Law in the Internet Society

The Ambiguity of Development: A case study of Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor*

A study of social transformations is a study of the history of power, technology and ideology.

Malaysia is a developing nation that aims to achieve an ambitious goal of developed-nation status by 2020.

Among its many strategies, Malaysia embarked on a project to modernize the country in its use of ICT especially the Internet to fuel the engine of growth.

Inscribed onto the consciousness of Malaysians, via print, broadcast, and electronic media is the mantra of economic success with information technologies as its catalysts.

It was a mantra that correlated to the idea of a grand strategy or a belief system in the form of political ideology that permeates the consciousness of the leader and the led, one orchestrated and broadcasted by the government. (See Rahman, 2008)

The prime carriers of these messages have been public ‘education’ initiatives (most famously, the national ‘Love IT’ campaign, featuring nightly prime-time television ads and an ‘IT song’), the advertising efforts of high-tech firms (e.g. in the rapidly growing computer, software and mobile phone industries) and the domestic media, including newspapers, radio and television. (See Jackson, 2000:153)

Emblematic of this strategy is the iconic Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) modeled after the Silicon Valley. The International Advisory Panel on the MSC, comprised primarily of the heads of many of the world’s largest IT companies (including Sun, Microsoft, IBM, Netscape,NTT, etc.) provides counsel to the Malaysian Government on legislation and policies, develop MSC Malaysia-specific practices, and set breakthrough standards for multimedia operations.

The research activities of the MSC are organized around several ‘flagship applications’ e.g. the ‘Smart Schools’ flagship aims to develop tools and strategies for expanding the use of information technologies within the national public education system.

The commercial heart of the MSC is Cyberjaya, home to a group of corporations and ‘knowledge workers’ engaged in a range of advanced technological and commercial activities.

The government actively woos foreign investment by providing infrastructural support like a fibre-optic network capable of handling advanced telephony, data exchange and interactive multimedia services, high-speed road and rail links to Kuala Lumpur, Port Klang, and the airport, and customized office space suitable to corporate research and commercial activities as well as a range of financial and institutional incentives laid out in the government’s Bill of Guarantees.

Furthermore, Parliament passed a number of bills to provide a legal framework to facilitate the growth of electronic commerce.

Such policies have brought changes that are clearly fundamental and far-reaching, going well beyond purely ‘technical’ questions of economic development policy.

Yet, as some have argued, the MSC is alien and alienating to the masses. (See Rahman, 2008)

It is a transplantation of an idea not understood by the local elites though there is no doubt that they have benefited from the real estate projects associated with the MSC.

For example, the National Information Technology Council – the body responsible for setting the means and ends of national informational development – are held by the heads of domestic communication and high technology firms (people who stand to reap substantial benefits from MSC infrastructure and flagship projects), while groups such as nongovernmental organizations, citizens movements, unions, etc. are entirely unrepresented.

Despite the rhetoric of democratization, controls over the channels of public communication remain strong in Malaysia. Older pieces of legislation which have been used in the past to control media freedom and political dissent, including the Printing Presses and Publications Act, Official Secrets Act, and the Internal Security Act, remain in place. (See Jackson, 2000:155)

And despite the rhetoric of the global borderless village, one cannot fail to ask: i) Who/what has access to this space, and on what terms? ii) Who/what is held out at the border?

Mahathir’s ideas on Development

MSC was implemented during the premiership of Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.

It was a premiership marked by strong economic growth and mega projects as well as rapid and uneven development.

Among its ruling elites, there was no rethinking or reflection or liberalism as a development model.

What was advocated was not the problem of social reconstruction, reforms or a development alternative.

What was advocated instead was purely patronage for Malay capitalism.

Instead of raising more fundamental questions about the shortcomings and defects of capitalism and liberalism as development models, Mahathir believed that it was more important to help Malay capitalists against non-Malay capitalists.

In his book, “The Malay Dilemma”, Mahathir argued that it was important to have rich Malays for Malay pride.

Without them, “it is the Chinese who will continue to live in huge houses and regard the Malays as only fit to drive their cars… From the point of view of racial ego … the unseemly existence of Malay tycoons is essential” (quoted in Ma’aruf, 1988:147).

