Is Malaysia’s net clampdown at odds with knowledge economy?

August 7, 2009

The opposition wants to cut the sale of alcohol in a state that it rules and now the government wants to restrict Internet access .

Malaysia is a multicultural country of 27 million people in Southeast Asia. It has a majority Muslim population that of course is not allowed to drink by religion. Yet clearly some do as shown by the sentencing to caning for a young woman handed down recently

(Photo: Prime Minister Najib Razak leaving the National Mosque as he prepared to mark his first 100 days in office in July. Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad)

Proposals by the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party, which wants an Islamic state, could effectively end the sale of alcohol in the country’s richest state, Selangor, which is next to the capital Kuala Lumpur.

Its rules would penalise not only Muslims that consumed alcohol, but also for example Muslim shop assistants in say Tesco’s who could be fined if they sold alcohol.

This is coming from a country whose most celebrated film maker, PJ Ramlee, made movies featuring alcohol, smoking and night clubs as well as cross-racial relationships and whose first premier Tunku Abdul Rahman, a Muslim of course and a member of one of Malaysia’s royal families, was fond of  whisky. 

And the Internet?
If you want to find out anything in Malaysia, you need to read the net. The country’s newspapers, largely owned by the political parties that have run this country for 51 years and which need to be licensed annually, feed their readers a steady diet of pro-government propaganda.

All of the mainstream Malaysian media ignored the Internet restrictions story. The government insists it is only targeting porn with its proposed Internet filters, though few believe them.

That’s not to say the Internet here is perfect – it is as prone to rumour and exaggeration as anywhere else – but sites like Malaysian Insider, Malaysiakini and the Nutgraph provide a critical view.

Numerous blogs both anti- and pro-government provide views and news. Though it must be admitted that the opposition has been far more nimble than the sometimes clumsy government efforts. Leading opposition MP Lim Kit Siang tweets avidly as does the government’s Khairy Jamaluddin, while ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad maintains a blog that is acerbic, witty and can appear vindictive.
Whether you take all of them seriously is another matter.  

For that matter, Reuters maintains a Twitter presence here too. 

The most famous, or infamous, blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin has been detained, charged with sedition and sued. Though he appears to have skipped the country to avoid new charges.
He alleged that Prime Minister Najib Razak had been involved in the murder of a Mongolian model. Najib says the allegations are opposition lies and strongly denies them.

One of Najib’s first moves was to try to set up an effective Internet presence to promote his premiership. The site is called 1Malaysia. The brand has spawned a foundation, of which Najib is unsurprisingly the patron, and recently a savings scheme.
Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansoor has followed suit and went online this week, urging web users not to be seduced by defamatory and seditious websites. 

Malaysia  wants to be as economically advanced as Singapore and South Korea, wants foreign investment and to produce a high-skilled “knowledge economy”. Can it do this and seemingly adopt political restrictions on a par with China and moral restrictions like those of Saudi Arabia?

 Can it bridge huge divides between the opposition and the government or will Najib continue with crackdowns on dissent  as he seeks to maintain a grip on power beyond elections due by 2013?

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Malaysia is known for talking big and acting small. That’s why nobody thinks they can enforce the Internet restriction order.