The Competence Debate     Graduate Employability      Regeneration    
e-skilling & cyberontology
    Live Working Papers    Useful Links    Home page

Paperpresented to Asian Management in Crisis, Association of South East Asian Studies, UK, University of North London, 12th June, 1999


The power of transparency: the Internet, e-mail, and the Malaysian political crisis.


Len Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Organisation and Employment Studies,
The Business School, University of North London (at time of presentation)

Margaret Grieco, Professor of Organisation and Development Management, The Business School, University of North London (at time of presentation)


1. Business communication in a global age: business efficiency or political transparency, a governmental dilemma.

The dilemma posed by the widespread use of new communication channels for the development and success of Malaysian business has become apparent: the 'unmuzzling' of the Internet necessary to the success of any modern economy has, in the case of Malaysia, been accompanied by the widespread and effective use of the Internet for political challenges and resistance to Government. Bob Paquin of the Ottowa Citizen newspaper provides a succinct analysis of both situation and dilemma under the title 'Malaysia unmuzzled Internet ensures information flow in turbulent times (Monday, May 17, 1999):

Malaysian government and Malaysian business had seen the advantages of global communication technologies for external trade and internal organisation: the consequences for the support and upholding of sustained political resistance such as is now found in the reformasi movement had been dramatically underestimated or ignored (see for example, Reformasi News , see also

The Internet, aligned to the suite of new electronic technologies such as CD Roms, video tapes, digital cameras, e-mail and in combination with modern telephonic capabilities, have enabled the external world to be brought in to the middle of the Malaysian political arena on the press of a button. The access of the external world to the centre of Malaysian political space and the access of Malaysian activists, and indeed the less active citizenry, to global views on the Malaysian political and economic crisis has created a new electronic space for political and commercial interaction. External business can at the touch of a button identify areas of discord and uncertainty in Malaysia political and economic life: interests which are being suppressed internally can signal out the extent of their disenchantment and willingness to confront the existing order. As the Paquin article indicates the new on line visibility of Malaysia's difficult political circumstance has an immediate economic effect: negative economic effects have their impact in increasing political disenchantment.

The transparency of Malaysia's difficulties has been fostered by the unmuzzling of the Internet, a transparency which has negative economic and business consequences: however, the remuzzling of the Internet would have direct negative economic consequences. Asian management and Asian government , in this case Malaysia, face a dilemma. In times of stability when the citizenry is compliant, the Internet plays the ready role of efficiently organising societal resources and enlarging trade and business (Singapore would be a good example of such a state) but in times of crisis, the Internet serves to amplify the visibility and transparency of conflicts for the external observer and where the external observer is an investor, the consequences are clear. Business can suffer. Within this paper, we examine more fully this particular dilemma of Asian management and Asian government.

In exploring this dilemma we encounter another: the proliferation of Malaysian web sites dedicated to political challenge and social reform and the invitation that these sites make to those outside of Malaysian politics to participate in moving such political challenge and social reform forward has the consequence of enabling the access of outside interests to this complex political space. At present, Malaysian reformist constituencies find mainstream support for their activities from the external global arena, however, there are circumstances in which through the very same medium, the Internet, external forces which are hostile towards the reformasi agenda can hi-jack or alter the path of change in a different direction to that sought by the reformasi movement. It is a dilemma: to open a call for support and to open a medium for establishing solidarity and participation can result in being taken over. Already there are examples on reformasi chat lines and pages of contributions which are negative about the reformasi cause. Disinformation can as easily be broadcast over the electronic forms as accurate information. This is not to suggest that to date the Internet has not proved a major weapon in the anwar/ reformasi confrontation but rather to suggest that the tool has its limits and the original user of the tool may not remain the permanent controller.

We might reasonably expect that the Malaysian government begins to make use of the Internet in 'spinning' the current political problematic and that it will aim its materials at many of the same audiences in a bid to hold trade and investment. Indeed, in some ways we already have some indication of such a trend: the search engine for Malaysia 'broadcast' from California appears to have no political content whatsoever upon it suggesting that is 'moderated' in such a way as to keep it clean (, although the main malaysianet site does indeed carry material on Anwar and a statement from Alvin Toffler to the effect that it is important that super communications highways should not become vehicles for repression. A quick review of the contents of the first page of the Malaysianet web site gives us a feel of the current politico commercial debate around the technology:

In this short first section, we have identified a number of dilemmas clustered around the widespread use of the Internet in Malaysia and upon Malaysian issues. We wish to close the first section by commenting upon the emergence of this electronic political-commercial dynamic in what is conventionally termed a developing country. The complexity of these new political forms is worthy of a full Ph.D.: this paper does not attempt the comprehensive analysis of these new forms but the following sections do provide, a sampling of some of the complex technical, social, political and commercial dynamics involved.

