Universiti Malaya, November 16: Over 15 and 16 November 2019, SUARAM – a Malaysian human rights free-speech advocacy organization – organized the first ever Youth Internet Governance Forum (YIGF) in Malaysia. The event was supported by the Malaysian Reform Initiative (MARI) and USAID. The forum aims to build on the ongoing discourse globally about emerging issues of internet governance, specifically among Malaysian youth.
Of the forum’s 14 different breakout sessions, IGNITE writers Timothy Chan and Xindee Tan managed to attend a stunning total of 5 sessions. Presented below is a comprehensive report of their adventures and experiences over one intellectually spicy weekend.
Mr. Steven Sim, Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports began his keynote by drawing parallels between the connectivity of the past and present. Noting that Malaysia has always been an interpoint between civilizations from its maritime origin to today’s internet cables. He talked about the speed of technological change.
Mr. Sim cautioned that simplified connection via social media has added complications. With freedom of information comes issues of fake news; unbridled expression comes cyberbullying. These in turn leads to social problems.
Asserting that the Malaysian cabinet try to reflect changing times by diversifying the background and youthfulness of its cabinet ministers. Mr. Sim urged the attendees and all Malaysians to hold accountable for greater democratic freedoms – and cited that increased academic freedom by allowing public universities to organise unions as a good step forward.
Perils of Religio-media
The first breaking sessions consisted of a diverse array of topics such as internet access, UNESCO and religion, to which our correspondent attended the latter.
In the breaking session ’Religion & the Internet: What’s the connection?’ comprised of panelists Melanie Yong, an aspiring pastor who just graduated from an American seminary, Sharan Raj, representative of the Malaysian Socialist Party and Ustaz Wan Ji Wan Hussein, an alumnus of Al-Azhar University. The panelists discussed the challenges of religion in an age of social media.
Mr. Sharan gave a socioeconomic analysis and noted that religion often is an associated wealth. Widespread poverty in Asian countries generally play the poor into religion which the state apparatus utilised it to assert control and prevent insurrection. Contrasted with that of the West where a wealthy society is the less religious, and allows them to focus their attention towards national issues (ie. politics) more. Mr. Sharan also attributed rising tensions between ethno-religious identities to the loss of community as a result of capitalist modernity.
Ustaz Wan distinguished the spread of Islam from institutional Islam and he noted that very often. Stating the problem of Muslims hero worship the authority of the ulamas more than the sacred texts of the Quran, he said that has led to the rise of ustaz celebrity in the social media which propagates extremist voices. Citing the high number of Malaysians influenced by extremist groups.
Miss Yong went for a more socio-theological tone. She attributed the decline of religion to two strands: the destabilisation of faith from infighting and that religion is not keeping up with the fast paced progression of culture and society. Using Christianity as her main example, she pointed out that while the internet has enabled different perspectives of religions, it suffers from information overload. Relating the importance of tracking the source to ascertain fake news, similarly Christians should contextualise Scripture within its times and today. However, social media’s algorithm complicates and decides the information you receive based on your browsing history, creating echo chambers.
Miss Yong emphasised the need to give youths the opportunity to rediscover religion by opening up the ideas around it. There needs to be a community that supports in espousing progressive voices, even if the odd ones are considered ‘weird’ or ‘heretical’. The internet is a useful tool to make such community and to seek God together.
The panel ended with a hopeful note. The social media may have created bubbles, but greater physical interactions may be a viable path in crafting a more harmonious society.
“The internet may have democratised digital space, but it has not democratise our physical reality.”Miss Melanie Yong
Vox Populi, Vox Digital?
Panel 2 entitled ‘The Right to Communicate: Empowering All Malaysians Through Digital Inclusion’ was comprised of Louis Liaw – a lawyer by profession advocating for better digital laws, Tharma Pillai – co-founder of Undi18 and Jeannette Goon, a digital entrepreneur–with University of Nottingham Malaysia graduate, Amirah Qistina as moderator.
The panel opened with a question of youth sidelining as stakeholders in policies relating to internet governance. Mr. Pillai and Ms. Goon agreed that there is generally a mismatch between rhetoric of empowering youths and actual action. Mr. Pillai said this mismatch manifests itself in outdated cyberspace laws that have not considered new online issues such as online threats, and cyber-bullying. Mr. Liaw thinks that internet governance requires a multi-stake approach. The government has a responsibility to engage with all stakeholders and get them involved in crafting policies. Hence, the importance of getting the youths, who are more digital-savvy, to be more involved and engaging. Mr. Pillai used his experience in galvanising the movement to lower the voting age to 18 years old as an example of inexpensive grassroots movement that can bear fruit.
On the issue of internet accessibility in light of the digital revolution in the economy, Malaysia’s poor digital literacy is reflected in its poor digital infrastructure–even government websites are in dismal states. Mr. Liaw and Ms. Goon called for greater upskilling of people to use the internet. Ideally, digital education should not be standalone subjects, but embedded in existing subjects like Mathematics and English. This takes advantage of the practical application. Mr. Pillai was critical of the lack of metrics in measuring digital inclusivity and access in Malaysia. He opined an adoption of a national dashboard to track levels of digital use similarly in the UK. Policy-wise, this aids in ascertaining those left behind in the digital infrastructure.
The panel then directed into the question of rights affected by the digital sphere. Lawyer Mr. Liaw opined that the internet is problematic in that it preserves information forever. This means fame-shaming becomes widespread as individuals, even repentant criminals, will have to live with their stigma forever. Contrasting with the criminal justice system, which exacts proportionate and fair punishments, the internet becomes ruthless and disproportionate in marking individuals in the eyes of society. Mr. Liaw recommended that Malaysia could learn from digital laws in the EU which has incorporated new rights such as the right to be forgotten.
Another pressing issue discussed was the gig economy. Mr. Liaw and Ms. Goon were concerned about the lack of social safety net for gig workers. Digitisation has made many forms of employment precarious, and there are no policies to address them and gig workers’ vulnerability with regards to health, safety and pensions. The panelists suggested that expansion of social safety net like EPF be extended to gig workers.
The panel capped off encouragingly by Mr. Pillai as he stressed on democratic awakening among youths the earlier they are exposed to politics. However, he cautioned that policy talks cannot be hyped to a point that it becomes seasonal, and forgotten. Therefore, we have a responsibility to be persistent in getting the change and reforms we need.
Written by Timothy Chan and Xin Dee