The MSC epitomizes the values and ideas associated with the particular version of capitalism advocated by the influential segment of the Malay ruling elite.

This brand of capitalism unfortunately means nothing to Malaysians in the far-flung rural areas where the roads are muddy and there are no basic facilities like water and electricity. [1]

Early in 2008, a group of Malaysian Tamils protested against the marginalization and cited among their list of grievances the poor state of schools for Tamil Malaysians. [2]

In fact, it was not only the non-Malays who had their share of unhappiness. Many Malaysians suffered from this brand of capitalism so much so that in the recent general elections, the government lost five states to the opposition though it managed to maintain a slim majority in the federal parliament. [3]

It is perhaps ironic that despite all the hype about the powers of ICT and how technology was heavily promoted by the Malaysian government, the government failed to utilize the Internet and admitted that it lost a huge number of votes for underestimating the power of blogs.

The Way Forward

Given the ubiquity of media culture as well as the Malaysia government's control over TV and the print media, the way forward for Malaysian civil society groups is to use the Internet as modes of self-expression and social activism. The challenge is to develop strategies and methodologies that teach media literacy that would instill critical thinking skills. In this regard, reference could be made to the works by Douglas Kellner and Henry Giroux that highlight the importance of critically discerning and evaluating media content.

In short, a critical literacy will enable one to understand how meanings, messages and values are constructed and imposed on audiences, especially when they promote certain ideologies that will benefit the privileged few while undermining the majority.


[1] Jaswinder Kaur, Land of plenty, June 29, 2008, New Straits Times (Malaysia).

[2] Jaishree Balasubramanian, Malaysian ruling coalition suffers poll setback, March 9, 2008,The Press Trust of India.

[3] Signal for BN to reinvent itself, March 11, 2008,New Straits Times (Malaysia).


Jackson, S., (2000) Technopoles and Development in a ‘Borderless World’: Boundaries Erased, Boundaries Constructed, Paper presented at the Conference on Permeable Borders and Boundaries in a Globalising World: New Opportunities or Old Problems?, Vancouver.

Ma’aruf, S., (1988) Malay Ideas on Development, Singapore, Times Books.

-- AlfianKuchit - 29 Dec 2008

Dear Alfian,

A similar problem came up with the state of Andhra Pradesh in India over the use of ICT for development. Though the then Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu made talked a lot about using ICT for development in the State of AP, he mostly utilised the State budget to create multibillion dollar software technology parks for Big IT. Ultimately he was voted out of power for the same reasons. See . However, I do think that critical literacy is the only contribution that ICT could make towards development. A number of initiatives have shown that ICT can aid in increasing farmer price margins and empowerment through improving distribution networks and increasing price transparency. See

-- RohanGeorge - 01 Jan 2009

  • Both your essay and Rohan's comment seem carefully designed to ignore the obvious. Andhra, like Malaysia, is a corrupt dictatorship with regular elections. "Capitalism" is a word used to describe the relations between outside parties who provide wealth to local power in return for the opportunity to exploit local resources, natural and human. The presence of the local market for local produce and exchange does not distinguish those regimes from nearby "socialisms." What distinguishes Kerala from Andhra or Malaysia is near-universal public education and literacy. "ICT," like any other term describing things rather than people's relation to them, is not social policy. Using 21st century technology to "make jobs," which actually means selling farmed brains to non-local capitalists below global market price, is the authoritarian alternative to using 21st century technology to make educated people. In an earlier state of global civilization, poor countries with educated people experienced out-migration of the skilled, who found or invented work for themselves in locales where their skills produced better lives for them. In the contemporary world, such workers also support their places of origin, because the institutions that make capital mobile enable remittances. In the digital economy, the skilled minds produced in poorer places can participate in higher-value activities without relocating, thus producing better lives for their community directly. The requirements are universal education, including acquisition of English--which is now the global second language; unimpeded access to the network regardless of ability to pay; and a guaranteed right to receive payments via deposit accounts abroad and make payments locally via the network. Whether this is called capitalism or socialism is irrelevant: it will require working democracy, and it will reduce inequality. For these reasons, Andhra and Malaysia won't go that path.



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r3 - 08 Feb 2009 - 16:15:26 - EbenMoglen
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