Before the Age of Metaverse”: Fantasy, Rhetoric, and Reality of Malaysia’s “Cyber-SMART Schools” of the 1990s.
In this essay I look back at the Malaysian government’s grand plan of making the schools “smarter” through a comprehensive overhaul of technological architecture, in line with the idea of the country’s entry into, and embracing of the Information Age. That was in the 1990s. What is happening today, in the Age of the Metaverse – of AI and Augmented Reality? This should be an interesting fertile area of research into the fundamental character of a nation-state’s transformation in its post-colonial and post-information era. Too see its successes. And failures.
When discussed within the context of aesthetics of technology and when brought deeper into the analysis of superstructural (ideological) underpinnings of transnational, pan-, and virtual capitalism, Malaysia’s grand design to ‘cybernate’ society and to wire up all of its 10,000 secondary schools situated within its even grander design of The Multimedia Super Corridor, represents an interesting case study and a text to be analyzed via the paradigm of Critical Theory through the means of discourse analysis on “development”.
In this brief analysis of the transfer of discourse on technological change and the heteroglossia surrounding it (see Bakhtin, 1984), I will first present a scenario of change – of how agents of technological change played their role in a world of fantasy reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s statement that “… the future is a different world, they do things differently there…”, and proceed with a brief discourse analysis drawing from ideas proposed by media analysts such as Broughton (1984), Marcuse (1941), and Terkel (1997 ).
Malaysia’s MSC (Multimedia Super Corridor) Project
The picture of change is, in the (French sociologist Jean) Baudrilliardian sense, a fascinating one. Malaysia, under the rule of its Prime Minister of 22-years (then,) Mahathir Mohamad embarked upon the creation of a cyber-society run from an administrative capital called Cyberjaya within the techno-cultural context of so-called a “Multi-Media Super Corridor” (MSC). The MSC was built on several hundred square kilometers of area in which “seven flagship applications” were its feature. It mimics California’s Silicon Valley and Singapore’s cybercity concepts among others of which Malaysia would be transduced into a new paradigm of living based upon the “humane application of high technology” manifested in the sub concepts of electronic government, tele-medicine, electronic banking, electronic commerce, and pertinent to our analysis, the smart schools.
The biggest airport in Asia, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport was built to facilitate the development of Cyberjaya. From the “wired-up” capital city as the initial program of mega-structural change, the Malaysian government planned to create cyber-principalities out of the thirteen states constituting the federation. It is envisioned that by the metaphorical year of 2020 the country will have achieved the status of a fully-industrialized nation able to compete with other advanced industrialized nations namely the United States of America, Europe, Japan and Singapore that such an advancement would however be based upon a strong foundation of religious and moral values.
Thus, through its “smart schools” of which the prototype operated on January 1, 1999, future generation of this nation, as claimed, would be able to fully and democratically participate in the Information Age. The country by then, had specialized universities among them moving towards the total implementation of the Internet as a mode of delivery. One that was recently established itself as the first “virtual university” in the country prides itself in its total absence of physical interaction between the student and the instructor.
Language structures reality and even constructs and deconstructs reality, I argue. Below I discuss some aspect of the nature of the language of technological fantasy as it impacts national and architectural and architectonics of reality.
Broughton (1984) summarizes the rhetoric of value-neutrality of technology, embedded in the discourse of technological change in that the semantics involved clusters of terms such as “necessary” “irreversible”, “unavoidable”, “travelling rapidly”, “total”, and “fait accompli” to describe the advent of the Computer Revolution. (p.2). In the rhetoric of change embedded in the discourse concerning Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor, one finds such cluster of words to be further developed and elaborated, couched in even neutral and positively appealing terms, signifying the nation’s unbridled faith in quantum leaping into the era of cybernetics.
Words like “world class”, “world’s first”, “leading edge”, “high powered”, “top quality”, “bold initiative”, and other “magnificio”-resounding ones are employed in the discourse. Illustrative of the use of these is in the vision statement of the Multimedia Super Corridor; a blend of aesthetics of technology and the drive to be technologically competitive in a borderless world. In describing Cyberjaya (Malay for “Cyber City”) the Prime Minister eulogizes:
Cyberjaya is envisaged to be the model multimedia haven for leading, innovative multimedia companies from all over the world to spin a ‘web’ that will mutually enrich all those involved with it. Especially created as the first MSC designated cybercity, it enables world-class companies to take full advantage of the unique package Malaysia offers to create an environment that is fully conducive towards exacerbating the growth of information technology and multimedia industries. It offers a high capacity global and logistics infrastructure, backed by a ‘soft’ infrastructure, which includes financial incentives and competitive telecoms tariffs, as well as a set of new cyberlaws that will form a legal framework to facilitate the growth of electronic commerce. (p.1) And his rhetoric on the importance of accepting the futuristic idea of the MSC is summed as such: … it will enable Malaysia to leapfrog into the Information Age. The establishment of the Multimedia Super Corridor, of which Cyberjaya is the nucleus, is an evolving step towards embracing the future. Its long-term objective is to catalyse the development of a highly competitive cluster of Malaysia multimedia and IT companies that will eventually become world class. (p.1)
And thus, Smart Schools (“wired” schools) was designed to become the means of social reproduction to live with the nation’s fantasy of becoming technologically aggressive and competitive and one in which the MSC will become, as the Prime Minister’s technocrats say “Malaysia’s gift to the world”.
