Life, liberty and Internet access

August 31st, 1999


WHAT would Malaysians of the future, citizens of the Information Society, be like?

The optimistic view is that they would be more engaged in public affairs, actively taking a part in debating public policy and Government decisions on the Internet with their fellow citizens, and even perhaps influencing them to a greater extent than today.

But there is a long way to go before this utopia is reached. More Malaysians will have to get on the Internet. Even before they get there, they also need to develop a culture of debating government decisions, rather than accepting what is handed down. They must also develop the sophistication necessary to debate these issues intelligently.

In turn, the public sector should also be willing to develop new channels of feedback and keep them open, while developing a culture of listening.

"We still have the features of a feudal society," Mimos Bhd's Dr Mohamad Awang-Lah, says of Malaysians in general. "We hold our authority figures too much in awe."

We see our leaders as protectors and elders, he explains, and tend not to speak out because dissent or challenging authority is still considered a form of ingratitude towards our leaders.

Mohamad says that the Malaysia Inc concept of the 80s promoted the concept of dialogue between the public and private sectors. "We are expanding that dialogue now to include a third sector--the community," he adds.

The willingness to speak up is an indicator of expressiveness and creativity in a person, which Mohamad says is what a nation's expressiveness depend on.

And these are factors crucial to national competitiveness in the future, he points out.

Horrible picture!Sabri Zain, a former journalist and corporate media-relations man who now works for an international environmental organisation, is one of several Malaysians actively promoting debate on public issues over the Internet.

He believes that Malaysians are headed, however tentatively, in this direction.

Already, he says, there is a growing number of such websites and chatrooms. Many of them were launched in the charged political atmosphere of late 1998. Some have since died because the site owners lost interest or found they did not have the time to run the site.

But on the whole, it has provided a way for Malaysians to speak out on issues that concern them. In a society with apparent limited avenues of expression, the Internet has compensated for these limitations as a forum for democracy, Sabri says.

He sees this as a positive sign. "A society that learns to ask questions is on its way to debating the issues," he notes.

On its way, but not there yet. Sabri laments the fact that the quality of the debate varies widely from one website or chat forum to another. On soc.culture.malaysia, which is moderated, the debates are known for their liveliness--and uneven quality.

Some participants, particularly the experienced ones, offer articulate and well thought-out positions; many others less so.

Meanwhile, the Free Malaysia website offers an alternative look at current events--alternative, that is, to what one would hear from mainstream print and electronic media.

Indy media

One factor in the Internet's popularity is that it is seen as an alternative to the mainstream media, which in many Malaysians' eyes are strictly regulated in terms of what they may say.

This points to a growing independence of mind among Malaysians--as well as a lack of confidence in mainstream media.

That lack of confidence is due to the perception that these media are overregulated by the authorities, to the extent of being self-censored. Consequently, it is felt that one point of view gets highlighted at the expense of others.

Thus, public credibility and trust in them is weakened, and hence the desire for another point of view.

In order for Malaysians to get the most out of the Internet as a tool for citizenship, several things need to happen.

One of these, of course, is that as many of us as possible should get connected. While there are only rough estimates of the number of Malaysians online, most of them say there are about one million of us online--out of an adult population of about 10 million.

This is well short of a representative fraction, although those who are on the Net frequently serve as a conduit between it and their offline friends, thus extending its reach.

As a society, we also need to make ourselves ready for free speech. We need to nurture free speech, and even dissenting opinions, as a necessary part of democracy in action, rather than discouraging it as a nuisance.

We should also be sophisticated enough to make our own judgments on what is true and what is not--the "cyber rumour-mongering" controversy last year was a wake-up call to those who would regard anything posted on the Net as reliable information.

As individuals, we need to overcome our inhibitions against free speech, and develop our ability to speak out responsibly. This will entail giving people more freedom to decide where they obtain information. It means easing restrictions on the news media that only hamstring its reporting and weaken its credibility.

And we will also have to learn to live with less censorship. Like it or not, the availability of uncensored materials on the Net has begun to make censorship on mainstream media pointless; and it will get more pointless as more Malaysians get online access.

It will be up to families, schools, and religious institutions to invest the time, effort and guidance to instil the inner strength, as well as the knowledge, that young people need if they are to be able to discern the wheat from the abundance of chaff on the Net.

Mutual respect

Preparing ourselves for public discourse will involve learning to respect the social, cultural and religious boundaries that would apply to offline public discourse in Malaysia.

The Government also needs to play a more active role. It needs to embrace the Internet fully, not just as a means of doing business with the public, but also as a channel of communication.

At present, it has tended to leave the Internet as the domain of non-partisan or opposition voices, to the extent that the Government regards it as an inherently hostile platform.

Rather than badmouthing the Net as the playground of those seeking to foment disaffection, Sabri says the Government should shore up the credibility of mainstream media.

The more credible sources of information there are, the better for everyone.

On the governance side of the equation, creating and maintaining a Web presence are all too often tasks that Government agencies leave to their MIS staff, when it is their public relations staff who are responsible for the channels of communication between their organisation and the public.

The result is Government websites that are launched to great fanfare, only to be ignored by the organisation later on. Visitors to the website find oudated news and broken links.

Sabri, whose job with an environmental organisation often requires him to interact with Government agencies, says that his experiences in electronic transactions with them have usually been disappointing.

Such websites represent a lost opportunity for the Government, one it needs to regain as soon as possible. They could have been used to raise productivity by automating transactions between, say, local authorities and citizens.

"Counter services, online payments, anything that can be automated, should be," Sabri says.

"To improve services and administration on the Internet, you need a paradigm shift," he says. "There's no difference between a line of 50 people at a service counter and a backlog of 50 unanswered e-mail messages."

But Sabri and Mohamad are generally optimistic on the future of the Internet as a means to facilitate both governance and citizenship--provided both sides embrace openness and fair comment, and a willingness to trust each other.

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