Youth Internet Governance. Universiti Malaya, Petaling Jaya 15 November 2019
Imagine 500 years ago, around the time of the year such as this, the desert of Australia is getting warmer and the seas south of China is getting colder. We know the sciences, as the hot air rose, cold air would flow to fill the vacuum. For the next six months, we will have the northeast monsoon, which will launch ships and travelers from the Far East to this part of the world, and perhaps moving on to the Indian Ocean and further. In six months’ time, the wind would change direction, and with that reversing the direction of our ships and travelers.
What traveled was not only ships and goods, but also cultures, ideas, languages, politics and of course religions.
And thus, we became the meeting place of great civilisations in the world. (diversity)
Now if you trace these journeys on the world map, you’ll soon have a map with circumferential lines along the coasts of continents and across the seas. This is the ancient maritime silk road, the network of water highways connecting key port cities in the world, and giving rise, in this region, to the wealthy kingdoms from along the Mekong Delta to the length of Selat Melaka, and stretching up to Segenting Kra (Kra Isthmus) and the Andaman Sea.
Close your eyes and imagine the ancient map for a while.
Now bring your map to our own century and think about the internet connectivity across the world map. I think for those of you who are familiar with such maps will know it has similar network of lines tracings the shape of the continents and across the seas.
Some things remain the same; whether it was 500 years ago, or in this eve of the 3rd decade of the 21st century, we always find ways to
connect for all sorts of reasons. And even the critical path of our connectivity matched across centuries.
Yet, some things have changed. 500 years ago, a young person in this land would have to wait for the right weather to connect with another person in another country. Today, a young person will just need to ensure he pays his internet bills, and here in Malaysia it is getting cheaper. Essentially, connectivity becomes easier, simpler, needing lesser cost and effort.
I remember when I received my first PC when I was 16 years old. It was an Intel Pentium 166 Mhz machine. Many of you will be wondering what creature is that. But I remember the evening the computer came, very big and very heavy, with lots of buttons and cables. The cables even came colour coded, so we know which socket to plug the cables into; red to red, yellow to yellow, blue to blue and so on and so forth. Just 2 decades later, every 16 year old have at least one supercomputer in their pocket today. And look at their phone, iPhone even removed the one miserable button they used to have, and the airpod even cut off the earphone cables.
In April 2012, McKinsey article titled “Demystifying Social Media” said that if Facebook was a country, then it was the third largest country in the world, after China and India.
About five years later, on 28 June 2017, Prime Minister Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook has reached a population of 2 billion, making it the largest country in the world.
In Malaysia, the Facebook has 23 million users, about 72% of our population. To put things in perspective, in the last general election, we have 14.9 million registered voters. Total voters who came out to cast their votes was 12.3 million.
In other words, the number of people who registered for a Facebook account is about double the number of people who registered to vote in this country.
And we know in our times, how social media not only connects people but have greatly changed the way we do business, send messages, read news, book a ride, buy food and other stuff and make friends in general. Social media even aided to start political revolutions in several countries.
Just the other day, my friend, only in his early thirties, launched a B2B supply chain app which has successfully helped several restaurants in Klang Valley to save thousands of ringgit a month on their kitchen inventory.
In Belanjawan 2020, the government will invest almost RM3 billion on digital transformation. And within the next five years, we will spend RM21.6 billion under the National Fiberasation and Connectivity Plan, so that by the middle of the next decade, Malaysians all over the country will enjoy high quality, affordable digital connectivity.
Think about how far we have come from the days of when our trades were depended on the winds.
Connectivity becomes simpler.
Yet the irony is, as things become simpler, they became more complex and sophisticated.
We say we are in the era of freedom of information, where all sorts of information are being shared on a minute-by-minute basis – from personal opinions on football and politics to partisan news and propaganda, gossip and rumours, fabricated stories about alien invasions and the danger of vaccination and advertisements ranging from regular products and services to pseudoscientific alternative medicine, get-rich-quick scams and the outright “alternative facts”. The
net effect is, we become overwhelmed trying to figure out truth from falsehood.
Because of this so-called freedom, we spend more time sieving information, not knowing for sure who or what to trust anymore. Alas, we are chained by our own freedom; we have become less free as a result!
And then, there is the real tension between ensuring transparency and fighting breaches of personal data because for most of the time, personal information and public information today are more intertwined than we imagine.
And within the context of free speech, what do we do with materials such as one video I saw yesterday where an UMNO national youth leader threatened to take away the voting rights of non-Malays if the party ever comes back to power.
Or in May this year, a 16 year old girl posted a poll on her Instagram, “Help me choose D/L” (Death or Life). 69% voted for Death and she killed herself.
