(Kuala Lumpur, Sunday): When the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamed gave a two-and-a-half-hour long briefing and dialogue session with Barisan Nasional leaders on social ills and the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) on March 11, a newspaper reported that although the MSC was explained at length by the Prime Minister, only one question on the MSC was asked from the floor - reflecting their poor grasp of the subject.
The situation would not be so bad when Parliament reconvenes tomorrow as a total of 74 questions on the MSC have been tabled for the 26-day meeting, 11 of them on the first working day on Tuesday itself.
What should be of concern is that apart from the questions on the MSC, and 32 questions on computer education in schools which overlap with the MSC flagship application of “smart schools”, there are very few other questions about the InformationTechnology (IT), giving the impression that in Malaysia, IT is MSC and MSC is IT.
In fact, I would not be too wrong if I say that the prevalent perception among Malaysians is that IT and MSC are synonymous, and that when the government talks about promoting IT, it is nothing more than about promoting MSC. How can ordinary Malaysians be faulted when even MPs virtually equate IT development with MSC.
This seems to constitute the crux of the problem in any discussion about the National IT Agenda, to confuse the part for the whole, as however important and ambitious the RM5 billion MSC project, it can only be a part and not be the whole of the National IT Agenda.
The MSC may be the crown jewel of the National Information Infrastructure (NII) which Malaysia must build if we are to make the transition to the Information Society, but it is not the NII - which in the widest definition, would include four components, namely: (I) telecommunications networks; (ii)computer systems, televisions, fax machines, telephones and other information appliances; (iii) software, information services and databases; and (iv) trained people who can build, maintain and operate these systems.
The Seventh Malaysia Plan, presented to Parliament in May last year, referred to a IT national action plan to be formulated by the National Information Technology Council (NITC) to “chart the necessary steps to promote the development of Malaysia into an IT hub and will outline the scope, size and schedule of plans and programmes as well as identify the necessary infrastructure support in terms of education and training. The plan will also identify the undertakings and contributions of both the public and private sector.”
Our distinguished panellist, the MIMOS Executive Chairman, Tengku Azzman has done a lot of great work on such a National IT Plan, and will be making a presentation at this Conference on the National IT Agenda, but the regrettable fact is that eleven months have passed since the adoption of the Seventh Malaysia Plan by Parliament but the Malaysian national IT plan has not been finalised.
It has been said that a human year is about five Internet years, and this would mean that we have lost about five Internet years and have not yet finalised the national IT plan.
This delay in finalising the National IT plan should not continue. Singapore took nine months to finalise its IT2000 Plan in 1991 - its vision to be “among the first countries in the world with an advanced nationwide information infrastructure” - which stood out from other information technology plans from its very beginning as it was conceived at a time when the Internet itself had yet to become a widespread tool for information retrieval.
In the past year, the MSC had completely overshadowed the National IT Agenda and the National IT Plan. While it is exciting that the MSC would have a high-capacity, fully digital telecommunications infrastructure, such as a fibre-optic backbone with 2.5-10 gigabits per second capacity, would this development be at the expense of the development of the National Information Infrastructure which could provide high-speed, universal and affordable access to all Malaysians throughout the country, and not just in the 15 km by 50 km MSC.
This fundamental question concerns the issue as to whether the MSC is compatible with the principle of “universal, affordable and equitable access” of the Information Superhighway to ensure that there is no new division of Malaysians into the “information-rich” and the “information-poor”, or in this case, an oasis of information-prosperity in the MSC against a national backdrop of comparative information backwardness or even poverty.
I believe that the biggest defect about the national IT development in the country is the lack of a coherent and integrated National IT policy and strategy based on a national consensus about the importance of Malaysia making the transition to the Information Society, that IT is not just about technology or commercial considerations but how to improve the quality of life of all Malaysians and that in the new millennium, the line between success and failure of nations is digital.
