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From Our Correspondent:
Malaysia's Internet Dilemma

Censorship is seen as futile and damaging
By ARJUNA RANAWANA

March 8, 2000
Web posted at 3:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 2:30 a.m. EST


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In its rush to be "fully developed" by the year 2020, Malaysia is determined to spread the use of information technology. The government hands out numerous incentives to increase the use of computers, and it is now estimated that about one Malaysian in 10 has access to a PC and that there are 1.2 million using the Internet. Much is also being spent on improving infrastructure in both the cities and rural areas.

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E-commerce fever has also arrived and each week brings at least three announcements of start-ups, new ventures or the launch of funds designed to finance start-ups. Says Khairiyatun Azlina, senior manager for e-business at IBM Malaysia: "The explosion of Internet usage and appreciation has increased tremendously, and at a rapid rate locally. This is truly an exciting time."

The government is also working on a way to put its own house in order and become accessible to the public via the Internet. Two Malaysian companies have been licensed to develop the "e-government," which aims to enable citizens to pay their taxes, check their traffic summonses and a host of other things on-line. But Malaysia is also a conservative society used to strict controls on most matters. Its media is tightly regulated by the government, which means muted political debate. By contrast, the essence of the Internet is its freedom. So Malaysia is wrestling with the dilemma almost daily -- how to stay on the Internet highway on over-drive while catering to an innately conservative system.

When the authorities placed restrictions on the popular opposition Malay-language newspaper Harakah, its editors began to boost its on-line version. Then senior government officials wondered aloud whether they could impose restrictions on the web version. But the biggest proponent of IT in the country is its most powerful person, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. He wants his country wired-up as soon as possible. And a pet project is the Multi-Media Super Corridor, which is attracting local and foreign IT companies. Online censorship would go against the principles guiding development of the Net. So Mahathir quickly stepped in to say that he would not permit no interference.

The means to block out certain sites from Malaysian users exists. Local providers say all customers have to go through proxy-servers that can in theory be programmed to block sites such as those offering pornography. But there are so many millions of sites that most would slip through; the providers accept that effective control is impossible. "In Malaysia we have found that the best way to control it is to ask people to restrain themselves," says Christopher Wong of the Kuala Lumpur-based Jaring Internet Magazine, a specialist journal.

The Malaysian IT industry will also closely watch a case coming up in the Kuala Lumpur High Court on March 17. Tycoon Vincent Tan Chee Yioun has filed a $5.7 million defamation suit against former journalist Ganesh Sahathevan. Among other things, Tan has asked the courts to stop Sahathevan from writing e-mails allegedly defaming him. This is the first time the Malaysian courts are to deal with this issue.

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