Malaysia disconnecting from online freedoms

Authors: Susan Leong, Curtin University, and Terence Lee, Murdoch University

Not long ago, the Malaysian government thought that mastery of the internet was a path towards economic development. In February 1996, it launched the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), essentially a special economic zone, to entice high-technology corporations like Microsoft to set up shop in Malaysia.Malaysian children surf the Internet. (Photo: AAP)

To ensure the MSC’s appeal to prospective technology investors, restrictions on both the information technology market and on online expression were loosened. Whereas television, radio and newspapers remained restricted by laws like the Printing Presses and Publications Act, concessions to freedom of business ownership, employment quotas and censorship of the internet were made for the MSC.

Yet recently, two acts — the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA Act) and the Sedition Act — have been used repeatedly to contain the zeal with which Malaysians have taken to the internet.

On 25 February 2016, popular online news portal The Malaysian Insider (TMI) was blocked in Malaysia. The Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) alleged that TMI had contravened Section 233(1)(a) of the CMA Act by setting up an alternate site called The Malaysian Outsider. The site was accused of publishing articles based on unidentified sources that ‘could confuse the public’.

The Malaysian Insider is the second news portal that the Najib government has blocked. The Sarawak Report was blocked in July 2015, though it continued to reach some readers by publishing via the blogging platform Medium. When Medium’s owners refused the Malaysian government’s request to remove a story by The Sarawak Report published in January 2016, access to Medium was also blocked. MCMC asserted that the article — which contained the now public allegations of graft by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak — had to be removed because it was ‘false, unsubstantiated and misleading’.

It was also alleged that the article violated another long-held but more notorious piece of legislation: the Sedition Act of 1948. Originally enacted in 1948, the Sedition Act was revised in 2015 to include within its purview the ‘propagation’ of seditious publications by ‘electronic means’. Amnesty International reported that the Act was used 91 times to arrest, investigate or charge individuals that year alone.

This is a disheartening turn of events. Until fairly recently, the relaxation of constraints begun by the MSC had allowed Malaysians some freedom to express their views online. What explains this drastic increase in restrictions on the internet in Malaysia?

Around 20.6 million of Malaysia’s 30.49 million population use the internet for messaging, ecommerce, gaming and mobile banking. And 18 million Malaysians are active social media users who spend an average of 3 hours per day on social media. Australians by comparison spend an average of 1 hour and 9 minutes on social media a day. Still, it was not until 2008 that the Barisan Nasional coalition government woke up to social media’s political sway.

The clamping down on online dissent could be read as part of a bid by the Malaysian government to fend off accusations of corruption, as suggested by the Human Rights Watch report, Creating a Culture of Fear. Yet the fortification of draconian laws such as the Sedition Act might also be no more than a standard government reaction to the threat of global terrorism. It is in this vein that Najib maintained in February that he makes ‘no apology for keeping Malaysians safe’ from terrorist threats.

Internet restrictions in other Asia Pacific states may also help explain the growing clamp-down on online freedoms in Malaysia. The longevity of China’s online authoritarianism alongside its economic vibrancy undermines the liberal democratic belief that civil liberties are a necessary prerequisite for economic prosperity. China’s technology sector thrives despite the Chinese government’s firm grip on the discursive power of the internet. This is evidenced most vividly by how well China’s technology corporations like Alibaba, Baidu, Sina, Tencent and Xiaomi have done for themselves.

While China’s netizens are denied legal access to global online platforms like Facebook and Twitter, local companies in China have successfully created platforms such as WeChat and Weibo that cater to China’s 668 million internet users. Foreign companies keen to reach the world’s largest online market have had to work with these same platforms. The Chinese Communist Party’s iron control and the simultaneous rise in disposable incomes in China (which has increased the country’s appetite for online connectivity) has made strange bedfellows of a controlled internet and a vibrant economy.

The experience of Singapore is further testament to China’s insistence that a firm grip on the internet, and the media more broadly, is no impediment to economic success. Through its offering of a combination of generous tax breaks, superb connectivity and hefty government co-investments, Singapore now hosts the Asian arms of Cisco, Ubisoft, LinkedIn and Facebook as well as regional start-ups GrabTaxi, Razer and ViewQwest.

It is not surprising that the Malaysian government believes it might be possible to stem the online flow of critique using the same methods as China and Singapore, without wreaking havoc on its economy. For the Najib administration, the less than sparkling performance of the MSC will only make restrictions on the internet in Malaysia go down that much easier. TMI has been shutdown as of midnight 14 March 2016 apparently due to a lack of funds but given what has happened in recent weeks many will no doubt see this as a result of government interference.

Susan Leong is an Early Career Research Fellow at Curtin University. Terence Lee is an Associate Professor in Communication and Media Studies at Murdoch University.

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