The Internet, for instance, is a powerful tool, not a solution. As Nicholas Negroponte said in Being Digital, “Computing is not about computers any more. It is about living.”
In the ultimate analysis, the IT revolution must be about people, how it would completely change the way people work, live, learn and play, and not about the power of microprocessors or bandwidths. This is why any National IT Policy, Strategy and Plan must be people-centred and not project-centred or MSC-centred.
The phrases “IT” and “Information Society” have not become part of the Malaysian public’s vocabulary. There is widespread fear of the computer or technophobia, particularly those above 40, highlighting the lack of attention and efforts to break down the social, educational and psychological barriers creating the fears of the unknown and suspicion of the new which are serious handicaps to gain the potential benefits offered by the new information and communication technologies to improve the quality of life of Malaysians.
How many MPs who are going to pass the first batch of cyberlaws in the forthcoming Parliament really understand IT or how it would impact on the lives of ordinary people in the decades to come?
There are still many people who know nothing about IT or who cannot understand the importance or relevance of IT - wanting to know how IT is going to help farmers, hawkers or workers to immediately increase their incomes
This is best reflected by the TV interview given by the Prime Minister last month when he realised that very few Malaysians understood the MSC, but the questions in the interview were not so much on MSC, but on the IT revolution as a whole, showing that very few Malaysians still undertand what IT is all about.
Although the government embraced IT in May 1993 when it set up the National Information Technology Council to be its think-tank and adviser in the co-ordination and leadership in the planning and management of IT as a strategic tool for national socio-economic development, we must concede that neither our people nor our institutions nor most of our companies are really prepared for the new information technologies.
Let me give two illustrations. Parliament put up a homepage in May last year not because it wants to be in the forefront of the digital revolution but just to shut me up from repeatedly complaining in the Dewan Rakyat about Parliament having no website and being a “dinosaur refusing to bestir from its pre-IT stupor when the country is preparing to enter the Information Age”.
In December last year, I told Parliament that it might be better to close down the Parliamentary homepage unless it could be more than an archive, and be interactive and contain current topics like the business and record of Parliament, the daily Notice Papers, the Order of Business and Daily Programme, the Parliamentary Questions and Answers, a Hansard retrieval programme, the House Votes and Proceedings, Committee transcripts, etc. There has been no improvement since then.
This may be why the Parliamentary Homepage has been able to attract only 4,800 visits since it was webbed in May last year, despite using a web counter which is activated with every reloading!
The Parliament homepage is not only unable to be interactive with the public, it is also not interactive with MPs, as Members of Parliament are not consulted or involved in any manner with its conception, construction or content.
This IT disease of the Parliamentary homepage is also suffered by many Ministries and government agencies, which put up websites on the Internet not because they want to provide better online information and services, but so as not to be seen as IT-illiterate or backward - completely without the mindset required for an Information Society.
A second illustration are the cyberbills to be presented to the Parliamentary meeting beginning tomorrow. Four cyberbills have been mentioned, on digital signatures, computer crimes, multimedia intellectual property and telemedicine development.
At minimum, an “Information Society” is one where information are increasingly accessible and democratic and where citizens can be fully engaged in the government decision-making process.
However, the cyberbills have been formulated in the greatest secrecy and neither the public, MPs nor the professional organisations directly affected by the cyberbills like the Bar Council or the Malaysian Medical Association had been consulted in any manner.
I had tried to contact the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister to ask for the cyberbills so that public feedbacks could be given at this IT Conference. Although Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim had assured me personally on Friday that the granting of my request should not be a problem, and left instructions to his office to arrange for me to get copies of the cyberbills yesterday as he had to leave for Karachi for the OIC Conference, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office was unable to get me the cyberbills although it tried the whole morning yesterday.
I do not know whether the problem lay with the Ministry of Energy, Telecommunications and Posts or the Attorney-General’s Chambers but what is clear is that there is a need for an indoctrination of the Cabinet Ministers and top government officers to prepare them to acquire the mindset appropriate for the development of an information society.
