Great digital divide between PC and Internet access penetration rate between Malaysia and Singapore should be a wake-up call for urgent need for a systematic "IT For All" Campaign to promote greater rate of digital literacy among the people

-  International Workshop "Social Usage of Internet in Malaysia" jointly organised by the Department of Communications, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Kom Tech, Germany, Boell Foundation at Puri Pujangga, UKM, Bangi
Lim Kit Siang

(Bangi, Thursday): In this paper on "IT  and Governance in Malaysia",  I will share some of my thoughts on this subject beginning with the The New Straits Times report of 25th February 2000 on the opening remarks of the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad to the ninth meeting of the  National Information Technology Council (NITC) in Putrajaya the previous day.

To paraphrase the NST report, Dr. Mahathir  said  the following:

Less than two weeks later, at the Second Global Knowledge Conference, Dr. Mahathir elaborated on his opening speech to the NITC on the transition to a K (Knowledge)-economy.

Claiming that Vision 2020 was the "first strategic step into the  Information  Age", he said Malaysia is  now  ready  for   the   second   step - what he described as "Strategic Initiative One" of the 21st century, which  is  "a concerted,    comprehensive and committed quantum leap which will re-make  Malaysian  corporations  and  re-invent Malaysian society".
I shall pause here to deal with several questions and issues.

Firstly, the role and functioning of the NITC.  Although it was established as a think-thank and advisor to the Government on IT development, it seems to be a classic case of top-down operation with the Prime Minister giving directives to the NITC when the council should be advising the Government.   This may be a root cause why the national IT plan is not as successful as it should be.

Dr. Mahathir has announced a quantum leap into the K-economy. Some might have  forgotten that in 1996, the Prime Minister called for a quantum leap into the Information Age. Since the first quantum leap had not succeeded, what is there to ensure that Dr. Mahathir’s call for a second quantum leap would meet with a greater success?

Secondly, was Vision 2020 announced in 1991 Malaysia’s "first strategic step into the Information Age" or is this ex post facto justification after the event?

A  week after the Prime Minister’s speech at the Second Global Knowledge Conference, Malaysia’s ambassador to the United States, Datuk Ghazzali Sheikh Abdul Khalid, spoke at the  Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Conference on Globalization of Cyberspace in Washington, DC. on March 16, 2000 on the same theme and said:

This claim is most debatable  as it is definitely open to dispute that the Vision 2020 proclaimed in 1991 was the country’s "first strategic step into the Information Age".

In fact, the basic theme of my speech in Parliament during the debate on the Seventh Malaysia Plan on 6th May 1996 was the need to proclaim the Knowledge Society as a national vision and the tenth strategic objective of Vision 2020 to harness Information Technology to provide the environment for lifelong learning in which all Malaysians will have access to the widest possible variety of learning opportunities and tools in order to succeed in the new global economy of the 21st century.

I had commended the Seventh Malaysia Plan for devoting a whole chapter to Information Technology - the first time IT was addressed in a serious manner in the six five-year plans and six mid-term reviews spanning three decades. It was also a vindication of the DAP’s repeated call for an Information Technology policy with a well-defined goal of its national information infrastructure to position Malaysia in the forefront of the information revolution to usher Malaysia into the 21st century.  At the time, such a policy ( the National Information Technology Agenda - NITA)  had yet  to be formulated.

This is what I said in the debate in Parliament some four years ago:

I referred to other  countries  which had gone ahead of Malaysia in preparing for the Information Age, such as Singapore, the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the European countries, where high-level studies and reports had been commissioned, made public and extensively debated on how the government, the private sector and the ordinary citizen should respond to the challenges posed by the new revolution of Information Technology - except Malaysia.

I had then said:

I referred to the fear and resistance  in our society to the advances of Information Technology and said:

I had referred at some length to what I said in Parliament four years ago to put the issue in proper perspective, for if the Government had been fully conscious then  that Vision 2020 was the "first strategic step into the Information Age", I would have been refuted and  rapped for my ignorance and for  talking nonsense.

