, street children roaming the city, violence against women, and the list goes on. Though to be fair to the Malaysian political activists, they effectively used ICT to coordinate and report on the recent Bersih 2.0 demonstrations. Anyway there are obvious advantages for the synergy between social activism and ICT, especially within the concept of a border-less world, one of it is education based on best practices with our peers in the region. Accessing pdf, documents, photos, films and interactive social media like Skype, Gtalk and Twitter allows the activist to learn and share as much as possible in a relatively short period compared to 1989 when I started my career on disaster relief aid work, using and writing reports with a pencil and armed with an eraser. So much has changed. Even ‘writing’ this article was done with an old but trustworthy Nokia E71.

I believe that ICT will change the mechanism of social engineering, especially when activists and civil society fully comprehend and utilise the resources to empower the marginalised community in improving the quality of life or even in areas of participation and decision-making. Yes, many rural-based folks and the poor and homeless in the cities do not have access to computers, much less a cell phone. Accessibility to these equipment is important for communication. I believe we should start advocating for government, civil society, corporations and funders to place the technical expertise and much-needed money on building or strengthening the infrastructure thus allowing us to connect people. But at this point of time, I have not seen such groups or people doing so. We are still disabled when it comes to almost inaccessible community like those living in hardship in plantations, indigenous villages or in fishing settlements. Mobilsation of support services is not possible as people are unaware of their needs and concerns.

I remember my conversation with Moui regarding the possibility of tapping into ICT to enable a conducive environment for social workers and activists to do their work efficiently and advocate for change with the stakeholders. Our discussion (or at times was more like a debate) was lively and animated, however the thought of the benefits and the project prospects was stimulating and encouraging.

Leaving Bangkok was tough, I learned a lot from Moui (((hugs))) and those who are living, surrounded by intense challenges, hardship and poverty. I am more determined to fully utilise ICT to improve myself, and my future.


An avid blogger, twitterer and photojournalist, Zashnain Zainal suffers from an incurable addiction to social work, helping marginalised communities since 1989. Nowadays he travels from the plantations of Malaysia to the slums of Thailand. He can be found at zashnain.com and @bedlamfury

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