2. The prison notebooks: an electronic challenge on hegemony

The tradition of communicating with the world from the solitary status of political imprisonment is a long and authoritative phenomenon. Imprisonments for social and religious reasons have also produced their high literary forms. From a Pilgrim's Progress, through the Ballad of Reading Gaol, in the work of Genet and par excellence in the work of Gramsci (the Prison Notebooks), the imprisoned have issued their challenges in high forms to the existing social order. Reducing the individual to the solitary state has often resulted in the most critical and cutting challenges to existing hegemonies. Anwar when he placed his letters from prison on the Internet through the offices of a second party ( ) most surely shaped his action within this tradition.

But most importantly and for the first time, mass access to his contemporaneous writings from prison was immediately enabled on line. The power to instantaneously communicate the immediacy of punishment, torture and imprisonment has never previously existed. In terms of political communication, it is an unanalyzed and untheorised new event: and it is an event of a very important order.

Under traditional circumstances, imprisoned leaders were separated from their peoples: their living images were rarely available. In the period of video film, mass instantaneous broadcast capabilities of interactive visual materials and a leader with a strong social network surrounding him/her able to 'capture' and release the leaders image through electronic forms, there is a new potential for leaders to remain in the eye of their peoples (indeed we have seen something similar but on a lesser scale in Burma). Video clips of Anwar and his full writings from prison are available on the Internet ( ). In order to ensure that Government can not simply bring down this material by closing a single Anwar site, the web site developers have ensured that there are a number of mirror sites with different geographical homes. (for a listing of fifty official Anwar Ibrahim online web sites which show this mirror dynamic see )

In traditional times, newspapers would simply be closed down if they were friendly to opponents of government and their stock of photographs which confirmed their views would be destroyed. The development of the Internet means that the physical visual image no longer needs to be held in a place where it can so easily be destroyed: visual images which act as confirmatory evidence can be transmitted outside of national border and held in an electronic location where they can be readily accessed but can not be destroyed.

In researching this paper, we have spent considerable time on the Internet looking at the way in which individuals and situations are being portrayed in order to elicit the desired sympathy with the reformasi cause. We have come across a number of very interesting new forms of communication designed to generate solidarity with the reformasi cause and weaken the respect for and allegiance to current government. A particularly skilled form is that of the Rogues Row on ( ) which provides photographs of key government and business personalities and subtitles which poke fun at these figures. The Rogues Row provides information on corruption and other relevant issues in the current controversy. At the level of the Internet user this will develop a familiarity with those usually held in very high regard and debunk the sacred character associated with national leaders. In the case of one rogue, the simple act of passing the computer mouse across the 'rogue's face' contorts the face into something recognisably nasty and moreover something which is moving toward the internet user ( ). Clearly, somebody very skilled in the technology has been at work ensuring that the Internet delivers a form of social caricature which reduces respect for the national leaders. The contrast between the dignity of Anwar's prison letters and those national leaders 'imprisoned' on rogue's row (the term used is 'inmates' invites the sympathy for Anwar. This opposition is of course highly constructed: this is not to argue that Anwar is not worthy of support nor is to argue that the information contained upon the rogue's is incorrect but simply to indicate that the images are not simply a natural ordering but are highly manipulated. The practice of 'virtual imprisonment' represents a reversal of apparent social power through the use of the electronic mode and invites the understanding that the present set of on the ground power relations is open to being overtaken.

The technology allows new forms for framing social reality: and the way in which such social reality is framed will have its impact on external audiences and coalition formation both in international politics and global business. An important feature of the new technology in framing social and political understanding of new and emergent political and social realities is the ability to provide comprehensive archiving of the chronology and character of social events and processes. In the case of the Anwar confrontation in Malaysia, comprehensive archiving ( , see also, has indeed been undertaken and is accompanied by on line ready search facilities which enable new entrants to this electronic political space to track the process and development at will, on their own and in detail. Furthermore, the technology enables the ready transmission of calendars of new activities ( ): obtaining information no longer depends on social group membership. Historically, those wishing to destroy political organisation could track political membership of an organisation back along information routes - the best known example of such a process was in the colonial struggle in Algeria and formed the material for the classic film 'The Battle of Algiers'. With new technology, the possession of information gives no such inevitable clue to social and political contacts. Similarly, the availability of such an archive of materials enables the ready refreshing of political memory and provides instantaneous advocacy resources. In the case of Malaysia, it is clear that the density and range of Internet materials will increasingly play a role in the structuring of political understanding: electronic advocacy is a feature of a new political age in which the national can be rendered global through the establishment of inexpensive virtual political spaces (web sites).

The complexity of the Internet and e-mail structure surrounding Anwar, in which his own prison letters and video productions, play a key and core role, is unrivalled by any of the social or business Malaysian web sites currently on line. The role of new communication technology in globalising Malaysian organisation is at its most pronounced in the political sector. The parodying of business leaders on the Malaysian political web sites will of course present its dilemmas for international business. Under the counter deals or 'gentleman's agreements' are no longer likely to remain matters between two parties: the potential for global observation and display of suspect deals is now an actuality.

The Internet, and its sister technology, e-mail, not only enable political organisations to make use of the same distribution and information channels as global business, they also enable the better use and substantial amplification of other communication technologies. Web sites typically carry information on other communication modes such as telephone numbers and mailing addresses: through the Internet location information can be readily obtained with important consequences for international advocacy. The ease of access through the Internet to telephone contacts and mail addresses enlarges the number of reliable modes of communication open to the individual: the search capabilities as well as the connection capabilities of the technology have enabled the social movement around Anwar to make a very real challenge to the existing hegemony.

