Malaysia: Clouding The Net Vision

1999

Dr Eric G.S. Loo

To the Malaysian government, embracing the Internet comes with the risk of losing control over public discourse. However, as the government recently admitted, controlling a medium that was originally designed for classified military intelligence communication is problematic.

Faced with Singapore's and Hong Kong's race to set up its own 'cyber-ports', Malaysia is rethinking its position on how to resuscitate dying overseas interest in setting up shop in its 750 square kilometre 'multimedia supercorridor' (MSC) in Selangor. Mahathir's recent declaration to let the Internet regulate itself reads like a pragmatic step taken out of economic necessity to divert overseas attention away from Hong Kong and Singapore back to Malaysia.

While the Internet may not necessarily be the only influential information network system in Malaysia, its short history as a realtime information disseminator makes it central to the government's attempt to create a 'smart' society. Mahathir has often tagged the MSC as his vision of modernity to leapfrog the country into a 'smart' knowledge society by the year 2020.

Theoretically, underpinning the MSC's potential success is the principle of unfettered, borderless, intellectual engagement - a radical departure from the traditionally rigid structure of governance and hierarchical communication in Malaysia. In reality, there are doubts that the MSC operative principle will necessarily lead to open critical discourse in the public domain.

As recent comers to the Internet, Malaysians who have migrated or are currently studying overseas, particularly in Australia and the United States, have tasted an intellectual revival without fear of prosecution through easier and cheaper access to adversarial political discussions on the Internet. Web sites located in overseas servers are currently the only alternative fora where Malaysians can voice their concerns in ways that were impossible in the mainstream media back home. Here lies the channelling potential of the Internet for political and social change in Malaysia.

Malaysian universities have continued to churn out graduates in computer science, multimedia and information technology since the MSC hype in 1991. Civil servants are being placed on retraining schemes to prepare for a 'paperless' government. Selective 'smart' schools have been identified to apply information technology throughout their curriculum and instruction methodology.

However, the cultural snag is that governmental bureaucracy, academic ethos and discursive environment is still heavily shrouded by a 'sulit' (secrecy) syndrome as far as information sharing and knowledge generation is concerned. Communication behaviour and cognitive development from within the family environment to schools, community and governments were built on a tradition of polite deference to authority. Leapfrogging into the Internet age without parallel structural, intellectual and cultural transformations in governance and public discourse could indeed cloud the vision of a 'smart' knowledge society.

WATCHPOINT: Will there continue to be a gap between government policies on technological openness and information secrecy?

 

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