Why Has Kak Eton’s 20 Year Question Remain Unanswered?

About the writer: Poet, Pianist, Painter and Technology Buff. Scientist by Profession, Artist by Heart.

By Apocryphalist

About 20 years ago, when the millenium Yeoman Warders of time changed guards, there was a certain fresh-from-the-countryside bumpkin of a lass they call Kak Eton, a young sultry divorcee who landed in KL, trying to fit in and was asking a certain question to lots of people she met. The demeanour and intellectual state of this Kak Eton Janda Muda demanded that the question should be answered in the simplest of terms, digestible even to the lowest of laymen.

The question was: “What is the Multimedia Supercorridor?”

Yup. Kak Eton told them that since it is on everybody’s lips and seem to have become an accepted buzzword, it must be something great then that everyone should be knowing. Since she heard that it was something that cost incomprehensible billions (at least to Kak Eton’s simple mind), it must be some earth-shattering thing that could parallel survival issues of citizens. Something that an ordinary bumpkin should know as much as he knows where his next meal is going to come from. A citizen should know what it is as staunchly as he knows the Rukun Negara. A student should know about it as much as what it takes to pass his SPM exams (heck it could be an SPM question itself) and a farmer should know about it too: he would have to feed all these mouths who are busy working on the MSC.

the Msc Concept, Multimedia Super Corridor Exposition & Conference, 1996 - Malaysia
<strong>Seriously would Kak Eton be able to grasp the information from the explanation on the MSC<strong> Photocredit SCMP

Well guess what. None, and I mean NONE! that Kak Eton met could offer a simple, straightfoward answer to the question. The more techie would go into a foray of some very sophisticated technical jargonry; others would just slip into explaining what the MSC is supposed to be doing to the nation economically. In short, people were explaining to her what the MSC is NOT rather than what it is. Kak Eton then arrived at the inevitable conclusion then that the MSC is one huge BFG of an Ogre whose name everybody knows but whose definition no one really does.

Now, before I tell you the kind of answer Kak Eton was looking for, let’s pause here for a while, shall we. Imagine YOU were there and she was asking YOU that question. How would you have answered it? It’s no use to fast forward this page and read the answer and then say, “Ah I was going to say THAT” or “Of course that’s it. Everybody knows THAT”. Forget 20 years ago. How about now, in 2020, if that question were to be asked of you. Give me a simple and clear answer in your own words, what is the MSC? Can or not?

Insight Into The Human Nature

Ok let’s cut to the chase. The issue is not important as to hairsplit on definitions. Especially not now when we are all well into the new millennium, but it DOES provide an insight into the human nature of how we all are easily bamboozled into concepts and ready to spend untold amount of wealth on things we could not even find the definition for.

“An area about 5 X 70 kilometers from KL to Putrajaya where the underlying communications infrastructure is made up of Fibre Optics”. There. That’s the crudest definition of the Multimedia Supercorridor. It might not be the OFFICIAL definition or the kind of definition given by the powers that be to justify costs and expenses, but it is the kind of definition that would satisfy Kak Eton the kampung bumpkin’s basic query. After all, the MSC is a noun, remember. A physical thing, not a concept, not a legislation and certainly not a government policy. Its something TANGIBLE, touchable, visible that could be smelt and felt.

Well, what to DO once you have this tangible thing set up, is a different thing. That’s not part of the question. “To generate Digital Economy that would in turn churn revenues for both the Private sectors and the Government” is not satifying enough for Kak Eton. Generate economy? So does her friend Samsiah and husband toiling on their palm oil plantation day in day out: THEY are generating economy for the nation as well. And so does her brother-in-law rearing tilapia fish up north or her besan in ‘Ganu regurgitating loads of keropok lekor: they all churn money, primarily for themselves of course, but being part of an entire national juggernaut of revenue-generating machinery, nonetheless.

“To increase efficiency of administration, banking, education, health and almost all walks of life multiple-fold via speedy communications technology” is certainly well and good, but it certainly is not a definition to Kak Eton. It’s what the MSC would, or could, DO, but it certainly is not its definition. It is what should be done once we have the infrastructure, no doubt, but you need to be clear WHAT that infrastructure is, firstly.