As it is, despite all the hypes about IT, the Information Society and the Information Age, Malaysia is not heading towards an Information Society but an OSA society, where all government information are classified as “official secrets”, and anyone who have unauthorised access would be guilty of an offence which entails a mandatory minimum jail sentence for one year.
A country with such an OSA law cannot be serious in wanting to make the transition towards an Information Society, and the repeal of such and other similar restrictive legislation is clearly a prerequisite before Malaysia can become an information society.
I had hoped that with the introduction of the first batch of cyberlaws, the government would take the first step towards an Information Society by making use of information technologies to consult citizens on a wide range of issues, and even posting the cyberbills on the Internet to welcome feedbacks and inputs from the larger cybercommunity. In fact, as a result of IT, it is now easier and faster to post publications on the Internet than to print out the hard copies, and this is why I had proposed that the government should post the cyberbills on the Internet. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister’s speeches are readily available on the net, but there seems to be still great reluctance to post government information on the net to get public feedbacks and inputs.
May be the time has come for Malaysians who want to see the early advent of the “information society” where information can become accessible for anyone, in any form, and anywhere to band together to promote its development. As a first step, they could help the government to post all the cyberbills on the net and to promote discussion, research and advise on proposed laws affecting the Internet and cyberspace, whether on-line or otherwise.
This should be a challenge to all Malaysians who can agree on the need for a community-based organization to become involved in the establishment of a national agenda for the delivery of data communication services to and within the Malaysian community-at-large. Such a community based organisation should be able to help in the formulation and implementation of the National IT Agenda and Action Plan.
I hope there would be some takers in this challenge even from some of the participants at this conference today.
Malaysia urgently needs a National IT Agenda and an Action Plan. DAP proposes that the country should formulate a IT 2005 Rolling Action Plan to chart the Malaysian Way to an Information Society which should include a mid-term framework for the year 2,000.
Let me briefly summarise what I see as eight important features which should be considered for incorporation in such a National IT Agenda and Action Plan.
Firstly, to create a national consensus on the critical importance of Malaysia making the transition to the Information Society.
Through all of human history from its earliest beginnings until now, there have been only three basic stages of economic life: (1) hunting-and-gathering societies; (2) agricultural societies; and (3) industrial societies. Now, looming over the horizon, is something entirely new, the fourth stage of social organization: information societies.
The Agricultural Revolution took millenia to do its work, the impact of the Information Revolution spread over centuries, but the Information Revolution will happen within a lifetime.
During the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the citizens of those countries who were able to industrialise fastest reaped the greatest rewards from the changes. The same holds true with the advent of the Information Revolution and Malaysians must have the vision and will to be among those countries which informatise fastest to reap the greatest rewards in the new millennium in enhancing both our competitive advantages in the global marketplace as well as the quality of life of Malaysians.
Secondly, to ensure an active public participation in the creation of the information society. A few days ago, the Minister for Energy, Telecommunications and Posts, Datuk Leo Moggie said that the drafting of a Multimedia Convergence Bill had been delayed till the end of the year as the government wanted to learn how other countries are dealing with the convergence of broadcasting, telecommunications and computing.
It is not just the government, but the whole citizenry, which must keep abreast with the latest IT developments all over the world so as the better to influence the transition to a information society in Malaysia.
There is a need for humility to admit that Malaysia is comparatively backward in our IT infrastructures as compared to other developed nations. A recent publication, The Race to the Intelligent State, placed Malaysia as No. 67 out of 147 countries in its Infrostructure Index, and although the author admitted that this is a “crude, and admittedly incomplete and somewhat out of date, index of accessibility of information” of the countries in the list, it should spur us to greater efforts in the IT race.
This is because there is no dispute that Malaysia lags behind many other countries in IT-literacy. For instance, according to the World Competitiveness Yearbook 1996, Malaysia is ranked number 29 for “computer power per capita” - i.e. MIPS (millions of instructions per second) per 1,000 people out of 46 countries, while the top twelve nations are the USA, Norway, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Singapore and Switzerland.