The setting up of the Smart Schools within the Malaysian government’s project to establish Cyberjaya and Putrajaya as two of the world’s first intelligent cities, was a technological deterministic step towards further linking the nation to the world’s financial capital. And within the perspective of schools as a means of social, economic, political, cultural, and technological reproduction, Smart Schools aimed at producing citizens able to function effectively in the Information Age.
Discourse on Malaysia’s Smart Schools
In early January of 1997, as a university educator, I was invited to represent the academic community to the first session of the unveiling of the idea of the smart school. The idea of the “wiring up” of the Malaysian schools was summarized by a communiqué from the Ministry of Education (1997) which read:
By the year 2010, all approximately ten thousand schools will be Smart Schools. In these schools, learning will be self-directed, individually-paced, continuous and reflective. This will be made possible through the provision of multimedia technology and worldwide networking. (p.1)
The plan for such a purposeful change was to utilize computer-mediated learning technologies particularly the Internet and World Wide Web so that the national agenda of creating a “cyber society” will be realized by a targeted metaphorical date of year 2020. Echoing Sarason (1996) on the need to look at changes in the school system as derived from inside and outside of the schools (p.12), the case of the initiated “smart school” concept can be said to be derived not only out of “first order analysis, but particularly apparent and dominant out of “second order “dictates – out of political-economic perception of what constitutes progress and how education must be made to respond to them.
As the “smart school” concept relates to this second order changes, the Ministry of Education (1997) noted that:
Malaysia needs to make the critical transition from an industrial economy to a leader in the Information Age. In order to make this vision a reality, Malaysia needs to make a fundamental shift towards a more technologically literate, thinking workforce, able to perform in a global environment and use the tools available in the Information Age. To make this shift, the education system must undergo a radical transformation (p.1)
The Minister of Education announced that the first Smart School was being built with a cost of Malaysian Ringgit 144.5 million of which, aside from it being “wired”, “will also be equipped with a hostel for 800 students, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a hockey pitch, a hall, and other facilities” (Business Times, 1996, p.3). It was also said that the school would start operating in January 1999 and eventually all Malaysians would be operating based upon this concept.
Within the rhetoric embedded in the discourse on Smart Schools, what is the issue in the larger context of the meaning of “development” for a nation mimicking advanced capitalist countries? Whether the control of high technological production in the hands of the few in the techno-industrialized West and whether nations such as Malaysia plunging itself into this long-term program of uncertainty and in the wheel of the international capitalist machine – all these are issues nor addressed in the debates on the country’s educational and social reform.
The idea and implementation of such a controlled paradigm of “progress” and “development”, once institutionalized may have carried consequences anathema to the idea of reform based upon the use of “available technology and appropriate resources” constructed within a paradigm celebrating grassroots, bottom-up, and humanistic initiatives with philosophies “closer to the people”.
In what way was Malaysia attempting to realize its fantasy of cybernating its society entirely? In realizing this dream, this post-colonial cybernating nation invited a panel of advisors more impressive than those who sat on the advisory board of the National Council of Educational Excellence (NCEE) of the United States of America whose report produced in the 1980s “A Nation At Risk” evoked a national debate on the “rising tide of educational mediocrity”.
In the case of the Malaysia’s project those in the panel, among those were Chief Executive Officers/Presidents of the following corporations: Acer Incorporated, Alcatel Alsthom, Microsoft Corporation, Bechtel Group Incorporated, British Telecom, Cisco Systems, Compaq Computers Corporation, DHL, Ericsson, Fujitsu Limited, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Motorola Corporation, Netscape Communications, Reuters, Motion Picture Association of America, Twentieth Century Fox, and tens of others of global giants in the telematics and media-related industries. Professors of Business and Public Policy from Silicon Valley’s Stanford University were among those guiding the development of Malaysia’s cyber initiatives. Malaysian subsidiaries of these giants in the world of multi-billion-dollar club transnational corporations were set up for such a project.
