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   Net abuse: storm in Malaysia's tea cup

By Julian Matthews
June 25, 1999

Malaysian Internet users have been on the receiving end of bad press lately. From the focus of such incidents by local media, one senses that the Ugly Malaysian Net User is alive and thriving. Hacking, spamming, mail bombing, spreading rumors, libel, credit card fraud and Internet scams… Malaysian users appear to have become conversant in all forms of Net abuse.

The offensive stance taken by some sectors of government has lent credence to the belief that local users are an irresponsible lot.

Three weeks ago, Ibrahim Ali, a Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department, was quoted as saying that Umno, the dominant political party, was mounting a legal campaign against Internet Web sites critical of the government under Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He said some 3,000 pages have been downloaded from the Internet containing defamatory material against the Government and Umno.

Ibrahim said Umno's anti-defamation committee discovered the pages over a two-month period and the subject matter ranged from independence of the judiciary to accusations of corruption. "I don't rule out the possibility that the Web sites are being funded by foreign elements, perhaps using students to do the work," said Ibrahim.

He said the committee was keeping tabs on the allegations and may take legal action, but conceded it was difficult to trace the Web masters because many sites were based overseas.

"I don't rule out the possibility that the Web sites are being funded by foreign elements, perhaps using students to do the work."
--Ibrahim Ali, Deputy Minister, Prime Minister's Department.

The party has been particularly incensed by the over 50 Web sites that have sprouted in support of expelled party Deputy President Anwar Ibrahim, who was also Deputy Premier and Finance Minister.

Until September last year, discussions on Malaysian politics on the Net were confined to the odd newsgroup or two. When Anwar was ousted, the people took to the Internet with a vengeance. Conservative estimates say the number of users may have doubled during the period of the crisis surrounding Anwar. At the height of the political upheavals last year, Cabinet Ministers and senior police officers were rumored to have resigned. Announcements of coming rallies and demonstrations, deemed illegal by the government, were advertised on the Net.

Newsgroups were filled with lurid details and stinging rebukes. Web site owners aggregated news without copyright permission, and posted a variety of provocative material. Much of this literature was printed, copied and widely distributed even to those without Net access.

Buoyed by the perception that the traditional forms of media were state-controlled, Malaysians turned to the Net for more credible--and incredible--news. They also actively participated in the newsgroups, mailing lists and chat servers--the virtual equivalent of the ubiquitous Malaysian coffeeshop.

Over in the capital city, Anwar supporters were being water-cannoned and dragged to jail in scenes more akin to a police state; on the Net there appeared to be a thriving democracy.


Julian Matthews is the Malaysian correspondent for CNET Malaysia. Email us your comments.

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