And what is it? “A piece of land with some plastic cable underneath it” would be sufficient to Kak Eton’s simplistic mind. And, inevitably, that is the correct answer as well, because the question is what is it, now what does it do?

But Kak Eton’s inquisitive mind is somewhat made up of an analytical labyrinth of questions and answers, of investigations and deductions, all belying the doltish countenance of her outer self. First, she reasons like this: A real estate? Whose land? Who did the government buy it from? At what premium? And then it went to more conscience-pricking questions: Fiber Optics? Who was the contract for supplying THOSE awarded to? She did ask, and she did get the answer to that one but she didn’t like it. When she realized who the contracts were given to, Kak Eton began to question whether this whole beast called the MSC was just another ploy to give business and wealth to … err… SOME people directly connected to the decision makers.

Kak Eton brushed all these off as mere coincidences. But she couldn’t really last doing that. Because when she applied the same reasoning to some other mega-purchases of the then Mahathir government, she arrived at equally stunning conclusions. Like, what about the Commonwealth games? Who got the contract for the building and supplying of the basic necessities that housed the foreign athletes. How about the Sepang F1 circuit, development of the Petronas Twin Towers, the KLIA – she apparently unearthed more questions the answers to which she didn’t like even more.

But back to the MSC, Kak Eton was convinced that there was something amiss. Like, how can the development of a land 5 X 70 km in area be heralded with pomp and fanfare whence that should be the natural development of any country as part of its agenda for progress? If it is to house any ICT-based infrastructure, has this been the practice of those countries more advanced than us in terms of ICT? Silicon Valley does not have any “Multimedia Supercorridor”, and yet some of the world’s most important computer applications have originated from there. Does Korea have a Multimedia Supercorridor? No? Then how come their internet speeds there were faster than the ones here in Malaysia even after 20 years of Multimedia Super Corridoring?

Then Kak Eton found something else that is interesting. Lots of ICT workers were NOT WILLING to come over and set up shop in this corridor. Now this is a most peculiar situation indeed: If the main players to which this entire program was dedicated to, THEMSELVES were unwilling to support the MSC, then we are in trouble. So what the government did was to create another related concept called the “MSC-Status” companies: those companies who are given certain privileges and special status like free tax for 5-10 years, financial aid, etc. Their only pre-requisite? Set up office in any designated “MSC-certified” area, with the result that hundreds of these companies that were initially unwilling to set up office in the area, now have second (usually non-active) offices or worse still, totally empty ones, residing in that designated area, just in order to acquire the tax-breaks. And “MSC consultant officers” were given KPIs which included how many companies they have brought so far to get the MSC status. The joke was when even companies working REMOTELY from any inclination of computers and ICT also could get the status by merely demonstrating that, for example, “for our kayu bakau business, we use Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to do our accounting.”

But that move actually attracted another queer specimen of ICT entities: those who are already working in it, have been established for quite a long time and are already tax-churners for the nation. People like Microsoft. Why on earth would we want Microsoft to set up office IN the MSC, and then DE-TAX them? It would be better to de-TOX their bellies. Can you imagine, Microsoft who are selling their Windows and other popular software since time immemorial, has been reaping billions in this country, and paying their taxes correspondingly, then suddenly we are to let go off that tax just because we want them to … set up an office in the MSC?

Hello. Even if they don’t, they are ALREADY making lots of money and paying lots of taxes. Why are we giving incentives to successful giants? Even if they are not accepted as a MSC status company, do you think they want to stop selling their products in Malaysia, tax or no tax? Now multiply that effect to many, many giant ICT companies (all rebranded or re-routed under more local-based companies touted as “distributors”, in a creative accounting feat) and tell me if those entire schnooze is really making money for the nation, or just really the opposite.

Oh what does all this matter, right? After all it’s just the efforts of the government to do things for the benefit of the nation’s populace. Who knows, we might one day realize its importance when the time comes, or when the nation is faced with situations that REALLY manifest the usefulness of all this MSC stuff.

Or does it? Read the continuation tomorrow and find out how Kat Eton is fairing, 20 years on. – New Malaysia Herald.

Note: The views expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of New Malaysia Herald.

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