The Global Competitiveness Report 1996 ranked Malaysia as number 26 for “computers per capita”, while the top 12 nations are the USA, Australia, Canada, Norway, Finland, New Zealand, Denmark, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Ireland, Singapore and Germany.
Last year, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) ranked Malaysia as number 28 in terms of their “multi-media readiness”by comparing the provision of telephone lines and the uptake of televisions and computer per head.
There is also a need for Malaysians to be generally informed of the latest IT developments and to understand how they would impact on our information society plans, for instance, the move by the United States into High-Performance Computing and Communications, Information Technology and the Next Generation Internet and the US$9 billion plan by American company, Teledesic Corp. to provide planetary high-speed Internet access through a constellation of 840 satellites covering the globe.
Public involvement in the evolution of an information society is a vital condition for national success in the information age, as with the glut of information, the government’s role as the end-all, be-all and know-all is even less sustainable. In fact, there are those who predict that the information society will lead to the end of nation-states in a few decades as the new information and communication technologies are more subversive of the modern state than any political threat it had ever faced - but this must be the subject of another forum.
Thirdly, the people must be the centre of the National IT Agenda and Action Plan by giving the people the know-how to use the new information appliances and applications. This is why a “IT For All” nation-wide campaign to popularise IT-literacy, accompanied by a “One Family, One Computer” programme, should be the centrepiece of the National IT Action Plan to educate the people that IT and computers are nothing to be afraid of and to remove the social, educational and psychological barriers to people who would like to know more about using the information technologies.
Fourthly, develop the culture of lifelong learning to establish a Knowledge Society. Lifelong learning is both an ideal and a future necessity as everyone’s skills will need updating on an ongoing basis.
In the old economy, natural resources and physical infrastructure determined a nation’s competitiveness. In the new global economy, knowledge is the key resource and the quality of a nation’s workforce is critical to ensuring competitiveness.
It is most shocking that in the first major educational reform in the national education system in 35 years culminating in the new Education Act 1996, the role of technology in education was completely omitted.
It is critical that today’s children graduate from school with the skills needed for the 21st century, fully IT-literate, if we are to give them the keys to the new millennium.
For this purpose, the Government must be prepared for an ambitious IT plan for the 8,500 schools and 250,000 teachers, connecting all schools to the Internet by 2,000 and aim to achieve the following targets for all schools by 2,005:
Fifthly, social equity or the problem of equitable access to IT developments across all parts of Malaysia. There is a growing divide between the “information-rich” and the “information-poor” in the international community of nations, as the notion of entry into the modern information society is totally irrelevant to most inhabitants of any country in which adult illiteracy is in excess of three-quarters of the population, and who are denied access to even basic information and whose average monthly income might be little more than the cost of a box of floppy disk.
Malaysia however must ensure that the transition towards an Information Society does not give rise to new inequities of the “Information-rich” and the “Information-poor”, creating another division of the population into an A-team and a B-team. The National IT Agenda and Action Plan should ensure that there would be ready communications across society with computer and telecommunications networks making up a coherent system, which should be as easily accessible as the telephone system.
Sixthly, the promotion of the Malaysian content on the Information Superhighway, highlighting Malaysia’s multi-cultural and multi-lingual diversity.
Seventhly, ensuring affordable, accessible and responsible government. Some of our Ministers have a tendency to want to boast that we are going to be the first in the world in IT, when in fact, they are quite ignorant about big strides that have been made in other countries.
Recently, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Abang Abu Bakar Mustapha was reported as saying that a “cyber court” would be set up after Parliament passes a Bill on the proposed cyber law in the forthcoming meeting.
He said that Malaysia would emerge as the first country in the world to set up a cyber court.
It is news that Parliament would be asked to enact legislation to introduce the first cyber court in the world. This announcement has not only caught the country, but I am sure, both the judiciary and the Bar Council by complete surprise.
