1996-12-09 - Malaysian Netropolis and Net-regs, from The Netly News

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From: Declan McCullagh <declan@well.com>
To: cypherpunks@toad.com
Message Hash: 3c836aca153fe9844ba7217b5e8d7a4c46b9ded9392fc99a5d2524ec3da6ee15
Message ID: <Pine.GSO.3.95.961209091528.24859C-100000@well.com>
Reply To: N/A
UTC Datetime: 1996-12-09 17:15:59 UTC
Raw Date: Mon, 9 Dec 1996 09:15:59 -0800 (PST)

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From: Declan McCullagh <declan@well.com>
Date: Mon, 9 Dec 1996 09:15:59 -0800 (PST)
To: cypherpunks@toad.com
Subject: Malaysian Netropolis and Net-regs, from The Netly News
Message-ID: <Pine.GSO.3.95.961209091528.24859C-100000@well.com>
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---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 9 Dec 1996 09:15:12 -0800 (PST)
From: Declan McCullagh <declan@well.com>
To: fight-censorship@vorlon.mit.edu
Subject: Malaysian Netropolis and Net-regs, from The Netly News

The Netly News
December 9, 1996

The Malaysian Solution
By Declan McCullagh (declan@well.com)
       My first thought when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur was that it was
   dirty, at least compared to whisper-clean Singapore, where I had just
   been. Yet the city was fully alive -- not just with hawker stalls but
   with a newfound sense of optimism.
       That's because Malaysia, long a sleepy jungle backwater, is
   carefully preparing an area just south of the capital to be the Asian
   technology center, a no-taxes-here free trade zone, the place to be
   for all things cyber. It will be patterned after Penang, an island off
   Malaysia's northwest coast that's home to one of the largest
   collections of chip manufacturers in the world. The way Prime Minister
   Mahathir Mohamad describes it, fiber will line the streets of the $8
   billion "Multimedia Super Corridor" and dollars will flow into the
   coffers of Western businesses that settle here. Malaysia is busy
   crafting a Netropolis.
       Dr. Tommi Chen, the CEO of asiapac.net, explains the government's
   plan to me over satay and bowls of chee cheong fun. We're waiting out
   the monsoon rain in one of the countless Malay-Chinese eateries in
   Petaling Jaya, a town about 15 miles from the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
       "This region is exploding," he says. "Everyone is competing to be
   the information-technology hub. The government is trying to attract
   the best to create another Silicon Valley." Sun Microsystems, Ernst &
   Young and Microsoft have already announced plans to shift Asian
   operations to this tropical city. That influx will doubtless be
   hastened in February when intellectual property and digital signature
   laws are set to be introduced.
       To attract firms, the government is unabashedly pro-business. "I
   think Malaysia will leapfrog other countries in the region as a
   business center," Chen says. "The prime minister and the deputy prime
   minister championed the Internet themselves."
       Yet just like everywhere else that embraces rapid datafication, a
   Net connection brings with it overseas ideas and values that alarm
   authorities in this strict Islamic state, which still refuses to sign
   the International Declaration of Human Rights and has a police force
   that can indefinitely detain individuals deemed a threat to national
   security. In a country where chaste kisses -- a tepid buss on the
   cheek! -- are chopped out of television broadcasts, what's a poor
   government censor to do when images from
   alt.binaries.pictures.erotica.pornstar flow through Malaysian
       The answer may lie in the history books. North of Singapore, south
   of Thailand, straddling the South China Sea, Malaysia was settled by
   the British in 1795. The country won its independence in 1957, but an
   internal Communist uprising quickly destablized the young government.
   Then, on May 13, 1969, members of a Chinese political party took to
   the streets of Kuala Lumpur to celebrate a strong showing in a
   parliamentary election. Malay-Chinese riots flared for four days and
   hundreds died. The government responded by taking extreme measures to
   reduce ethnic friction, echoes of which exist today in draconian laws
   punishing people (such as newspaper editors) who "incite" racial
       In this atmosphere, Prime Minister Mahathir prospered. Once a
   critic of autocratic government, he dismantled the formerly
   independent judiciary after a court threatened his grip on power in
   1987. His other censor-happy feats include once banning the Wall
   Street Journal and the Far East Economic Review. No viable opposition
   party exists. Lim Guan Eng, an opposition leader, is being tried for
   sedition. Local newspapers are uniformly pro-government. Issues of
   Western magazines with articles critical of Mahathir somehow never
   make it to newsstands.
       Malaysian netizens have a ready answer for these criticisms of
   their country. To them, Malaysia may not be ready for the kind of
   freedoms the West enjoys. "Most Asians see Westerners as being too
   liberal with too many things," a Chinese manager at a technology firm
   told me. The country's perception of liberty, I begin to understand,
   is seen through the lens of communist threats and the May 13 racial
   riots. With freedom, perhaps, comes instability, uncertainty... chaos.
       That's why Mahathir is faced with an exquisitely delicate
   balancing act: providing enough freedom to attract Western companies
   and American-educated workers accustomed to it, while meeting the
   demands of powerful Islamic fundamentalists who would put Senator Exon
   to shame.
       "The pornography laws exist. They will just extend these laws to
   the Net," says Chen. The rain has slowed to a light patter. We're
   almost ready to return to his office, across the street, where a score
   of 20-somethings work late into the night. He concludes: "Malaysia is
   Muslim. They have to do it -- they have no choice. They know there is
   no foolproof control, but they have to do it anyway."
       My next visit is to the office of Dr. Mohamed Awang Lah, the head
   of Jaring, the only other licensed and government-approved Internet
   provider in Malaysia. Like asiapac.net, Jaring is owned by the state.
   (Three illicit providers, however, apparently exist.)
       "We block about a hundred web sites, otherwise people complain,"
   Awang Lah tells me. This, then, is the balancing act: "If we are too
   open, people complain. If we are too closed, people complain." This is
   an epiphany for me: the Notorious 100, presumably the same web sites
   blocked by the government of Singapore! It's a token gesture, not too
   much, not too little. In a lot of ways, it's a far better solution
   than the U.S. Congress's ham-handed Communications Decency Act, now on
   the Supreme Court's calendar.
       "The government will not regulate the Internet," Awang Lah says.
   "The only part we don't like, that is not acceptable to the culture,
   to the religion, is pornography... There are also some restrictions on
   religious content. But there is no intention to regulate the free flow
   of discussion." (Except for anti-Islam or anti-Mahathir criticisms,
   I'd wager.)
       Still, Malaysia seems to follow a pattern of strict laws and lax
   enforcement. Sure, sexually explicit materials may be banned by law.
   But just a block from my hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur, I was able to
   buy three porn videos -- two American, one Japanese -- for 50 ringgit,
   or U.S. $7 each, from a sidewalk vendor. Perhaps there's some hope for
   the Net after all.