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 and people.

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 For the others without connections, blocked by high barriers of time, cost and uncertainty, outdated information will be their lot.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, I suppose.

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 marketplace.

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 tropical setting.

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 patents.

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 for profits.

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 1985.

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)