The multi-billion-dollar airport opened thus was an important infrastructure to help these companies land quickly and safely on the Multimedia Super Corridor. What has all the interlocking directorates and picture of controlling interest got to do with the discourse on “development”?
Discourse on development: Further questions
The shibboleth of developmentalism embraced as discourse of technological progress by independent nation-states quantum-leaping into the Era of Informatics most often mask the ideology, power relations, and human agents involved in the production of the discourse itself. Broughton’s (1984) notes of concern for the presumed neutrality of technological change, reminiscent of those of Norman Balabanian, Neil Postman, Ian Reinecke, and Jacques Ellul, can be extended to the analysis of rhetoric of Malaysia’s MSC and Smart Schools. Parallel to the government’s euphoria on how cybernetic technology can become a “habitus”, (as Bourdieu would term it), for its newer form of “guided democracy”, and how schooling will play its role in a cybernetic form of ideological state apparatus, is the neo-Marxist analysis of dependency.
As it concerns dependency, was the involvement of major Silicon Valley corporations signifying what Latin American dependendistas would call an era of Center-Periphery pan- and virtual capitalist formation, or in what Frederick Jameson would term as, a cybernetic era of late capitalist formation? Whilst Marcuse (1941) may see the progressive dimension in modern technology as it may shape social relations, in the case of cybernating Malaysia, would the technological deterministic and hypist mentality embraced become yet another tool for social control and as a cybernetic extension of patriarchal “Big Brotherish” brand of Asian Machiavellian political machinery much needed to be dismantled? That was my question too.
And as it relates to learning, as Terkel (1997) put forth in her critique of computer-mediated learning technologies, will the rapid, massive, unavoidable, irreversible deployment of computers in all Malaysian schools bring schooling closer in meaning to education and liberation – or will it be another means to coerce Malaysian children to help realize and carry forth the agenda of computer hardware and software giants fighting their unending battle over global domination?
And finally, in relating to Bakhtin’s (1981) notion of heteroglossia, is the term “development via technological progress” superficially analyzed by technocrats of the MSC such that much of the “pollutants” which has glossed over a more liberating meaning of the term, are taken as the ultimate truth itself? In other words, who defines what technological progress means and in what ways do that definition get embraced uncritically and contextualized, and next be turned into policies in a mega structural scale as such as in the case of the Malaysian grand plan of the Multimedia Super Corridor?
In this brief essay I have uncovered more questions on the issue surrounding Malaysia’s technological fantasy. Paradigmed from the Critical Theory perspective pertaining to the development of “networked societies,” in looking at power and ideology embedded in the transfer of discourse, I have used Malaysia’s strategic plan, the MSC as a text to be analyzed. The contradictions inherent in the development of pan- and virtual capitalism (see also Kroker & Weinsten, 1998) is alluded to in the discussions on the tension between this nation-state’s wanting to be free from the economic label of “underdeveloped and developing” and to its potential leap into a more sophisticated world of globalism – that of virtual and post-post-industrial capitalism, beyond the classic Rostowian definition of “mass consumption” as the highest stage of capitalism. The contradictions and questions are worthy of further analysis guided by the essential questions “qui bono” and “what then must be done”?!
That was in the late 1990s. Before the coming of the Age of Metaverse in 2020. Were the seeds of destruction planted then? How have the “smart and cybernated schools” been developing these days? Are all the 10,000 schools equipped to even deal with the recent global pandemic? I ask the visionaries and strategic planners of the Education Ministry.
Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). “Discourse on the novel,” in The dialogical imagination: four essays. Holquist, M. ed. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press
Broughton, J. (1984). “The rhetoric of technological progress” TK 6628 Class notes. Unpublished.
Fullan, M. & Steigelbauer, S. (1991) The new meaning of educational change, 2d. Ed.. New York: Teachers College Press.
Kroker, A. & Weinstein, M. (1998) “The political economy of virtual reality: pan capitalism”.
Marcuse, H. (1941). “Some social implications of modern technology” in Studies in philosophy and social sciences, Vol. IX
Multimedia Development Corporation (1998) “Overview” in What is the MSC?
Sarason, S.B. (1996). Revisiting the culture of school and the problem of change. New York: Teachers College Press
“Smart schools will start in January ’99: Najib,” Business Times, September 23, 1996.
Terkel, S. (1997) “Seeing through computers: education in a culture of simulation” The American Prospect no. 31 (March-April 1997)