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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Newsmakers 1998

ONLINE - AND IN FASHION
The Internet comes into its own as a catalyst for political change and economic activity


Reflections Out with the old, in with the new

Suharto Three decades of rule end in chaos and ignominy

Mahathir and Anwar The premier and his chosen deputy battle

A.B. Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif blast their way into the nuclear club

Zhu Rongji China's reformer grapples with the Crisis

FIRST, A CAVEAT. In a year when popular media trumpeted the paradigm-shifting importance of the Internet, one of the more misleading adjectives used to describe the global communications grid was "ubiquitous." True, the number of people who use connected computers to send e-mail, scan news headlines, research purchases and download jokes is growing quickly. But despite the "World Wide" Web, a PC and a modem are still far less likely to be found in the average home than are telephones and TVs. In developing Asia, there are roughly 9.8 million people online. That's a mere 0.03% of the population - worlds away from the critical mass needed for the much-heralded information explosion.

Yet, with the right catalyst, explosions can occur. And in 1998, Asia's economic and political difficulties shifted paradigms all over the map. The abrupt disintegration of the region's "miracle" left more than half the world's people seeking solace, solutions and scapegoats. The Internet, the right technology at the right time, was there to help, a search engine offering perspectives and capabilities beyond conventional mass communications.

In countries such as China, where media are tightly controlled, Web-based news services provided both a window on the world as well as a looking-glass through which citizens could glimpse their nation's image abroad. Chinese leaders began to realize the growing importance of the Web as a political tool. The landmark June visit of U.S. President Bill Clinton was glowingly chronicled on a government website - even as China's "Internet police" tried to block out pornographic content and other material they deemed inimical.

In 1998, the Internet moved beyond trendiness. It began to live up to its reputation as an interactive medium, a vehicle not just for witnessing history but for shaping it. American politicians eager to spotlight Clinton's philandering with a White House intern published the results of a special investigation on the Web, in far more salacious detail than would have been possible though traditional news outlets. Millions surfed the documents and videotapes - and seemed to decide Clinton's antagonists went too far in their efforts to discredit him. In mid-term elections, Democrats gained Congressional seats, a historical rarity for the party holding the presidency.

Elsewhere, the disenfranchised leveraged the Net's uncontrolled, trans-border structure to spur social and political change - or just to make their voices heard. In Indonesia, e-mail allowed student protesters to communicate and organize without much fear of reprisal. "The Internet did not create the foment that led to Suharto's downfall," noted David Hill, chairman of the School of Asian Studies at Australia's Murdoch University. "But the fact that students could operate in a coordinated way across the country, and [that] information was able to spread so rapidly, surely contributed" to Suharto's exit.

Malaysians, too, discovered that free speech is cheaper in cyberspace. Sometimes using second-hand computers and free website hosting services, reformists used the Web to vent their outrage over the arrest of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim. Meanwhile, democracy "hacktivists," operating anonymously from the safety of the U.S., broke into computer systems in China and vandalized government websites.

Recession also buttressed the vision of information technology (IT) as an economic cornerstone. Some believe that electronic commerce - businesses using the Internet to reach customers directly and globally - will reshape the industrial landscape in the next century. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology media lab, recently said the Internet allows businesses in small countries to compete against global giants. He foresaw online sales exceeding $1 trillion in 2002.

Similar voices are being heeded. The entrepots of Singapore and Hong Kong, stunned by their vulnerability and seeking to diversify their economies, began to position themselves as "infoports," regional communications and content-creation centers. Both cities launched high-speed, broadband communications networks in 1998. Throughout the region, the need for IT investment became more urgent, as economic laggards such as Vietnam and India promoted home-grown software industries. Even Taiwan, with the world's third-largest computer-hardware sector, fears being outdistanced because of the Internet. "If we don't act now," says Kuo Yun, president of the island's Institute for Information Industry, "our IT hardware industry may be gone in a few years."

Asia is playing catch-up. American companies have already embraced e-commerce. Notably, Cisco Systems, the largest maker of network switches and routers, derives more than half of its $10 billion in annual revenue from the Internet. But as multilingual websites multiply in numbers (Web mainstays such as Yahoo! are rapidly adding sites in Chinese and other languages), the region may catch on quickly. "In China, 1999 is going to be the year of e-commerce," says Tony Leung, marketing director for Compaq Computer's Greater China division. Dataquest, a market research firm, expects online users in the Asia-Pacific region to exceed 45 million by 2002. "As a measure of growth, that's truly off the chart," says Dataquest analyst Allen Weiner. KaBoom.

-By Jim Erickson


This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home

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SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness


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