The 2018 midterm elections will be held next month in the U.S., but earlier this year a Blugold alum had a front-row seat to a historic election 9,000 miles from Eau Claire.
For the first time since Malaysia gained its independence in 1957, the country is being governed by a party other than the Barisan Nasional. Geraldine Tong, a 2014 UW-Eau Claire journalism graduate, was front and center for the contentious and historic election.
Tong works for Malaysiakini, an online news site that focuses on politics and human rights issues in Malaysia.
“An important thing to note about Malaysiakini is that we are very protective of our independence,” Tong said. “We have no corporate or political backing or links whatsoever. This made us quite unpopular with the previous government, that had direct or indirect control of almost all the mainstream media in Malaysia.”
The election, held May 9, saw the defeat of Najib Razak, leader of the Barisan Nasional, in favor of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, former prime minister and leader of the Alliance of Hope Coalition. During the election, Tong was stationed in Malacca, covering the candidate’s campaigns as they crossed the country seeking the public’s vote.
“I covered a huge rally held along a row of shop lots by the side of the roads. It was an Alliance of Hope rally and it featured Mahathir, other leaders of the alliance and several prominent figures,” recalled Tong. “I estimated the crowd to be around 10,000 people at its peak and the mood in the air was electric. The crowd could not stop cheering.”
Not only was the election significant because of the change in party but it was also a rebuke of the corruption under Razak. Razak is currently in the middle of one of the biggest corruption scandals the world has ever seen. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that as much as $4.5 billion was stolen from taxpayers in Malaysia by Razak and his party.
“This election sent a strong warning to those in power,” Tong said. “No matter how invincible you think you are, with all the gerrymandering, malapportionment, voter suppression and so on, the people can and will make their voices heard.”
Tong credits her time at UW-Eau Claire with helping her not only get her job at Malaysakini, but also with instilling in her the knowledge and values needed to be a good journalist.
“I think one of the most important things that stood out to my employer when I applied for Malaysiakini was that I understood how important it is for the press to remain independent and free so that it can be an effective fourth estate,” Tong said. “In a country like Malaysia where news was so often controlled by the state, a free press would not have been a priority for most people. But UW-Eau Claire taught me the importance of an independent press for a democracy.”
From day one, journalism students at UW-Eau Claire are taught about the critical role journalists play in a free society. Jan Larson, chair of the communication and journalism department, loves to hear that students are using the skills and values they learn at UW-Eau Claire when they’re out covering elections, whether in the U.S. or abroad.
"It's always exciting how our Blugold journalism alums use what they've learned in the classroom in their work serving the public,” Larson said. “The same commitment Geraldine showed during her journalism classes at UW-Eau Claire serves her and her readers well in Malaysia. Whether covering local news for an Eau Claire outlet or moving across an ocean to cover an election in Malaysia, Blugold journalism alums like Geraldine can be confident that they're getting the knowledge they need to do good journalism."
In addition to her former professors, current international students enjoy hearing and seeing how Blugold alumni are putting what they learned in Eau Claire to use in their home country.
“I find it amazing that Geraldine covered such a historic event that has changed the government for the first time since independence,” said Aruwin Santherasegaren, a current Blugold from Malaysia. “It goes to show that we have good quality teaching in Eau Claire, and we can use what we learn here in our work environment back home.”
As Blugold alumni get set to start covering the midterm elections in their areas, Tong wishes them luck and reminds them what they owe to their readers and viewers.
“We are not in the business of helping anyone win,” Tong said. “We are here to help people make an informed decision and to keep our potential representatives honest. So good luck, all the best and have fun!”
Top photo caption: Blugold journalism graduate Geraldine Tong covered an Alliance of Hope rally while on assignment for Malaysiakini, an online news site in Malaysia.