The Malaysian government on May 28 rolled out the red carpet for a Facebook event with both its indomitable Prime Minister and its highly regarded Minister of Communications and Multimedia in attendance.
When I heard that both were going, I wondered what exciting investment news Facebook was going to announce in conjunction with moving into larger office premises. After all, in Singapore it moved into a massive 260,000 sq ft office space in February 2018 with around 1,000 staff. The new space is able to take in 3,000 staff. A month before that opening, Facebook launched its first Asian data centre in Singapore with an investment of about US$1 billion and also set up its first engineering team in Asia, out of Singapore.
Despite the major commitment to its Singapore operations, the new office move only attracted the then Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, Chng Kai Fong, the managing director of the Singapore Economic Development Board and Tan Kiat How, CEO of Infocomm Media Development Authority or IMDA.
So you can excuse my excitement and curiosity about what managed to get the attention and time of both, Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and a senior minister like Gobind Singh Deo.
To my disappointment, it was mainly just a new office opening with an announcement around some commitments to help upskill Malaysian businesses, mainly SMEs, on using Facebook tools to promote their products and services on its platform.
One of its new offers to help Malaysia is a “Fast Forward Together” initiative which it says is to “support Malaysia’s ongoing efforts to progress in its digital-focused economic development path”. Others are a Community Leadership Circle Programme and We Think Digital. An existing initiative is Blueprint, which offers free education to help entrepreneurs and marketers get acquainted with marketing across Facebook.
I’m hazarding a guess that its offers of assistance, new and current initiatives, do not amount to much in terms of dollar value. I have to hazard a guess as Facebook has not reverted to my request for an estimated value of their assistance. That’s probably wise of them. Local companies, with a fraction of the resources of Facebook, have been doing way more to help build digital capabilities.
One needs to look no further than to homegrown e-commerce pioneer, Lelong Sdn Bhd and leading Southeast Asian web hosting player, Exabytes Group. Both are, coincidentally, run by low key entrepreneurs who prefer to let their actions do the talking. I am talking about Richard Tan of Lelong and Chan Kee Siak of Exabytes. Both also happen to be part of DNA’s Digerati50.
Tan, who cofounded the popular auction site lelong.com and later superbuy.com has been offering free digital courses since 1999. Tan does not shout about it even though he tells me that they have helped over 100,000 people, throughout the country, through their classes.
And then there is the Exabytes Group that has been busy expanding its reach as the leading Southeast Asian hosting company with some M&A activities. In the background, it too has been quietly offering digital classes to help develop the online skills of Malaysians. Chan estimates they have helped over 1,000 people and companies already with 500 more expected to go through their sessions this year.
So let the record show that there are homegrown Malaysian companies helping build local capabilities for far longer than Facebook has. And most are creating more jobs and paying more taxes into national coffers, than Facebook.
Many of them, especially the regional and global players, would love to have either Mahathir or Gobind visit their offices, understand the work that they do and inspire their teams to work harder. But I know, from speaking to some entrepreneurs, that it is very hard to get the tech-savvy Mahathir or popular communications minister. I hope this changes moving forward.
Sure, give your valuable time to the global tech players (no matter how small their presence is here and whether they pay local taxes) but make sure you give more time to Malaysian tech champions who aspire to be global players themselves.
So, if it wasn’t the lure of an investment announcement, perhaps both Mahathir and Gobind attended because they wanted to stress that Facebook must treat user data and privacy with the highest respect and strongly remind its regional leaders, who also came down for the event, that it has an important responsibility to ensure its platform is not used to spread lies, rumours, hate and misinformation through fake news.
That as a multiracial country with a new political landscape with parties lashing out and spreading racial misinformation, Malaysia will not stand for Facebook standing by and claiming “freedom of opinion” for any content posted on its site.
After all, a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron has just concluded that French authorities should have more access to Facebook’s algorithms and greater scope to audit the social media company’s internal policies against hate speech. Even Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, agreed. He is quoted as saying, “We need new rules for the internet that will spell out the responsibilities of companies and those of governments. That is why we want to work with the team of President Macron. We need a public process.”
Alas, that was not the case. Neither Mahathir nor Gobind made strong stands on data protection, user privacy or fake news and hate speech. Mahathir, rightly reminds us that, freedom of speech is a great responsibility and not to be abused. “Freedom of speech without any concern for good human behaviour would be a disaster for any society,” he says. This is even more so in a multicultural society and Mahathir cautions that, “the diversity in culture and tradition translates to very different consequences and implications in speech and postings. If not taken down quickly, such speeches and postings are potentially harmful depending on what is being said and in the context of a particular country.”
But will Facebook allow Malaysia to tell it what content should be taken down quickly?
It is ironic that Mahathir was saying this as the latest controversy over content posted on Facebook was swirling in the United States where a doctored video depicting Nancy Pelosi, US Speaker of Congress, slurring her words, was not taken down by Facebook.
Appearing on CNN a day after the video was posted on its platform and viewed over a million times, Facebook vice president for product policy and counterterrorism, Monika Bickert, explained why Facebook hadn’t removed the doctored Pelosi clip.
To a question on how Facebook can claim that it’s committed to fighting fake news while still hosting the doctored Pelosi video, Bickert clarified that Facebook doesn’t have a policy against misinformation as such. But when its fact-checkers determine that something is controversial, then “we dramatically reduce the distribution of that content,” she said.
When asked why keep it up at all, Bickert explained that, “we think it’s important for people to make their own informed choice about what to believe.” You can read more about the fallout from that doctored video here from an article in The Atlantic.
So that’s what Malaysia and especially Gobind, as the Minister of Communications, will be up against when, not if, a doctored video is posted some day of a Malaysian politician.
Mahathir does mention that Facebook and a few other social media providers are working with the Asean Telecommunication Regulators’ Council in regards to inappropriate User Generated Content. Whether this is enough, remains to be seen, but I am left with a strong sense that Malaysia gave Facebook a free pass here, all while the doctored Pelosi video controversy rages and Facebook stands by its view that its users should make their own informed choice. Is that good enough for the Malaysian government?