In keeping with a motto of "IT For All", the National IT Agenda must be an agenda involving and committing Malaysian individuals and communities if Malaysia is to suceed to leapfrog into the digital era

- INFOTECH Malaysia ‘98 Conference
by Lim Kit Siang 

(Putra World Trade Centre, Tuesday): Firstly, I wish to thank Dr. Tengku Mohd Azzman Shariffadeen, Setiausaha Tetap National Information Technology Council (NITC) for the invitation on April 1, 1998 to the INFOTECH Malaysia ‘98 Conference and be an intervenor for the session "People Development: Enhancing IT Literacy and Fluency".

As you know, April 1, 1998 is a day I will not be able to forget. Although I am very attracted by the INFOTECH Malaysia 1998 Conference, I have kept asking myself whether I should decline the invitation as I have not been able to focus on the Conference because of numerous recent developments, particularly the events which started on April 1, 1998; as well as the various crises which have suddenly inundated the country, where from first-class nation near to developed nation status, when on everything "Malaysia Boleh", we seem to have been suddenly reduced to a third-rate nation when everything "Malaysia Tidak Boleh" where even the most basic human needs of clean air and piped water have become luxuries, and not least of which is the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history.

Finally, I decided to come to the Conference which is itself a statement that whatever personal, family, group or even national ups-and-downs, trials and tribulations, there must be no let-up in the commitment of the country to Information Technology and to make the quantum leap into the Digital Era in the new millennium - fully convinced that the line between success and failure of nations in the new century is digital.

During the INFOTECH Malaysia ’96 Conference on 19th December 1996, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad launched the National IT Agenda which set the theme of "Turning Ripples Into Tidal Waves" as a national framework for all sectors in the economy to work together in realising the Vision 2020 aspiration of creating an information-rich and civil society.

In assessing the progress made in the National IT Agenda, the most question to ask is whether the NITA has become the agenda of all Malaysians, committing and involving all Malaysians at all levels of society, or whether it is a subject dealt with at stratospheric levels by those involved with IT in government, industry and academia.

The NITA was never debated in Parliament and I dare say that if Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament were asked to explain the NITA, very few would have any notion about it. At most, they will only be able to talk about the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), as if IT and MSC are synonymous and the National IT Agenda is nothing more than about promoting MSC.

It has been said that a human year is about five Internet years, and this would mean that we have lost about seven Internet years since the INFOTECH ’96 to make the NITA the agenda for all Malaysians.

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 and Knowledge Society, that IT is not just about technology or commercial considerations but how to improve the quality of life of all Malaysians.

The Internet, for instance, is a powerful tool, not a solution. 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.

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, are our people, our institutions and most of our companies really prepared for the new information technologies.

For over two years in Parliament, I had called on the government to be a model user of Information Technology to provide more efficient, cost-effective and responsive services to the public.

On January 5 this year, I wanted to send an Open Letter to all Cabinet Ministers before their first 1998 Cabinet meeting on the 15 areas and measures which they should give priority in addressing the nation’s worst economic crisis, and when I asked my office to email the Open Letter to the Cabinet Ministers, I was surprised to be told by my office, after a lot of surfing, that only the email address of six Cabinet Ministers could be found.

I had publicly criticised the Ministers for the failure to keep up with the IT times, but not to much effect. The latest search could uncover the email address of less than ten Cabinet Ministers, although most of their photographs are available on Internet.

The EPF, which is now a highly controversial institution not only because of the lowest dividend in two decades but also with regard to its investment of RM130 billion of EPF monies, is another case in point. The Singapore CPF has a homepage which as interactive features as allowing contributors to check on status of their accounts online. But EPF does not even have a hompepage. So much for the government and public institutions playing their role as model users of IT.

During the Parliamentary debate on the Royal Address in March last year, I had spoken of the need for Parliament and the various State Assemblies to play a special role in the country’s transition to the Information Society in at least four areas.

