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
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):
The Malaysian government of Mahathir Mohamad may have silenced former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim - convicted last month of corruption and sentenced to six years in prison - but thanks to the Internet and other electronic media channels, Mr Anwar's message of reform continues to be heard throughout the country. The fact that Malaysian citizens have been able to obtain relatively unbiased news on the Anwar trial and the 'reformasi' campaign exemplifies the increasing difficulty governments have in managing the flow of information within their borders - even when they control the major print and broadcast media. Within days of Anwar's arrest, offshore Web sites sprouted by the dozen offering a combination of news, analysis and essays, and serving as repositories for press statements and letters from prison from Mr. Anwar himself……..
Ironically, the fact Malaysians are in a position to make use of digital media reports is due in large part to the government's efforts to transform the country into a kind of information technology mecca. Over the last few years, fuelled by a decade of double-digit growth, Malaysia has been witness to a series of bold investments in its infrastructure, including the construction of a cross-country highway, the world's tallest building, a state-of-the-art airport, and a soon-to-be-completed new capital city. The jewel in Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's crown, however, was to be the Multimedia Super Corridor, a swath of land hewn out of the jungle, and transformed into the world's latest Silicon Valley upstart. Until the Asian financial crisis hit, the project was going surprisingly well. Bill Gates and Microsoft were among those promising to build R&D facilities, locate regional headquarters and produce goods within this wired village…….
The financial crisis and the Anwar trial changed all that. The trees have been levelled and some of the data pipes have been installed, but most of the potential investors have delayed or cancelled their plans for the region. Nonetheless, the emphasis on an IT future, coupled with years of increased consumer spending, has created a widely shared taste for the latest in technological gadgets, including Internet connectivity and VCDs.
(For the full Paquin article go to http://members.xoom.com/Gerakan/unmuzzle_internet.html )
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 http://www.geocities.com/Tokyo/Flats/3797/berita.htm , see also http://www.cyberway.com.sg/~nassir/index.html
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 (http://www.malaysia.net/links/), 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:
Welcome to MalaysiaNET
MalaysiaNET, is a wholly owned project of Infogroup Corporation Ltd., to promote E-commerce on the information highway in Southeast Asia. The main principles of this site are the introduction of e-commerce, a free search engine. a free web-based e-mail service, the promotion of freedom of expression and the free flow of information via the Internet.
November 17, 1998
Statement from Mr Alvin Toffler
Although in my recent correspondence with Prime Minister Mahathir and in published articles I have sharply criticized the imprisonment in Malaysia of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and my friend Munawar Anees, I have not yet formally resigned from the International Advisory Panel of the Malaysian Multi-Media Supercorridor as reported in the press.
I do not believe that this visionary project, which is important for the future of the Malaysian people and serves, in part, as a model and challenge to other countries, can flourish in the present climate of political repression.
I am sure other members of the panel, including the heads of many giant software, computer, and telecommunications companies, share this view.
And I do not agree, as Prime Minister Mahathir has argued in response to my appeals, that the MMSC project is purely a business matter and has nothing to do with politics. The "cyberlaws" that he promised investors -- complete freedom of access to information, and other Third Wave freedoms, are, in fact, clearly political.
The creation of an Asian Silicon Valley is itself inherently political.
That is why I hope that even at this late date a calm and just resolution can be found to the conflict between those calling for reform in Malaysia and a once visionary Prime Minister, who in the past has prevented ethnic conflict, marginalized religious fanaticism, and helped replace rubber, tin, and timber with semiconductor chips as his country's key export.
If Anwar and Anees are not released from prison unharmed as soon as possible, I will resign, as, I suspect, will other members of the panel on whose investments the project depends.
Alvin Toffer, November 17, 1998
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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 (http://members.tripod.com/~Anwar_Ibrahim/prison/stupid_plot.htm ) most surely shaped his action within this tradition.
