Can online petitions actually make a difference in Bolehland?

Zameen Datta, 23 Jan 2017

It seems that every time we log onto Facebook, we’re presented with new petitions to sign. “Save the Whales!”, “Ban computer games!”, “Support our charity!” – all these and more vie for our attention and signatures both physical and electronic.

While the majority of them will probably be ignored or deleted from your screen, some of them may interest you enough to read and sign. But does signing a petition actually do anything apart from giving you warm fuzzy feelings and the satisfaction of doing something good?

Let’s take a look at some of the popular petitions in the past…

Malaysia Wants Coldplay Petition (2016)

Signatures

Did it work?

Maybe.

While Coldplay still has no plans to stop by Malaysia, They have, however, increased another show in Singapore due to “overwhelming demand”, giving regional fans more chances to enjoy their music.

Petition to stop Malaysia’s barbaric method of getting rid of strays (2014)

Signatures

Did it make a difference?

Yes.

In 2015, Malaysia passed the Animal Welfare Act which has stricter punishments for animal abusers. The new act imposes a minimum of RM20, 000 and possible jail time to convicted offenders, a hundred times more expensive compared to the previously used Animal Act of 1953. Many activists saw the new legislation as a step forward, though they were still concerned about the fact that mandatory sterilization of pets was not added to the act.

No to Parking Fee Increase and Abolishment of Maximum Parking Charge (2010)

In 2010, the management of Mid Valley Megamall decided to increase their parking rates by almost 200% and remove the maximum rate of RM 6. This drew complaints and criticism from many tenants who felt that the increase was unjustified. A petition was started which eventually managed to gather 402 signatures.

Signatures

Did it change their minds?

No.

The management at Mid Valley decided to keep their new parking rates. Drivers are charged either RM 2 (weekday) or RM 3 (weekend) for the first 3 hours and an additional RM 1 for each subsequent hour. There is no maximum rate, so the longer you stay the higher your fee becomes. The new parking rate remains to this day.

Why do some petitions succeed while others fail?

You see, a petition by itself isn’t going to change anything. Even if a million people sign a petition saying that robbing a bank should be legal, the cops will still arrest you if you and your friends try to rob a bank.

A petition has four main purposes:

  • To draw attention to a problem
  • Gather a list of people who are interested in this problem
  • Send a signal that lots of people want this problem to be fixed
  • Inspire additional action to help fix this problem

So handing in a petition to the authorities is simply telling them “Hey, all these people don’t like this situation. You need to do something about it.

“Slacktivism”

The rise of online petitions have caused an increase in “slactivists”.

“Slactivist” is a word used to describe people who claim to support a certain cause but are unwilling to actually put any effort into championing it. They’ll click likes and sign petitions, but aren’t willing to go out to protest or take part in active events.

Part of the reason for this is simply the fact that people have their own lives to lead. Most people are too busy working and earning money to spend a lot of time or energy on activism. Even if they’re concerned about something, only the most dedicated people are willing to take time off to go and protest for something that might not even affect them directly.

Online petitions allow more people to get involved, giving them a chance to express their views without forcing them to change their lifestyles in order to campaign.

Does the government have to listen to a petition if it gets enough signatures?

Petitions give the common citizens a platform to be heard. It allows them to send a message to those in power, letting them know if they’re doing something that will negatively affect a lot of people.

But do they have to listen?

In the UK, the government has a system in place to deal with petitions, including the website http://petition.parliament.uk/. If a petition collects 10,000 signatures, they will receive a response from the government. If a petition collects 100,000 signatures, it will be debated in parliament unless the issue has already been debated recently or is planned to be debated in the near future.

The USA has something similar: http://petitions.whitehouse.gov/ is a website that allows people to make petitions online and “speak directly to the Administration”.

At the moment, Malaysia does not have anything like this. Petitions in Malaysia are handed over to the government official closest to the issue, who then gets to decide what to do with it. No matter how many signatures a petition receives, it is not guaranteed a response. If the receiver simply decides to ignore your petition, there’s not much you can do about it.

Why even bother to sign if it’s not going to work?

Because petitions are simply the first step.

There’s a reason why social campaigns are known as “movements”. Like a car, they require energy to move forward. A petition is like a spark, a reaction to an event or circumstance that the public finds unacceptable.

Because they can make a difference

A successful petition serves as a peaceful outlet for the people’s anger while drawing them together to fight for a cause greater than themselves. It brings the issue to the forefront, raising awareness and informing the receiver about how strongly the public feels about the issue.

While petitions fail to gain the momentum they need to succeed, there is a growing body of literature showing how effective it can be. In particular, organizations or individuals who are accountable to public opinion are more willing to listen to petitions since bad publicity can have such a strong negative effect on them.

Large petitions can also have unintentional side effects – drawing attention from the international community, inspiring signers to take further action or even incentivising other organizations to change their behavior.

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