The first of my four proposals was that all MPs and State Assemblymen, whether in government or in opposition, should seek to raise awareness of IT among the Malaysian public at large, particularly among those who are currently non or unconfident users of information and communcations technologies by removing the social, educational and cultural barriers to people who would like to know more about computers, Internet and IT.

To do this, Parliament and all State Assemblies should form IT Standing Committees to promote IT literacy among all sectors of the people and popularise the concept of the information society where Malaysia can fully benefit from the information and communication technologies.

For a start, there should be a programme to make all Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries, Chief Ministers, Mentri-Mentri Besar, State Executive Councillors, MPs and State Assemblymen and women computer-literate within a year - at least by before the official take-off of the MSC originally schedule for September 1998 with the completion of the Prime Minister’s Office in Putrajaya, so that they could be role models to help the people, particularly those above 40 years, to overcome their fear of computers.

Unfortunately, this proposal had not been taken seriously whether by Parliament and the respective state governments.

Even the Parliamentary Joint IT Committee has quickly become a defunct creature after coming into being as a result of the introduction of the first batch of cyberbills and there are even government leaders including those responsible for IT who are proud to be "digital illiterates".

This was illustrated in Parliament in November last year when during the committee stage debate on the 1998 budget for the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, I had informed Parliament of a particularly malicious virus attack on a strategic government corporation, which had been neutralised in the nick of time or would have crippled the national and world-wide operations of the corporation, and spoke of the need for a national mechanism to protect the country’s critical infrastructure from cyber-threats and cyber-attacks.

The Deputy Science, Technology and Environment Minister, Datuk Abdul Bakar Daud was in charge of the debate at the time, and in his reply, he virtually dismissed what I said as "hogwash", and while admitting that he was not literate or fluent in IT, boasted: "Anak saya lagi pandai daripada you!" and later, "Cucu saya lagi pandai komputer, saya akui". The only pity is that it is not his son or grandchild who is the Deputy Science, Technology and Environment Minister!

On the virus information attack, he said: "Saya perhati dari tadi, tidak ada benda yang boleh saya pegang. Dia mengatakan virus ini, virus itu dan dia membuka cerita di Amerika, dengan menunjukkan buku. Saya kata tidak ada benda…Kalau ditanya soalan a silly question, you will get a silly answer, dengan izin, kata orang Putih."

I think this episode will also illustrate why sometimes it is so frustrating even to speak in Parliament about IT!

It illustrates the resistance by those occupying important positions in government to the National IT Agenda, in refusing to develop the Information Age mindset and culture about life-long learning and an open attitude to accept ideas which are good regardless of their origin.

In the Information Age, the proper mindset is not why it is not possible for certain things to be done in a new way, but why it could not be done. I still cannot understand, for instance, why the government or the Parliament could not post online bills to be debated, particularly the first set of four cyberbills of Computer Crimes, Digital Signature, Telemedicine and Copyright when it is easier and faster to post bills or reports on the Internet than to print out the hard copies as they are already in electronic form.

As a result, the DAP Homepage had to perform the national service of posting online all the cyberbills as well as some other bills. We do not begrudge doing such a national service, but is this in keeping with the National IT Agenda?

I want here to make proposals which I had repeatedly made in Parliament in the past three years, that the Government should send out a clear signal to Malaysians and the world that IT rates top government priority by adopting two measures which will also instil a sense of urgency and seriousness about Malaysia’s transition to an Information and Knowledge Society:

If the Department of Environment can come out with an annual report on the state of the environment in the country, it is equally vital that the government should come out with an annual report on the state of the IT in Malaysia if we are serious in wanting to take our rightful place in the Information Age.

In this annual status report on IT, the Government should address issues relating to Information Technology including:

If the people development dimension of the NITA is to play its full role, then in keeping with the motto of "IT For All", the National IT Agenda must be an agenda involving and committing Malaysian individuals and communities if Malaysia is to leapfrog into the digital era. Our challenge is how to make the NITA an agenda for all Malaysians.


*Lim Kit Siang - Malaysian Parliamentary Opposition Leader, Democratic Action Party Secretary-General & Member of Parliament for Tanjong