How Commerce Conquers Censorship in Southeast Asia

Malaysia has never completely embraced freedom of speech. Why then has it agreed to a national policy against Internet censorship?

The answer lies with the race to modernize and the investment potential of high-tech industry.

New high-tech firms depend on free flows of information for success in the marketplace. As a result, corporations investing in Southeast Asia are insisting on the establishment of freedom of expression, unintentionally taking on traditional roles of foreign-policymakers - promoting both economic and political liberalization.

Multinationals have been disappointed by strong internet restrictions in Singapore, China, and Vietnam.

Cashing in

Enter Malaysia. Since 1969 the government has banned discussion - in parliament or public - of "sensitive" topics such as citizenship rights for non-Malays and the special position of Malays in society. In 1987 new legislation gave the government "absolute discretion" to restrict issuance of any publication "likely to alarm public opinion."

But last year the government decided to cash in on Internet technologies and proposed the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC). The 9-by-30-mile zone extending south from Kuala Lumpur is billed as the perfect environment for companies that want to create, distribute, and employ multimedia products and services in Southeast Asia.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has made MSC development a top priority, calling it a window of opportunity to tap the knowledge, resources, and wealth of developed countries.

To do so Malaysia must cater to multinational corporations. It is offering a number of investment perks including a world-class information infrastructure, unrestricted employment of knowledge workers, and exemption from local ownership requirements. In addition, all international corporations registered in the MSC are given tax-free operation for up to 10 years or a 100 percent investment tax allowance.

The crux of the package, however, is an offer Malaysia can make above and beyond its regional competitors: the commitment against censorship of the Internet under the MSC Bill of Guarantees. In response, a number of companies have made Malaysia their East Asian regional headquarters.

As Prime Minister Mahathir himself has expressed, the information technology revolution is irreversible. In order to attract investors, the Malaysian government was forced to face its history of strict control of public speech.

Plans for the MSC project include proposals to link regions throughout Malaysia to the global Internet through smart schools and on-line governance.

When this occurs, Malaysia's citizens will have access to completely uncensored news for the first time in 30 years, and multinational corporations will have incidentally won more for human rights than many nations have achieved through diplomatic means.

Malaysian case as model

As we continue to debate approaches to international human rights protection, the Malaysian case should serve as a model of how private corporations can influence democratization efforts. Policymakers should embrace the role that multinational corporations may play in fostering democracy - and encourage investment in developing nations.

Rather than cutting programs such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Congress should support international investment as a means of promoting American foreign policy interests. It makes sense both economically and politically.

Developments in Malaysia may be the beginning of a promising trend. In China's Jiangsu province, state planners are already working on plans to create a multimedia industrial park of their own.

* Stephanie Langenfeld is a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

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