There was however no riposte from any government Minister or official to my continued speeches criticising the "conspicuous absence" of both the goal of a Knowledge Society and the strategic importance of Information Technology in the nine strategic objectives for the achievement of Vision 2020 for Malaysia to become a fully developed nation.

It is therefore not really correct for anyone to now claim that Vision 2020 was the first strategic step towards a Knowledge Society, when it was absent in Dr. Mahathir’s definition of a fully developed nation when announcing Vision 2020 in 1991 as follows - "It must be a nation that is fully developed along all the dimensions: economically, politically, socially, spiritually, psychologically and culturally. We must be fully developed in terms of national unity and social cohesion, in terms of our economy, in terms of social justice, political stability, system of government, quality of life, social and spiritual values, national pride and confidence."

There is no reference whatsoever  to an information and knowledge society in this definition or the nine strategic challenges to achieve a fully developed Malaysia.

Dr. Mahathir has taken four years to discover that he has a reply to me,  that his Vision 2020 had in fact been the "first strategic step towards an Information Age"- which no Cabinet Minister or government leader had known before.

This reminds me of  the earlier aborted 2000 budget announcement on Oct. 29 last year on  the abolition of television licences - after it had been proposed by the Barisan Alternative 2000 Budget - allegedly since April 1, 1999 when nobody in government had known about it and everybody was paying or  collecting television licence fees untit the budget day itself.

The third question is whether the NITA is a failure or  so inadequate  that it has now to be replaced by a K-economy Masterplan.

The NITA is a very elusive object and I do not think even Cabinet Ministers can agree what is the NITA and there had been considerable confusion from Ministers and Deputy Ministers when answering questions in Parliament  as to when the NITA was launched.

I remember that during the debate in Parliament on the 1997 Budget on October 28, 1996, I had queried as to why there was still no word about the IT National Action Plan which the Seventh Malaysia Plan six months ago had said would be formulated by the NITC.

I again returned to this subject during the Parliamentary debate on the Royal Address in March 25,  1997, where I said:

It was only in the following month in April 1997 that the Prime Minister announced the National Information Technology Agenda (NITA) with the theme "Turning Ripples Into Tidal Waves" to take the quantum leap into the Information Age after it was approved by the Cabinet the same month.

Has the NITA failed to be the basis of the country’s transition to an K-economy?
Early this month, the Prime Minister said that in the   K-economy, there would be the  maximum application of knowledge to every  Malaysian  economic  and  business  endeavour in   every  economic  sector, that it is "not an elitist  process   but one  involving every Malaysian from the teacher  in  the classroom  to  his  pupil, to his fisherman  father and housewife  mother, to the driver who drives  the  school  bus,  to  the mechanic who maintains it, to the engineer who  designs the vehicle, to the entrepreneur  who owns the  company,  to  his secretary, the  janitor  and  the chairman of the Board".

How does this K-economy differ from the knowledge society Ministers claim is the objective of the NITA or as Dr. Mahathir explained the NITA when he launched a national IT awareness campaign (now remembered only by Mohamad Rahmat’s dreadful IT song) in October 1997 when he called on all Malaysians, young and old, rural and urban, alike to answer the ''call of arms'' to support the government's initiative to harness the power of information technology (IT) through the NITA as the national development strategy.

What the Prime Minister said in Oct. 1997 for the NITA sounded exactly what he said two weeks ago for the K-economy masterplan.

In Oct. 97, the Prime Minister said NITA provided the framework for a national response to IT and to the information revolution and  called upon all Malaysians to do their part to ensure that Malaysia was  ready to enter the Information

He said the ultimate goal of NITA was "to evolve a civil society in the Malaysian mould, a society that is empowered by knolwedge and infused with our own distinctive value system".

The Prime Minister said the current global trend required the nation to switch from its economic base again, from one reliant on cheap labour to one that is driven by knowledge workers.

He said: ''Anyone can be a knowledge worker. We do not need to be a computer scientist to become one."

