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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #40

Chapter 5: Understanding Globalization (Cont’d)

Correlates of the IT Revolution


What marvels me is that this IT revolution has not even reached its maximal potential. Each day promises even more dramatic improvements and new achievements. Today’s personal computer is a quantum leap in performance over those of only a few years ago. Bill Gates is planning to encircle the globe with low orbiting satellites to enable any one anywhere to get Internet connectivity. While such a development may not seem impressive to someone in America who already has convenient Internet access, imagine what it would do for areas like East Malaysia and Africa. They would leapfrog into the IT age overnight. There would need to wait for the local government or telephone company to lay phone lines and cables.

With ease of communication, ideas and information would spread easily. News is no longer controlled by any one authority. Whereas in the past citizens had to rely on one government-controlled source (as in Malaysia) or a few commercial outlets controlled by powerful groups (as in America), today we have literally limitless sources of news and information on the Internet. Malaysia’s independent web daily Malaysiakini.com is now more popular than the established media. During the Afghanistan bombing in the war against terrorists following the 9-11 attacks, with the mainstream American media not doing any frontline reporting, readers could still follow the news by tuning into the Arab television channel Al Jazeera (available on cable and the Internet).

This democratization of news and information is both boon and bane. Citizens can now have independent access to information and are less likely to be influenced by blatant propaganda from any one side. The most effective antidote to propaganda is the availability of alternate sources of news and views. This porous spread of information is the best offensive against totalitarian regimes. Even the Chinese government that has a penchant for controlling every aspect of its citizens’ life cannot filter and control the Internet, though not for lack of trying.

Were there to be another Tiananmen Square incident today, news and visuals of the horror would spread quickly via the Internet. The recent successful demonstrations against the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) annual meeting in Seattle and Prague were made possible through messages sent over the Internet. Diverse groups from all over were able to be mobilized and effectively organized through chat groups and e-mails. Law enforcement agencies were not able to track, much less anticipate, the demonstrators’ moves.

Internet also made possible the booming new phenomenon of electronic commerce. Billions worth of air travel and vacations that used to be booked through travel agencies are now done directly by consumers via the Internet. I have not used a travel agency now for some years. Imagine an entire industry – travel agencies – being wiped out!

The same technology that allows me to book my vacations online could also be used for a whole lot of unsavory things. The most pernicious and widespread is the peddling of pornography. E-commerce now provides lucrative marketing tools for purveyors of filth. The leveling effect of the Internet is such that some small backroom operators in a slimy corner of Bangkok could compete with well-heeled hustlers in Hollywood.

The Internet is now the medium of choice for neo-Nazis, racist organizations and terrorist cells. Cybercrimes, ranging from simple hacking to the spreading of destructive viruses and stealing of sensitive information, are costing companies billions. A major subsidiary industry spawned by IT is the development of security measures to protect the data on the Internet. And as we are now finding out, the Al Queda terrorists are using the Internet to communicate and plan their operations.

As most of the innovative ideas in IT originate in the West, the rest of the world erroneously assumes that globalization is exclusively the preserve of the West. Far from it! Such inventions originate there simply because the Western milieu encourages these trailblazers. It is instructive that many non-American born Chinese and Indians start many new “hi-tech” enterprises in Silicon Valley, California. Why do they start in California and not back in India or China? Obviously conditions back home are not conducive or supportive of their entrepreneurial spirit.

Occasionally we do get bright ideas emanating from outside the West. Case in point: the micro credit lending scheme of Grameen Bank started by the Vanderbilt-trained Bangladeshi economist, Muhammad Yunus. Again thanks to modern technology, his ideas have spread globally. America now too has its own Grameen Foundation, with similar programs in its inner cities. Grameen has also exploited modern technology by buying bulk satellite and cable time wholesale and reselling them to individual subscribers in the villages who have bought cellular phones from Grameen. These individuals then become the communication centers for the villages. Jute farmers in the remotest part of the country can now access the latest market information directly by phone instead of relying on the middleman. With this one maneuver those simple villagers leapfrogged into the modern age. They become empowered, freed from the information captivity of the middleman.

Grameen now has a comparable program for equipping every mosque and village center with a personal computer so that the entire village could be connected to the Web. Imagine the transforming effect: they are now exposed to the wide world of ideas. A similar program in Nepal enables villagers there to market their handicrafts directly to consumers worldwide, bypassing the whole chain of middlemen. A similar program in Sarawak enables those villagers to market their handicrafts directly to the world.

Though the initial technology may have been invented in the West, the ingenuity to extend its reach elsewhere is limited only by the imagination of individuals anywhere. Those who view globalization as a new form of colonization have it wrong. They are missing the point, and more than likely will miss the boat too.

Next: Globalization and the Free Movement of People

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