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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
Malaysia's censorship strangles growth

Jonathan Kent
in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur skyline
Kuala Lumpur has an ultra-modern image

A few days ago I visited a village on a rubber plantation. It was rather pretty but there was no escaping the reality that the villagers were desperately poor.

The workers' union recently agreed a minimum wage deal with the plantation owners' association after a 40-year struggle.

Rubber tappers can now expect a guaranteed $90 (55) a month - still a poverty wage, even by local standards.

But rubber is Malaysia's past not its future.

The economy was built on rubber and tin, but as the country has developed at full throttle over the last 25 years these industries have become marginal.

Hi-tech dream

Now the buzz word is the K economy - the K stands for Knowledge - and its greatest proponent is the Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

If Dr Mahathir were a teenager rather than a 77-year old elder statesman, he would probably be an avid fan of those young mens' magazines filled with pictures of gadgets.

Dr M loves high tech. And it shows. Kuala Lumpur has the world's tallest buildings and the longest automated train service in the world.

Dr Mohamad Mahathir
Dr Mahathir keep a tight grip on the press

Above all it has the multimedia super corridor - a 50 kilometre by 15 kilometre zone stretching south of the capital which promises to provide everything a high tech company could need.

At its centre is the city of Cyberjaya - the country's would-be hi tech hub.

When it was launched in the late 1990s even Bill Gates put his name to it.

In many ways Malaysia is an attractive prospect; the infrastructure is good, it strives to be business friendly and English is being put back at the centre of education.

But Cyberjaya is very quiet and it's not just because of the hi-tech downturn.

People are starting to ask whether Malaysia is really prepared to pay the price for a knowledge economy.

Information revolution

The most successful K economies are those where knowledge flows most freely, but Malaysia is not strong on freedom of expression.

Kuala Lumpur stock exchange board
Infrastructure is not enough to lure investors

The press here is tightly controlled, political opposition is not encouraged and the level of debate on public policy is very low.

Ask a student for their opinion on any important contemporary issue and many will have nothing to say.

Earlier this year the world's biggest pension fund, the California Public Employees Retirement System, reviewed its decision to pull its investments out of Malaysia.

It opted to stay out, saying the lack of press and political freedoms undermined Malaysia's long term prospects.

The IT lecturer who took me to meet the rubber tappers summed it up: "They don't teach people to think for themselves," he said.

And it shows. An all too common answer when you go to a business here with a problem is "Cannot-lah".

Abdullah Badawi
Abdullah Badawi has pinpointed the problem

Too many employees would rather do nothing than risk doing the wrong thing.

The man who is due to take over as Malaysia's next Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, summed up the problem when he complained of that the country had a first world infrastructure but a third world mentality.

If Malaysia is serious about creating a knowledge economy it will have to change that mentality - but that will mean accepting that the 'no thinking beyond this point' approach will have to change.

And that will require a leap of faith on the part of the government.

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