The Conference on Communication, Technology and Developmnet: Alternatives for Asia, Kuala Lumpur, 25 June 1993

I congratulate the Asian Mass Communication Research and Information Centre and the New Straits Times for their collaboration to address such a far reaching subject. One can admire the initiative of the organizers seeking to explore alternatives to the present information order. Coming from established mass communication and media organizations such boldness is even more commendable.

For decades, information technology has been accepted as value-free. If it was judged, it was purely from a utilitarian perspective. Information technology has contributed immensely in transforming Asian societies into what we are today. Not only are we more prosperous and independent but also more open and dynamic.

Nevertheless, no matter how successful we are in harnessing information technology for development, the process cannot go without critical evaluation. A conscious effort to explore alternatives is now profoundly felt as Asia emerges as the crucible of economic growth. Not only is Asia more prosperous now, but in the realm of ideas that success story has demolished the proposition that there is only one path to development, that is the path trodden by the Atlantic societies. As the global society is inhabited by many cultures, likewise we must accept as fait accompli that development is also pluralistic. This is essential, because in development our quest for prosperity and material comfort will interact with our values and norms. Conflicts and tensions will invariably surface whose solutions require us to summon age old societal wisdom as well as new experiences. Thus the question of imitating others, advocated by some of the best mind of the developing societies, has become irrelevant. Our societies now have the confidence in their own positive values and traditions that will provide the guiding ideas for further development.

In our eagerness to explore new alternatives, we should not fall into an equally fallacious position, viewing ideas and values from non-Asian societies as harmful and irrelevant to our development. Neither should we react to superficial views from across the ocean, that a war of civilizations is looming across the horizon. Such a position, expressed for example by Samuel Huntington of Harvard University, only strengthen the belief of some that the Atlantic civilization initiated by Columbus has only a limited ability to deal with the realities of a multicultural world.

It is our conviction that, for us in Asia, our quest for continued prosperity does not only call for development that is sustainable but also a reinvigoration in the cultural sphere. Asia needs to achieve material prosperity, with a re-flowering of culture at the same time. This will contribute to the heritage of mankind of the same way we have seen the West, since its ascendancy in the 16th century, produced some of the most remarkable cultural achievements in human history.

Among a gathering of media experts and practitioners, one need not have to labour on the crucial role of mass communication in the transmission of values and culture. The mass media does not carry information innocently. It is the most powerful agent of cultural transmission. Thus when one seeks an alternative to the present information or communication order, it is because of the fact that the real dispute is about a whole range of issues involving values and culture transmitted via the media to a mass audience.

Since the publication of the McBride Report, we have realized the reality of the imbalance of information flow. One can appreciate the strong contention by some quarters that the information revolution, which had shrunk the world into a global village, could also result in the erosion of cultural plurality, leading to sterile uniformity and conformity on a global scale. Extreme this proposition may sound, a global communication audit would actually reveal that more people are being barraged by the same images, fed the same information, and drilled by the same opinions than ever before in human history. Fortunately for us in this part of the world, we have been able to resist the tendency towards uniformity because of the basic strength of our values and cultural heritage. In this respect, the indigenous media provide a potent counter movement against globalized conformity.

We seek alternatives because of our desire for greater freedom, to liberate ourselves from the limitations inherent in the structuring of the present global information order. The search is not and must not become a means to perpetuate the tyranny of a ruling minority upon the ignorant masses. An alternative information order must not be a cover up for corruption, decadence and misrule. It must not be the channel for narrow vested interests or ideological posturings.

It should be quite obvious why previous efforts to reform the global information order met with failure. We should not bemoan the fact that the West seems to be impervious to the cultural output and information originating from Asia when our own societies are equally impenetrable to the works of our fellow Asians. Indeed there are actually more barriers to the information flow across Asian borders than between Asia and the West. There is less candour and honesty, at least as far as the media is concerned, in the relationship between neighbouring Asian societies.

We must not be afraid of information. If we seriously want to pursue an alternative to the present information order, we must be more tolerant of the diversity of opinions and views within and across our own borders. If we can liberalize trade barriers and promote the flow of goods and capital across the region, one sees no reason why a similar liberalization could not be extended in the domain of ideas and information. We must see this as part and parcel of the process towards regional integration. After all, economics and information are so intimately related that one cannot really envisage a separation between the two.

The global network of the present information and communications system is by and large a function of global economic arrangements. As the centres of the world economy shift, so will the centres of the information network relocate. Thus we are confident that the present imbalance can be corrected with the growing strength of our economies. In the near future we can happily see a balanced flow and interdependence in the realm of information and ideas on a global scale. Only such a state of affairs can truly reflect the multicultural realities of the world.

It would be highly desirable if the impending transformation of the regional information order could be achieved through the willing collaboration of all our partners in the region. We believe that the growing maturity, openness and sense of confidence among Asian societies will enable us to forge viable alternatives to the present order. We must work collectively, not to suppress information or to excuse our failings, but to see to it that our values, opinions, cultures and history become integrated into the mediums of communication.

The pace of the revolution in communication technology will accelerate in the years to come. It will involve not only the medium but also the content itself. In the famous words of Marshall McLuhan, " The medium is the message." Inevitably, our lifestyles and even values will be subject to pressures and transformation resulting from the rapid pace of technological developments. We must not be swept along in the impending tide of change. Rather we want to be able to respond creatively and purposefully to direct its path to our advantage. It requires no less than a genuine commitment to our societal ideals, as well as being a supreme challenge to our intelligence and ingenuity. In the final analysis, the communication order that we seek must not only expand our mental horizons, increase the range of our choices, facilitate our decisions, it must also enrich our cultural experience and enlarge our freedom.

It now gives me great pleasure to declare this conference opened.

Thank you.