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Commentary: Is Malaysia Just High Tech Dreaming? (Int'l Edition)

International -- Asian Business: COMMENTARY


Outside a ramshackle store selling potatoes and garlic, a slender young Malay in work-stained clothes gestures at the palm and rubber trees that enclose his hamlet, past the trio of men languidly smoking under a tin roof. "This is Cyberjaya," he insists to a skeptical visitor. "All of this is Cyberjaya."

It may not look like it, but this plantation nestled in a valley outside Kuala Lumpur is meant to be the new high-tech center of Southeast Asia. If Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has his way, by 2020, Cyberjaya will be one of the world's most technologically sophisticated cities, home to thousands of foreign and local software designers creating world-class computer products. It's part of the Multimedia Super Corridor, a $40 billion plan to build Malaysia's version of Silicon Valley. The sprawling Corridor will be 50 kilometers long, with the world's tallest building on one end and what will be the region's largest airport on the other.

After touring it, I came away impressed by the boldness of Mahathir's vision. But I also came away with doubts. Mahathir, one of the shrewdest leaders in Asia, may be underestimating the difficulties of the task he has set himself. Not only will his government have to complete one of the greatest construction projects in history, but Mahathir may also have to change his country's attitudes toward everything from foreign workers to censorship to realize his cyberdreams.

MIXED SIGNALS. What Malaysia needs to demonstrate is the openness and progressiveness that makes a place like Silicon Valley possible. The country has many barriers to the sort of freewheeling business environment that the Super Corridor will need to nurture to be successful. Take the question of foreign labor. Currently, Malaysia has a serious shortage of skilled workers, while the Corridor will need an estimated 30,000 foreign laborers adept at everything from network design to programming. Yet Malaysia's strict Muslim community has reservations about allowing in so many foreigners, who will mostly come from India and the Philippines, lest they threaten the country's conservative values. The country won't even let foreign brokerages employ more than two foreigners each, despite its desire to be a regional financial center.

A bigger question looms over the project: Can the creativity that fostered Silicon Valley's growth be dictated from above? Malaysians work in a country where the free flow of ideas is restricted in the press, television, and cinema. Astro, a leading media company, uses a state-of-the-art censoring room to filter out offensive foreign TV shows and movies. Strong public criticism of the government is not tolerated either.

MODEM MADNESS. Mahathir himself seems ambivalent toward the new technology and foreign capital he is trying to lure. He revels in attacking the West, even while courting its leading companies. For example, Mahathir told potential Japanese investors in the Corridor that he wants to "counterbalance the Western domination of cyberspace." Yet he is expecting U.S. companies, such as Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc., to become the Corridor's anchor investors. Mahathir has promised uncensored access to the Internet in the Corridor--but only if "illegal material" is not distributed. And he recently attacked currency speculation as a "crime" and complained that foreigners wrongly forced Malaysia to devalue its currency.

The import-restrictive bureaucracy is another hurdle, as I found out when my computer modem died. A credit-card-size replacement didn't get through customs. That's because a 30-year-old Malaysian law requires a special license to import such things. It took half a Saturday and trips to the telecommunications department and airport to get the license. And I was lucky: The process normally takes four days.

Fewer such regulations would clearly benefit the country's high-tech ambitions. If the Multimedia Super Corridor is intended as a cunning method of smashing the old bureaucratic way of doing business and opening up Malaysia, it's a good thing. That message, though, hasn't yet trickled down. Mahathir deserves to be congratulated for thinking big. But hold the applause until he is able to translate his ideas into reality.By Mark L. Clifford

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