Or the incident on 2 May 2017, where a 20 year-old college student, Teh Wen Chun, posted the following message on his Facebook at 5.07am: “Burn me to ashes. Release me by the sea. No tombstones, no funeral. Goodbye.”
Less than an hour later, he jumped to his death from his flat. I visited his parents. They told me young Teh was a victim of relentless cyber bullying.
In a 2014 survey of 14,000 students in Malaysia, 70% claimed that they were victims of online harassment.
If you think the real world is not safe, then the cyber world must be worse.
I am sure you have come across how people are subjected to hate speech, hate campaign, shame campaign, anger, ridicule, trolling, and all sorts of bullying on social media.
Social media in this sense becomes anti-social media.
How do we make sense of all these?
We all know business as usual cannot do; but we also know reversing the progress we have achieved so far is not an option.
Malaysia has just emerged from a historic change of government. The new government promised many things, but above all, we promised to be more democratic.
The executive is being checked by new bipartisan parliamentary committees never before established. The public accounts committee is now chaired by an Opposition member.
We have more women in the Cabinet today than ever, a woman is in charge of rural development ministry and another is in charge of urban development ministry, a woman is in charge of primary industries and another is in charge of science and technology. To top it all, for the first time in our history, we have a woman as Deputy Prime Minister.
In the youth sector, we have, at 27, Syed Saddiq, the youngest Minister not only in our country but perhaps the democratic world. Six Ministers and Deputy Ministers are aged below 40 years old. In Parliament, 12% of our MPs are below 40 years old and two of them are below 30 years old – MP for Muar Syed Saddiq is 27 and MP for Batu, P. Prabakaran, 23.
Academic freedom is being restored in our universities.
In July this year, we expanded the democratic right to vote to young Malaysians aged 18 and above, from the previous 21 year old voting age.
Two months ago, in September, the new government abolished the Anti-Fake News Act enacted sinisterly just before the country went into election last year. We are in the middle of drafting a new legislation to replace the colonial era Sedition Act.
From a country which arrests and harasses journalists, this year, we improved 22 positions on the 2019 Freedom of Media Index, becoming a regional champion in this area.
My dear friends,
Internet governance must be framed in this context of expansion and not the shrinking of democratic space. Just as we cannot tell our ancient monsoon travelers to stop traveling just because there were dangers lurking in the journey, we cannot stop freedom just because there are risks involved.
As such, this is not only a political problem. It must also be viewed as an engineering, and a scientific problem. Yes we need better laws and protocols, but the past, we have also progressed by building better navigation system, better ships, improved the practice of medicine and seafaring etc. Today too, we must think scientifically about our technological future.
2019 is the 50th year of the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. When the Americans began their space programme more than half a century ago, they were greatly surpassed by the Soviet Union.
More than a decade before Apollo 11, the Russian, using Newtonian logic, already sent Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite into orbit in 1957. Within a month, Sputnik 2 was launched into space carrying Laika the
dog, the first animal in space. This sparked what was known as the Sputnik crisis in America; the fear of being left behind in technological advances of the space race.
Fifty years later, NASA now aspires to go even further in the final frontier: to Mars by early 2030s.
But NASA is not alone in this ambition. Early this year, China’s Chang’e 4 spacecraft achieved softlanding on the far side of the moon, the first in the world to do so. Since 2009 there has been a joint Europe-Russia space mission to Mars. The programme, ExoMars, managed to launch its spacecraft carrying an orbiter and a lander to Mars in 2016.
But this 21st century space race, Space Race 2.0 if you like, is not only between countries. Individuals such as Elon Musk whose aim is “making life multiplanetary”, Jeff Bezos the boss of Amazon, Richard Branson of Virgin, and Russian tech billionaire Yuri Milner are all investing hundreds of millions of dollars to make space travel including to Mars.
Malaysia missed out the first space race. Yes, we were then a new nation, but when the first man landed on the moon, we were a country troubled by the chaos of racial conflict. Now, the next opportunity has arrived. As we step into the third decade of the 21st century, will we take part in Space Race 2.0 or continue to be trapped in arguing about race.
The scientist and futurist Michio Kaku observing the Sputnik crisis wrote how the crisis gave birth to a generation of students “who considered it their national duty to become physicists, chemists or rocket scientists.”
In similar vein, today’s Malaysian youth must consider it our national duty in the next decade to become the data scientists, the AI builders, computer technologists and biotechnologists of the future. But more than that, we must consider it our national duty to build a cultured and civilised Malaysian society, reclaim our role as the meeting place of the ancient monsoon travelers, becoming the place where the world meets in peace.