3. Demonstrating mass interest and commitment: client counting techniques.

The needs of commerce and business have seen the development of extensive client feedback and client participation systems. The development of commercial web sites which enable clients to order on line, to share information with other product users (forums), and to assist business in the fine tuning and improved design of products has its political consequences. Within the high income countries of the work, consumers have begun to use the inter-client communication capabilities to put pressure onto business to reform and transform. The ability to raise on-line, well organised consumer lobbies is a feature of modern economic life. Within the high income countries, older persons, a group which very often experiences mobility constraints and has traditionally been fragmented in terms of political and social action, have begun to use the technology to effect - the American Association of Retired Persons provides a clear demonstration of this new political form (

These very same feedback systems have become important in the politics of Malaysia. At present, there are a number of sites which carry e-mail addressed to or about Anwar: these forums are an important vehicle for the development of solidarity and interestingly, many of the sites operate in both local language and English. That these chat rooms have become a major location for internet activity conducted in own language provides an indication that the domination of the Internet by English is no means certain: the willingness to provide text translated from local language into English on these sites as a mechanism for internationalising the discourse indicates the extent to which perfectly parallel discourses can be provided in either language medium. This clearly is a new political form - a form which may indicate the extent to which global business could move away from English dominance on the Internet in favour of English as an international facilitating mode rather than the sole mode.

But presence in the chat room, no matter which language is being operated, is often concerned with issues of individual visibility. Whilst prominent and external figures are often ready to sign their names to statements of support, the lone individual can court unwanted and significant levels of repression by revealing identity in a political chat room or forum. Consequently, the Anwar Chat room warns users 'do not log in with email address'.

The contributors to chat rooms now have a new option in the development of solidarity, they can make a contribution to the Anwar campaign simply by clicking on sites or contributing anonymously to a major open and public debate without exposing themselves politically or socially. Such safe options have consequences for the development of solidarity: individuals can nudge incrementally towards fuller action. But more importantly, the many of the various websites and forums have had counters attached to their sites. Each click on a site or addressing of an email is counted: the level of interest and potential support is measured by the traffic through the various web sites. Indeed, within electronic technology, the measurement of potential markets by user traffic on web sites has become formalised and there are now sites which carry information on the number of hits across a range of sites ( ) . The success of the Malaysian web sites as measured by user traffic is readily visible from the site - the number of hits given for Reformasi Nasional was 7,771,809 presumably since the commencement of the site.

The client counting techniques of business and commerce become the solidarity measuring techniques of political and social change. Not only do such statistics measure solidarity but they encourage further social action by revealing the strength of support a social movement has already gained. Of course, counters on low use sites will have a similar dynamic though in the opposite direction. Internet Users will be discouraged from joining social and political action which registers low interest as measured by a low count. There is, of course, a capability for-technically manipulating these statistics: similarly, it is possible to ensure that the recording of the statistics is placed in the hands of a respected and authoritative agency.

In the same way that client counting, client forums and other client feedback mechanisms developed in the commercial sector have been taken up in the promotion of the reformasi social movement, so too have other tricks and electronic techniques of the commercial trade. One such form is that of sending electronic postcards in support of Anwar: This form requires the individual sending the card to identify his or her self. This enables the taking of a greater risk than anonymous email or simply clicking on web sites for information but limits that risk by permitting the individual to specify who the recipient of the post card will be. It is beyond our competence in this paper to calculate the level of electronic communication which has been involved in the Anwar campaign but clearly it is of sizeable proportion and indicates the extent to which global technologies designed for business are now produced new political forms that threaten the old rules and establishment under which business was conducted.

4. Conclusion: political challenge and the establishment of electronic competence.

It is clear that before the advent of the Anwar campaign, Malaysia had already experienced substantial developments in the use of global communication technologies. It was a society which demonstrated beyond all doubt that electronic technology is critical in the development of trade and commerce for the developing world. E-commerce was a vehicle which could reduce many of the disadvantages experienced historically by economies outside of the high income country club.

This paper has shown, the astuteness and skill with which the social movement around Anwar has made use of the Internet in its search for international and internal coalitions and partners in placing pressure on the government of Malaysia. In line with Freireian (Freire, 1972) precepts, the relevance of the technology to the struggle to expose corruption is paramount: in the struggle for change new competences and skills have been learnt and innovative adaptation of business and commerce tools by the Anwar social movement have become the order of the day. The political web sites carry advice on how to get free email, information on ways of contributing towards the struggle at differentiated levels of exposure and the overall up-technicising of political action has been largely promoted by the opposition. They have captured a tool of government's economic policy and through its use subverted an established order. It is a dilemma for Asian Management as AlvinToffler's contribution so vibrantly demonstrates.



Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin

The Competence Debate   Graduate Employability    Regeneration   e-skilling and cyberontology
    Live Working Papers    Useful Links     The Odyssey Group     Back to home page