A taxi driver can become a knowledge worker if he can use information and technology to do his job better.

The Prime Minister said only when both manufacturing and service sectors are manned by knowledge workers and powered by IT can the country sustain the required per capita GDP growth rates to attain Vision 2020.

''Current projection indicate that, through  an information and knowledge-based economy, we can increase our GDP levels by fourfold within 20 to 25 years,'' he said.

This will mean that, on average, Malaysians can expect to earn four times their current incomes in the future and enjoy a quality of life comparable to that of developed countries.

The Prime Minister’s speeches early this month and in October 1997 are not very dissimilar from one another, which shows that neither the NITC nor he could have discovered anything new about either the Knowledge society or K-economy in the intervening 18 months.

The NITA has its failings, as for instance, the inability to date to come up with two indices it has proposed to measure improvements toward knowledge society - KIX (Knowledge Imperative Index) and MIX ( Multiculturality Index).

In view of the scarcity of relevant information, it would be difficult to decide whether the NITA concept of "Turning Ripples Into Tidal Waves" has become irrelevant or whether what is needed is a Rolling Action Plan to implement its various strategies, one of which is for a K-economy. In  any event, it sounds incongruous that a K-economy masterplan is being drafted to displace the NITA, which deal with the larger objective of a K-society!

The national IT plan, NITA, provides a framework for a three-pronged strategy involving the balanced development of three strategic elements namely, human resources, infostructure and IT-based applications that are demand driven.

The NITC established three task forces to identify key programmes to operationalize these three strategic elements.

The task force on people development, for instance, recommended an action plan with  the following objectives:

Nobody knows what has happened to the reports of these three task forces or whether the same recommendations are going to be made for the K-economy Masterplan currently being drafted.

This brings me to the K-economy Masterplan announced by the Prime Minister two weeks ago where he said Malaysia must reach out into the world to attract the best brains -  "we must take them wherever they are from".

Speaking about a policy for a "brain-gain" infusion,  he said the country must reduce the number of foreign workers by 100,000 a year, reducing the number of low-knowledge workers by 95,000 annually while accepting 5,000 "extraordinary world citizens".

A K-Government is an essential prerequisite for the success fo any K-economy masterplan to create a knowledge-driven economy.

No  K-economy master plan in Malaysia can succeed  unless there is also  a K-Government commited to an open and transparent governance and  implementing "smart" policies, like a "smart"  immigration policy to promote brain-gain instead of brain-loss.

Such a "smart" immigration policy should have been in place already as Malaysia had for five years tried to transform itself into a knowledge-based economy by promoting the Multimedia Super Corridor under the Seventh Malaysia Plan as the lynchpin of its national IT agenda.

Unfortunately, there has not only  been no change in the immigration policy to promote brain-gain, it continues to promote gain loss through its discrimination against Malaysians who have foreign spouses.

Unless there is the political will to ensure that there is also a K-government and a K-Parliament, it is unlikely that any K-economy masterplan, however well-conceived, could have much hope of success.

It is good to hear the Prime Minister talking about to need to do away with the "secrecy syndrome" in the public and private sectors in order to create a K-economy - but how can he  expect his speech to be taken seriously when the government  is promoting the cult of secrecy by having  the world’s most draconian Official Secrets Act and the example of recent arrests and prosecutions under the Act.

If the Government is sincere and serious about wanting to transform Malaysia into a K-economy, it must have the political will to begin to create a K-Government first, starting with the repeal of  the Official Secrets Act and the introduction  instead a Freedom of Information Act.

The Prime Minister  also said  that the K-economy master plan would not be drafted by the best brains behind closed doors because it must be relevant to every Malaysian and become a personal  master plan for all.

However, the government must show that it is capable of rising above politics to involve all sectors of the Malaysian society in order to formulate a K-economy master plan which belongs to all Malaysians and relevant to every Malaysian.

Just before the last NITC meeting,  the Prime Minister, who is the Chairman of NITC directed the removal of Dr. Chandra Muzaffar as a member, patently on the ground that he is Deputy Chairman of Parti Keadilan Nasional.