While Malaysia should aim to be a world leader in government administration to provide better, faster and cheaper public service by making full use of the opportunities presented by the new information and communications technologies, we must have our foot firmly planted on the ground and not be carried away by hyperboles or even worse, to believe in these hyperboles ourselves.
It is ridiculous for Malaysia to be talking about being the first country to have a cyber court in the future when the Malaysian judicial system has not yet gone on-line while other countries are already quite advanced in electronic usage in their administration of justice.
Singapore for instance has started introducing a cybercourt system by requiring all lawyers to submit all their court papers electronically, with a 50 per cent surcharge on existing rates levied on attorneys who file old-fashioned paper documents.
A computer database containing all of Singapore’s legal statutes is being prepared for the Internet, allowing lawyers to conduct legal research electronically.
The Australian High Court went online last October, with stacks of information available online on what the court does, has been doing and will do soon in the business lists. There are also transcipts of recent speeches and, most impressive of all, the full text of all court decisions from 1947 to the present.
In the United Kingdom, even the ancient House of Lords has gone on-line, making its judgments available on the Internet.
For Malaysia, as far as electronic usage in our administration of justice, it is a total blank. When Malaysia has to catch up with other countries in the provision of electronic services, whether in the administration of justice or other public service departments, it will make Malaysia look ridiculous if our Ministers continue to claim that they want to be “first” in this or that area, showing their ignorance of the strides already made by other countries in these fields.
In Parliament and in the INFOTECH ’96 Conference, I had questioned why Malaysia must wait until the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya is completed in September 1998 before introducing electronic online services to the people, as is already being done by many other countries - as Malaysia does not lack the technology but only the commitment.
Recently, the government announced that it would introduce pilot online government services in the Klang Valley in September this year through electronic kiosks.
However, the people have still to know whether the online government services would make the government more open, accountable and cheaper and it is still to be tested as to whether the people would find it comfortable to access government online through electronic kiosks rather than from their homes.
It would have been more in keeping with the spirit of an information society if the government had consulted the people first about how electronic service-delivery could best benefit the people and businesses.
Eighthly IT, as a tool, must serve the ends of humanity, namely the promotion of democracy, protection of the individual and the creation of a civil society.
The government must accept that in a new era, where the more people have access to information and to networks, the richer will be the information society, there must be an open and democratic form of government.
There must be a preparedness to change from a top-down to a bottom-up form of polity where the information society can enrich democratic life by giving citizens new spaces for free expression and discussion. This must be reflected not only in the manner in which the government formulates new legislations, policies and practices which should involve public consultation and participation right from the beginning of all stages of the formulation of the ideas, but also the removal of laws which restrict the free exchange of information.
The Official Secrets Act should be repealed and replaced by a Freedom of Information and Privacy Act. In the Information Society, as a general rule, government information should be accessible by the people because it belongs to the people. This requires a change from the traditional philosophy under which the government’s information was regarded by the government (and often by the people) as the government’s property and none of the people’s business.
The government holds this information on behalf of the people and should take due care to ensure the quality, integrity and authenticity of government information.
Access to government-held information is a prerequisite to the proper functioning of a democratic society. Without information, people cannot exercise their rights and responsibilities or make informed choices. Information is necessary for government accountability. A general shift in focus is therefore required - from one of not disclosing information unless absolutely required, to one of disclosing unless there is a very good reason not to, such as defence or security considerations.
Protection of privacy through data protection legislation is necessary in an information society because of the vast flows of all kinds of personal information through the telecommunications networks, eg. credit card information, transaction processing and health information.
In conclusion, let me state that the transition of Malaysia to an Information Society should be a national challenge and its success will decide whether the Vision 2020 objective of Malaysia becoming a fully developed nation would be achieved.
This is a national objective which transcends political party differences and on this goal all political parties should be prepared to join hands to work for the successful transformation of Malaysia into an Information Society.