I have chosen the path of societal reform and, in so doing, I often have had to sacrifice that just balance I have always wanted to maintain between contemplation and action. Through ABIM, student and youth movements, and later in government, I have tried to generate public awareness (taw'iyya) of the crucial importance of ensuring al-adl wal-ihsan (justice and virtue/equity) in all human affairs. It is true that I have often been conciliatory, and at times I have been criticised by colleagues and Islamists and social activists and the opposition, who insisted that not all of such compromises could be rationalised in the name of hikmah, or wisdom. (In fact, I intimated to you some time ago of my growing disenchantment and frustrations at the excesses of the government, Dr. Mahathirs abhorrence of criticism, his mega- enterprises and delusions of grandeur.) However, I had to draw the line when transgressions went beyond acceptable boundaries, when corruption had become pervasive and rampant, when religious laws and ulamas were belittled and abused, when public funds were plundered to enrich families and cronies, and when there was travesty of justice and the rule of law trampled. I have highlighted some of these issues in my earlier letters from prison, such as From the Halls Of Power to the Labyrinths of Incarceration. (I had wanted to use "Labyrinth of Solitude," but it's a novel by Octavio Paz). Of course, I am paying a high price for sticking to my convictions. Nor am I alone in facing the rage of an ageing dictator. Unfortunately, my family and friends have to suffer along with me. Some have been arrested, tortured, or otherwise harassed by the Special Branch. My experience in detention in 1974 taught me that it would be totally unacceptable merely to survive as a conformist while having to endure corruption and oppression. Alternatively, having to pursue a reform agenda as a competent critic is certainly challenging and beset with obstacles. Nonetheless, it is beyond my worst expectations that Dr. Mahathir could act in such a desperate, despicable manner -- to allege that I am guilty of acts of treason (foreign agent), sexual misconduct, corruption, even explored the possibility that I was involved in a complicity to murder. And the fitnah and mihnah continue unabated, with vilification by the government-controlled media. Since you left, the Inspector General of Police, Tan Sri Rahim Nor, has resigned and Dr. Mahathir has relinquished his role as Minister of Home Affairs. But I intend to proceed with a civil suit against him and the IGP for the physical assault, for being stripped naked, and the inhuman treatment under police custody. A lesson must be learnt. Citizens cannot be subjected to brutal physical abuse and ridicule. Nevertheless, like you, I have no regrets. I'm trying to keep myself busy--with prayers and du'a, tadarrus and reading. How else could I be expected to finish The Complete Works Of Shakespeare, Will Durant's Study of Philosophy, The Penguin History of the World, works of Plato and Aristotle etc. etc.? My old copy of Abdullah Yusuf Ali's translation of the Quran is most valuable because of my earlier short notes and references from Ibn Kathir, al-Qurtubi, Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Maududi's tafsirs. Because of the limited number of books permitted at any given time, my hadith collection is confined to Riadh us-Salihin for the present. So, as you can observe, I have not overlooked the importance of education and the intellectual tradition in bringing about reform. I recall my last IIIT meeting with al-Marhum Ismail al Faruqi in Virginia, which featured a debate on "Ibn Khaldun and Change," based on Ernest Gellner's Muslim Society. Al-Marhum Ismail had a way to compel me to read the relevant texts before such meetings. Such encounters undoubtedly helped to further enhance my love for scholarly discourse and rekindle my passion for literature, which I have tried to share with the public even in dry budget speeches in Parliament in the hope of introducing the great minds to the uninitiated. Thus, while trying to justify the need for reform or the reduction of taxes, for instance, I used to slip in quotes from Ibn Khaldun. I concur with Mortimer Adler in his attempt to popularise philosophy. Thus Asian sages and reformers feature regularly in my speeches and writings, including Kung Fu Tze, Wang An Shih and the author of Kurikural. The Asian Renaissance series (of conferences) beginning with Jose Rizal whom I consider a precursor to the Asian renaissance, was a great success.
(Anwar's letters from prison: http://members.tripod.com/~Anwar_Ibrahim/prison/abu_suleyman.htm )
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 (http://members.xoom.com/Gerakan/ ). 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 http://pages.whowhere.lycos.com/sports/vr4/ )
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 (http://www.freemalaysia.com/samsudin.htm ) 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 (http://www.freemalaysia.com/rogues/vincent_tan.htm ). 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 (http://members.xoom.com/_XOOM/Gerakan/archive.html , see also, http://members.tripod.com/~Anwarite/) 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 (http://www.members.xoom.com/_XOOM/Gerakan/announcements/events.html ): 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 (http://www.aarp.org).
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 http://www.malaysianet.net/index.shtml 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 (http://www.TheCounter.com/stats/toplists/24.0.html ) . The success of the Malaysian web sites as measured by user traffic is readily visible from the Counter.com 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: http://cardforanwar.hypermart.net/. 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