The Net creates a new divide
by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad
In Bahasa Malaysia globalisation is globalisasi, I think. Whatever globalisation
is, it is compounding the gap between the haves and the disadvantaged and intensifying
American (and European) dominance of the world's economy and cultural markets.
This simply means that the rich industrialised countries get richer and the poor
countries get poorer. The globalisation of the world economy has benefited some but
marginalised more as it shapes a new era of interaction among nations, economies
Technology and knowledge-intensive industries are important for countries liberalising
their economies and in this respect the UN has singled out Malaysia, China and India
as three developing nations with sound and compatible technology policies or what
I would call, technology friendly nations.
The Malaysians, Chinese and Indians are concentrating on information and communications
technologies and biotechnology, according to the latest Human Development Report
of the UN Development Programme.(UNDP), released here last week.
Many governments use 1he Internet to disseminate information but the report warns
that the information technology explosion has also created a barrier between the
connected and the unconnected segments of the society
The network society is creating parallel communications systems - one for those with
high income and education, and literally, connections - giving plentiful of information
at low cost and high speed. For the others without connections, blocked by high barriers
of time, cost and uncertainty, outdated information will be their lot.
For a nation of the US' wealth, and whose prosperity is escalating, providing aid
to alleviate the misery of the poorest countries so that they are "connected"
to the other world is a worthy cause. But more importantly foreign aid is also designed
to protect long-term American security interests.
Even though foreign aid makes up less than 1 % of the US national budget, the Congress
wants to cut it. If the US wants to nourish democracy beyond its shores then it must
not be penny pinching. Washington cannot promote democracy with just rhetoric!
The US gives less to the world in actual sums than Japan, France and Germany Yet
many in the world believe Washington is the biggest donor on earth!
The UNDP, in its 262-page report focussing on the spread of the Internet and computer
technology as well as the impact of globalisation, emphasises the importance of the
"connections" adding, "determine efforts are needed to bring developing
countries and poor people every where with the global conversation". In English,
Richard Jolly, a British economist and the report's main author, said the report
is neither anti-American nor anti-free market: "It specifically endorses markets
as the best guarantee of efficiency but not necessarily of equality" concluding
that the socalled "rules of globalisation" should be rewritten to save
60 of the poorest countries from falling even further behind and there should be
anti-trust laws to curb concentrations of economic power Americans, Jolly asserted,
should be the first to appreciate the dangers of monopoly of any kind.
The report warns that continuing glaring and growing inequalities in the distribution
of wealth pose a "dangerous polarisation" between rich and poor nations.
If I may add, even more perilous, is the polarisation between rich and poor people.
The report declares that the world's 200 richest people have doubled their wealth
in just four years, and the assets of three richest families alone - Bill Gates,
head of Microsoft Corp, Sultan Hassanul Bolkiah of Brunei and the Walton family who
owns the Wall-Mart grocery store chain in the US - had amassed US$135 billion (RM513
billion) in combined assets, which is more than the total GNP of all 43 undeveloped
nations among the 185 members of the UN.
The report also states that if each of the 200 richest persons in the world would
only donate 1% of their wealth per year, they would provide primary education to
every child alive.
I am glad that the report highlights the dominant role of the US, and by extension
of English, the language of choice for 80% of web sites, in the new global telecommunications
Malaysians must step up their process of "relearning" English, not necessarily
at the expense of Bahasa Malaysia or vernacular mother tongues, to cope with the
explosion of knowledge of tomorrow which invariably will be in English.
More than a quarter (26%) of Americans use the World Wide Web - as opposed to 3 %
of Russians, four one-hundredths of 1 % of the total population of India, Pakistan,
Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and two-tenths of 1 % of the entire Arab world.
The US has more computers than the rest of the world combined. I am glad that we
have made a good start and are progressing despite many hurdles and the economic
downturn in our high-tech township, Cyberjaya in the Multimedia Super Corridor.
Reformasi furore has failed to roll back Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad's vision
to make our nation the technology lode star of Asia, or Silicon Valley in a lush
We must do more to get things back on track, fast track if that is possible, given
that Singapore and Hong Kong are also building multi million dollar technology parks
capitalising on knowledge industries as a passport out of their own economic doldrums.
But I believe we have an edge - better quality of life, less stifling society and
besides, Cyberjaya is not just a technology park incubating small companies - it
is Silicon Valley and Hollywood combined.
The UNDP report is mind boggling. Just imagine, the annual sales of General Motors
alone is larger than the gross domestic product (GDP) of Thailand or Norway, and
that Ford generates more income than Saudi Arabia!
Free markets are just working too well, if you ask me and there is nothing wrong
with it. The US and other rich industrialised nations hold 97 % of all worldwide
The report stresses that the gap between globally well-connected and unconnected
peoples is likely to grow even faster given the technology explosion.
Today, there are 150 million people using the Internet, the number is expected to
grow to 700 million in two years 'time.
An American needs to save a month's salary to buy a computer; a Bangladeshi must
save all his wages for eight years to do so.
The advantages of global markets and competition can be justified and preserved only
by ensuring that globalisation has a human face and it works for people and not merely
I support UNDP's recommendation of a tax of one American cent on a lengthy E-mail
to raise US$70 billion (RM266 billion) a year that could be used to connect the world's
Today's interaction between nations and people is deeper than ever - for example
in 1996, 590 million tourists travelled around the planet and despite severe restrictions,
international migration continues to grow, with migrant workers' remittances reaching
US$50 billion (RM190 billion) in 1996 alone.
As Americans grow wealthier, they should offer more aid to poor countries - spending
on foreign aid has dropped by more than 50 % in inflation adjusted dollars since
Foreign aid can be effective in relieving poverty in the nations that need assistance
if it is used properly. But a large portion of the current US foreign aid which is
roughly US$12 billion (RM45.6 billion) to US$14 billion (RM53.2 billion) a year supports
military or security related objectives; only a third of the total is meant for development
and as always, development programmes which are beneficial to the people and with
long-term promise tend to suffer in aid cuts.
In spite of escalating prosperity of the industrialised nations, their total development
assistance worldwide has dropped, and is dropping, with Uncle Sam leading that decline.
The trend, as the New York Times says, is tragic given how much needs to be done
to help the more than one billion people in extreme poverty who live on less than
RM3.80 a day.
President Clinton's goals for foreign aid are not particularly ambitious, "but
Congress' effort to trim back meagre funds is a shortsighted national shame"
insists an editorial in the New York Times.
As we are about to enter the new century, a fifth of the world's population live
in the highest income countries which have 86% of the world's GDP and the bottom
fifth has just 1%.
(Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad is our special envoy to the United Nations)