Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #49

Modern technology, in particular IT, has the potential to make those in the poorest part of the world leapfrog into the modern age. 

By M. Bakri Musa

Malaysia’s Digital Divide

The digital divide (the lag in IT) is seen not only between Malaysia and the developed world but also within the nation itself: between Malays and non-Malays, rich and poor, and urban and rural. It is widening. This digital divide is also reflective of a more general technology gap.

For Malaysians to benefit from globalization, we must not only be comfortable with these new technologies, and specifically IT, but also be able to master and make full use of their potential.

Technologies directly impact productivity. A generation ago it took 16 farmers to feed 100 Americans; today only 2 or 3, thanks to superior technology. One man can now effectively farm hundreds of acres by using combines and tractors. Similarly, with efficient fertilizers, pesticides, and improved seeds, the yields have increased tremendously.

In transportation, the old DC propeller plane had a cockpit crew of three and carried only 20 passengers; today’s modern 747 jet carries over 400 passengers and has a cockpit crew of only two. In terms of passenger-miles per gallon of fuel consumed, it is more efficient that the old Volkswagen. Similarly with mechanization, one man with a truck picks up the garbage of my entire town. His truck has side mechanical arms that grasp the bins and flip over their contents into the truck. Tremendous productivity! In Malaysia, there are four or five workers per truck, and the cans are manually dumped.

Rubber is tapped the same way with the same tool as a century ago. Likewise, oil palm is harvested in the same labor-intensive manner for the past 50 years. I would have thought that they would have designed trucks with a mechanical cutting arm. When Malaysians do not want to work in such jobs, cheap labor was imported from Indonesia and Bangladesh. Had the import of unskilled labor been restricted, the agricultural sector would be for forced to mechanize and be innovative, thereby enhancing productivity.

The digital divide is best illustrated with statistics. Less than 10 percent of Malaysians have Internet access, compared to 30 in Hong Kong and Singapore, and over 50 percent in America. Many Malaysian schools lack computers. There was much excitement about wiring the entire school system but the economic crisis of 1997 put that on hold. A 2001 project to equip schools, especially rural ones, with computers ended in a debacle. The contracts were awarded to incompetent vendors. Those contracts, like everything else in Malaysia, were dispensed as political favors. The contractors spent more time currying favors with the local UMNO functionaries rather than working to fulfill their commitments. In the end the students suffered.

It is fashionable for the authorities to blame the populace for being stubborn and unwilling to accept new technology. Truth is, once the usefulness of a technology is demonstrated, these villagers willingly embrace it. There are at least two demonstration projects to introduce IT to rural villagers.  

The E-Bario project in Kenawit, Sarawak, started by Dr. Roger Harris, is promising for a particular reason. He purposely chose the remotest area, inaccessible by road and shielded from the modern world by thick jungle and high mountains. He introduced computers equipped with wireless Internet connectivity to the tribesmen, and explained IT in terms readily understood by them. Thus email was simply another way of sending messages like fax (a technology they are familiar with); and web video like television (again something familiar). They readily embraced the new technology, marveling at their new ability to e-mail their children studying outside their village.

They were also able to market their special rice variety worldwide. And using software they downloaded for free, they were able to trace their genealogy and to connect with their tribesmen who have moved elsewhere, a project that reinforced their traditional values.

A similar project sponsored by the nongovernmental body SMASY (Smart Community) is equally promising. This one at Kampung Raja Musa in Peninsular Malaysia, unlike Kenawit, has supporting infrastructures. Again the villagers were taught computer lessons and showed its multiple uses. As expected, both young and old readily accepted the new technology. Soon the youngsters were busy on the chat sites “talking” with fellow soccer fans worldwide. The elders were able to e-mail their grown up children who had moved out. Knowing how expensive long distance phone calls and postage stamps are, they readily see the immediate advantages of free e-mails.

These projects, like the Grameen Bank’s program in Bangladesh, demonstrate that modern technology can be easily adapted to village folks. Similarly Cuba, a very poor country, has very advanced biotechnology industry. It is producing Hepatitis B vaccine using the latest biotechnology and techniques at the fraction of the American cost.

Modern technology, in particular IT, has the potential to make those in the poorest part of the world leapfrog into the modern age. These successes prove the point made by the UNDP in its 2001 Human Development Report that the technology divide does not necessarily follow the income divide.

The Malaysian government should exploit this observation and do more to encourage IT generally and Internet usage in particular. It should encourage new Internet service providers to stimulate competition so prices would drop. Today, charges for Internet access are prohibitive as customers have to pay both high subscriber fees as well as connection time. There should be affordable flat rates as in America to encourage wider usage. Indeed I would subsidize Internet use especially for rural residents.

Contrary to the leaders’ perception, Malaysians readily embrace new technologies when they are presented in familiar terms. And if it can be shown that that technology could be used to enhance their cultural traditions (as with the Kenawit tribesmen) then it would be even more enthusiastically embraced.

There was intense interest in the Internet during the 1999 election when opposition groups took to cyberspace to spread their messages. By doing that they were able to circumvent the government’s strict censorship rules and prohibition against campaigning. I noticed that the government was less than enthusiastic in pushing IT to the public following the opposition’s stunning success in that election. As a result today, government leaders are singing a different tune. They are openly contemplating censoring and curbing this new medium. The only restraining factor is the government’s fear of failure for its ambitious Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) project.

Before the 1999 election, Malaysian leaders considered the Internet a blessing; post-election with UMNO’s thrashing, the web is now a curse and a threat! The mindset of Malaysian leaders is still this: If it does not support the existing power structure, then that technology is dangerous! These leaders’ obsession with the Internet’s power of breaking their monopoly on information and news severely handicaps their planning a rational policy on IT.

The MSC took off with much fanfare. Mahathir was even able to corral the giants of the industry, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, to be on his advisory board. Since that spectacular launching the project has been struggling. If only the government would put a fraction of the resources devoted to MSC into training Malaysians in IT and to wiring the schools and colleges, Malaysia would be much further ahead today.

Part of the difficulty with MSC is that Malaysia lacks a critical mass of home-grown talent. Besides, those few Malaysians who had the skills found that they could earn much more abroad and work in a much more supportive environment.

The problem with IT in Malaysia is not with the populace, rather the political leadership. They are ambivalent because they see (rightly) that IT is undermining their control on the citizens. Malaysian leaders should instead look upon the new technology as means of empowering, not controlling, the people. Unfortunately it is difficult to disabuse current Malaysian leaders of their ingrained “control freak” mentality.

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