If the National IT Agenda is seen in  such a narrow perspective, how can anyone have the confidence that the K-economy master plan will involve all sectors of Malaysian society, regardless of political differences?

If the Prime Minister  wants to involve all sectors of Malaysian society in the formulation of the K-economy master plan, Dr. Chandra Muzaffar should be reinstated as a member of the NITC and others representing other Barisan Alternative parties should also be appointed.

Another prerequisite for  a K-economy in the information age is to have a governance which is  not afraid of a free flow of information and fully committed to the values of justice, openness, transparency and accountability.

No "extraordinary world citizen" is going to prefer Malaysia compared to  other countries unless we are prepared to build a New Malaysia distinguished by the  principles and values of justice, freedom, democracy and good governance.

The Prime Minister  said for the Information Age and the K-economy to succeed, Malaysia must  have  a  first-rate National Media System. But this is another glaring contradiction, when mass media in the country is coming under increasing repressive and draconian control.

In February last year  the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and  Expression issued a report stating that freedom of opinion is curtailed  systematically in Malaysia. The Special Rapporteur said that the  Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act, and the Printing Presses and Publications Act were used to suppress or repress expression and curb  peaceful assembly. He further stated that defamation laws "appear to be having a very chilling effect" on free speech and a free press.

Last month, in its annual survey of human rights in Malaysia for 1999, the United States State Department had been  equally trenchant about freedom  of speech and of the press when it said that "the Government  restricts freedom of expression and intimidates most of the print and  electronic media into practicing self-censorship".

The situation described by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression and the United States State Department annual survey of human rights with regard to freedom of speech and of the press has degenerated further during and after the recent general election, as a result of a
political culture of vengeance and vindictiveness illustrated by the undemocratic curtailment of Harakah from a biweekly into a bimonthly and the refusal to renew  permits for independent-minded publications like Detik.

The media after the recent general election is  practising the worst forms of self-censorship during the 19-year premiership of Mahathir - completely at odds with his commitment for an open and accountable government when he first assumed the highest office in the land.

In the final analysis, it is not the lack of technology but the lack of IT mind-set and culture which are  the greatest stumbling block to Malaysia’s success in making the quantum leap to an Information Age.

A country which has the most draconian law in the world, where all government information are classified as "official secrets" and anyone who has unauthorised access would be guilty of an offence which entails a mandatory minimum jail sentence of one year cannot be serious in wanting to make the transition towards an Information Society and an K-economy.

While supporting the drafting of a K-economy masterplan, it should not displace a K-Society masterplan to  achieve the five goals of

I wish to end with an observation.

In his speech to the Washington conference last week, the Malaysian Ambassador to the United States  gave some disturbing statistics about the slow Information Communications Development in Malaysia. We have 4.5 million telephone lines serving a population of 22 million people. 2.45 million people are cellular subscribers.  The total number of internet users has reached 1.45 million with 600,000 internet subscribers. To put it in a different way, this means that only 11 per cent of Malaysians have computers and only six per cent surf the internet.  Fifty-six per centof these internet users are concentrated in the Klang Valley where the capital city is, and to a lesser percentage in Penang, Johore Bahru, Kuantan, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.

I have another recent set of statistics from Singapore.  The latest IT Household Survey conducted by the Survey Research Unit Productivity and Quality Research Centre of NUS finds  that household  personal computer  (PC)  ownership stands at a high of  59%. This surpasses that in the US (54%), Finland (54%), Australia (47%) and Japan (42%). The Survey finds that 42% of homes in Singapore are connected to the World Wide Web, a figure that is also higher than those in the US, Australia, Japan and Finland.

These are disturbing comparative statistics between Malaysian with 11 per cent personal computer and six per cent Internet access penetration as compared to 59% PC and 42% Internet access penetration.

This should be a wake-up call to Malaysia that there must be an intensive and systematic "IT For All" campaign round-the-year to promote greater awareness and digital literacy to close the digital gap between the two countries.


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman