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Running cyburbia: Internet and local governance in Subang Jaya

January 6, 2009

A few years ago I became involved in a debate about the governance of a web portal in Subang Jaya, the Kuala Lumpur suburb where I carried out fieldwork in 2003-2004. The portal, named USJ.com.my, has had a brief but eventful history. Founded in 1999, its community forums boast (as of 6 January 2009) over 20,000 threads, 314,517 posts and close to 23,000 members. The lingua franca is Malaysian English, and it is undoubtedly the busiest and most influential forum of its kind in Malaysia. To me as an anthropologist –and to any other computer user with web access and knowledge of English – the lively forum and its archive are a treasure trove of local knowledge and activism. From traffic woes to classic jokes, from governance to gossip, from eating out to campaigning for Chinese schools, there is no dearth of topics at USJ.com.my.

The governance debate was brief and took part largely outside the forum. It centred on whether to introduce rules that would make the forum more ‘mature’, less tolerant of rude and inappropriate behaviour (name-calling, lewd jokes, spamming, private revelations, etc). While some participants saw the proposed rules as a threat to the free flow of ideas and information, others considered them long overdue. My difficulty as a researcher resided in how to remain a participant observer without being seen to take sides.

Over a nourishing mamak meal in Taipan, a commercial district in the suburb, I shared my worries with one of the key participants in the debate. I was pondering whether to take my musings to the forum, or steer clear of the fray. He advised me not to become involved. He explained that Malaysia, unlike countries in the developed West, is a developing nation where democracy is still in its infancy. Tongue in cheek, he reminded me of the first commandment of Hollywood time travel: ‘Thou shalt not change anything’. I was not to tamper, therefore, with local efforts to create a citizens’ forum where maturity and fair play would one day be the norm.

I felt flattered to be considered a time traveller from a future world of seamless online democracy. After all, one of my two countries of origin, Spain, has only recently embraced democracy, let alone e-democracy. My own experience of online engagement with local authorities in Spain, Britain and other supposedly ