When Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad introduced the Multimedia Super Corridor in 1995, the Internet was still in its infancy, AOL (America Online) was still a “thing”, and people paid for internet browsers (anyone remembers Netscape?). It’s doubtful that any leader at the time knew just how the internet would change the world, but what was evident was that the world had indeed changed and was entering a new era, one where information could zip around the world in seconds and where the computing power of a personal computer surpassed that of a 70s mainframe.

The MSC was designed to push Malaysia into this exciting digital age, with a fibre optic backbone allowing businesses to send and receive data in milliseconds, a special economic zone stretching from Sepang to KLCC, and tax breaks to encourage entrepreneurs to set up base in Malaysia.

Has the MSC succeeded?

Well, according to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, it “has not fully failed”. The fourth Prime Minister, now in his 90s, was speaking at the PLF-KL Society Dialogue on “The Nature of Leadership in Our Digital Future” on the 9th of November 2017, and responded to the question posed by a member of the mostly IT-based audience with his customary dry wit. The former premier and Honorary President of Perdana Leadership Foundation explained that while the MSC may have missed some of its loftier goals of transforming Cyberjaya into a Silicon Valley of Asia, it has been successful in its main purpose of raising awareness of the internet’s social and commercial potential, generating new jobs in the IT industry, attracting multi-nationals to Malaysian shores, and spurring the growth of new sectors of business.

Certainly, for the majority of the audience who were under-35 and categorised by the dialogue’s moderator, Mr Eddin Khoo, as “Dr Mahathir’s children” in that they grew up in a Malaysia shaped by his policies, the thought of a world without the Internet is unfathomable. Mr Khoo, though, who heads Pusaka which seeks to preserve Malay traditional culture, furnished some needed skepticism towards technology and its oft-lauded benefits by posing a more philosophical question to Tun: Isn’t technology also capable of great harm and evil?

“Of course,” was the statesman’s response. “It depends on the user. A drone can be used to kill people from a distance, and it can also be used (as in Amazon’s example) to deliver goods quickly and cheaply. Technology is a tool, and like any other tool, whether it is harmful or beneficial depends on the people who use it.” Other instances of dangers were drawn, including fake news, cyber hacking, pornography, and bitcoin theft. It was human nature, then, that defines the good or bad of technology, just as human nature has been the defining variable for the progress and regress of the world since ancient times. In short, while great changes abound, and rapidly, too, the centre remains: people.

Given the centrality of human nature in the use of technology, Tun stressed on the importance of moral character in the cyber-age. Moral education is key to any education curriculum, he emphasized, and leaders in particular need to adhere to high moral codes. Expounding on the topic of leadership in response to a question, Tun said that the essence of leadership is the ability to act in the interests of the people you lead, instead of making your own interests the guide. In this respect, Tun reminded the audience that at times, a leader needs to make hard decisions for the benefit of his or her people, even when these decisions are unpopular.

The internet has also changed the communications landscape of leaders, with social media now enabling two-way communication on a daily, if not hourly basis. “We see more and more politicians and leaders become more involved and interactive with their followers on social media. Expect this to be the norm in the near future,” he said, citing the example of Mr Donald Trump and his heavy use of Twitter.

The dialogue segued into artificial intelligence, and an audience member put forward an intriguing premise: Could AI eventually replace humans in crafting policies and governing the country? Tun Mahathir responded by asking whether the citizens of any country are willing to be governed by an AI instead of humans. Also, he pointed out, AI is not completely free of human error as programmers are human and may, whether deliberately or not, introduce their own biases and personal agenda, into AI. As a parallel, Tun reminded the audience of the flawed systems of government throughout the world, despite mankind’s thousands of years of experience. Man has still not been able to develop a perfect governing system, Tun said, while acknowledging that democracy remains the “best” in that it is the least flawed.

The dialogue ended after almost two hours, when Mr Khoo threw in a final question to the guest speaker. It was a question that had been burning in his mind for quite some time, he confessed.

“Have you ever wished that you had been the leader of a far bigger and more powerful country than Malaysia?” he asked.

The fourth Prime Minister laughed. “(Given the challenges I faced) I’m lucky Malaysia isn’t a bigger country!”

That seemed a fitting close to a dialogue that was lively, diverse, and – we hope – insightful.


Note: Perdana Leadership Foundation will publish the transcript of the dialogue online and in book form.

Photos of the programme can be found here