KUALA LUMPUR - Activists, journalists and opposition groups expected rising Internet access in Malaysia over the past decade to create more room and hunger for political debate, but the promise they saw in "e-democracy" remains unfulfilled today, analysts say.
More than a decade after Malaysia launched its first licensed Internet service provider in 1990, what was assumed to be the Internet's inherent power to enhance the democratic process in a country where dissent is frowned upon remains a theoretical one.
In reality, the average Malaysian's priorities in life and the government's agenda are still being defined by tangible economic imperatives rather than abstract civic discourse on the Internet, communication experts and independent journalists say.
"In a society where the citizenry is not interested in making themselves heard, when newspapers, radio and television are owned and operated by a member of the governing coalition, and when important public issues are never, as a rule, articulated in public, the coming of the Internet cannot lead to freer and more open critical discussion of public issues," said MGG Pillai, civic advocate, journalist and list owner of Sang Kancil at malaysia.net.
"All it [Internet] provides is a forum for the disenchanted, the NGOs, the political parties and, after the Anwar Ibrahim affair [in 1998], the reformasi groups to air their views," he added.
Pillai was referring to opposition groups that sprouted after the arrest of former deputy premier Anwar by the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, as well as attempts to use the Internet as an alternative means of information beyond mainstream media that follow the government line. "They could not [have a forum] before the Internet, because the mainstream newspapers, radio and television would not give them the time of day. Now they can," he explained.
But this has not translated into more openness among ordinary citizens, Pillai said.
Steven Gan, editor-in-chief of the popular online news site malaysiakini.com, said that Malaysia's approach to information technology - Internet penetration rate is expected to rise from 7 percent in 2001 to 25 percent in 2005 - has been focused on drawing foreign investments and commerce, not on pushing freer discussion.
"The government does not want to encourage e-democracy. E-commerce, yes. E-government - in terms of reducing bureaucracy paperwork, yes. But e-democracy - whether viable or not, the fear factor is there to retard open discussion. The writers normally use pseudonyms. Subscribers [to mailing lists] are also afraid so they use the anonymous e-mail," he said.
Despite the government's assurance that the Internet will not be censored, it continues to control the medium through licensing bureaucracies, pricing structures, and application of libel and national security laws through its less-than-independent judiciary. The Internet backbone Joint Advanced Research Networking also comes under the jurisdiction of the government agency called Malaysian Institute of Microelectronics Operating System.
Content regulations place the onus on list owners to ensure that what is communicated in bulletin boards do not break the law, thus compelling providers and list owners to become indirect censors to avoid prosecution.
The issue of whether and how the Internet can plant the seeds of openness also touches on factors that include the degree of community interest and participation in public affairs, which experts say are not particularly high in countries like Malaysia and neighboring Singapore, for instance.
"For e-democracy to succeed - in Malaysia or elsewhere - there must be a citizenry that wants it. When [people] look at politics as being of no importance, and have no concept of community living, and keep their counsel when they disagree or not speak out if they have a point of view, how could it translate into this new-fangled thing like e-democracy?" Pillai said.
The fact that Internet connections are concentrated in urban areas like the capital Kuala Lumpur and Klang Valley also means that select groups in this country of 24.4 million people have access to information resources on-line. More than half of Internet subscribers are concentrated in the Klang Valley in Selangor, government figures show. Nine percent are in Johor and 7 percent in the northern city of Penang.
Kuala Lumpur has the highest penetration rate with about 104 subscribers per 1,000, followed by Selangor and Penang with 85 and 52. Plans for increasing Internet penetration rate aim to enhance accessibility in rural areas. Beyond this, however, Pillai said, "the government has no clear plan for wider Internet access".
"It went slow after the plethora of reformasi websites. Instead of confronting them, and replying and arguing with them, they went into rigor mortis. The last thing it wants is to engage with the opposition, for it believes it can govern without them," he said.
Looking back at the past decade, Kiranjit Kaur, chair of the civic group committee in the Communication and Multimedia Content Forum in Malaysia, said that the impact that many expected the Internet to have on political openness may be "limited" for now.
Not least, he said, many people today use the Internet for leisure and personal communication rather than for other purposes.
"The current trend of Internet usage is more for chatting and non-productive use. Also, the infrastructure and access are still limited. However, once the society gets used to taking their discussions on the Internet more seriously, and there is wider usage of it, it may have more effect," Kaur said.