ONLINE DEMOCRACY UNDER THREAT IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD

by Faizal Nor Izham

One novel I’ve always been meaning to finish is the the award-winning sci-fi classic Neuromancer by William Gibson. Since the initial publication of the counter-cultural novel in – of all years – 1984, it went on to inspire the ‘cyberpunk’ movement in the science fiction genre, as well as the ‘high-tech, low life’ type neo-noir aesthetic that often goes with it. Neuromancer has also gone on to inspire popular films such as Ghost in the Shell and The Matrix.

But what makes the novel so prominent in popular culture is that fact that it was the first to coin the term ‘cyberspace’, i.e. a ‘consensual hallucination‘ replicated artificially by millions of interconnected computer users – which in turn makes up the Internet as we know it today. The story revolves around a washed-up computer hacker hired by a mysterious employer to pull off the ultimate hack (not dissimilar from Keanu Reeves’ original role in The Matrix). This in itself can be seen as an allegory for counter-cultural movements literally taking place within this ‘Matrix’ – a term first coined by the novel way before the movie of the same name was released – a world within the world, similar to the setting of the Tron films.

The concept of ‘high-tech, low-life’ depicts advanced technology being utilized by users within the lowest stratas of society to radically change the social order. In today’s context, this brings to mind the 2011 Arab Spring, in which social media outlets such as Facebook were widely used to disseminate information, news and videos that were instrumental in inspiring social revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Okay, so not all users were blessed with the same Hollywood good-looks as Keanu Reeves but the key idea remains. In other words, the Internet has proven to be a vital tool in finally enabling online democracy in developing nations.

There’s no doubt that the Internet has played a huge role in liberating the press in such countries.

In these countries, media systems are often controlled by the state itself, leaving little or no opportunity for dissent, debate or even public discourse on minor issues in everyday life. There’s no doubt that the Internet has played a huge role in liberating the press in such countries. And, in theory, the Arab Spring should have inspired countless other digital-based social revolutions everywhere else (in fact, the current Syrian crisis initially stemmed from attempts to replicate the 2011 Arab Spring in order to overthrow the repressive Assad regime). However, the emergence of online-based democracies nevertheless continues to meet many obstacles in near-developed countries.

Some of the more recent examples have taken place in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia, the closure of online portal The Malaysian Insider earlier this month was due to commercial reasons stemming from political intervention, as many state-owned companies were instructed not to advertise with them over the years. In Singapore, the owners of independent portal The Real Singapore were recently charged with seven counts of sedition for ‘inflammatory’ articles published between October 2013 and February 2015. Meanwhile in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently lashed out at proponents of freedom and democracy over the current refugee crisis, claiming such concepts have “no value” in the country, by calling for journalists, lawyers and politicians to be prosecuted as terrorists. Almost 50 people, including activists and academics, have been detained so far in police raids.

appear to insist on maintaining an immature democracy despite now having the Internet as a means of liberating the press from government control

In Francis Fukuyama’s End of History theory, it was said that most capitalist nations would eventually achieve the same social, political and economic status as Western ones, i.e. they would become economically-developed, democratic and hopefully, would go on to champion post-material causes such as human rights. However, both Malaysia and Singapore, two of the economic ‘Tigers’ of South East Asia, appear to insist on maintaining an immature democracy despite now having the Internet as a means of liberating the press from government control over the past decade.

william_gibson

One counter-argument is that democracy, primarily a European concept, is only a myth in Asian society, considering the fact that Confucian culture tends to prioritize harmonious relations at all costs. However, the concept of ‘Asian values’, a political ideology that gained notoriety in the 1990s, is often perceived by outsiders as a convenient cultural excuse to repress freedom of expression, and subsequently, dissent, in Southeast Asia.

repressive media system and sedition laws appear counter-intuitive to even the most basic principles in fostering creativity and innovation

Can nations that annually experience high levels of economic growth afford to continue repressing freedom of speech? With corruption being ever present in developing countries, surely the need for checks and balances is necessary in order to ensure GDP growth remains stable and free from abuse, especially considering Malaysia aspires to be a developed, high-income nation by the year 2020. Singapore has often spoken of its aspirations to become a ‘global innovation hub’, yet its repressive media system and sedition laws appear counter-intuitive to even the most basic principles in fostering creativity and innovation. Furthermore, states that focus primarily on neo-liberal growth without taking into account the everyday grievances of its own citizens surely cannot be taken seriously by the rest of the world as truly ‘developed’ nations.

Last but not least, an ‘End of History’-type world would surely benefit its global citizens, as the movement and exchange of goods, services and cultural norms is becoming commonplace in an increasingly globalized community. General levels of culture shock would potentially be minimized among these ‘global citizens’ as well, due to the fact that common systems would already be implemented worldwide.

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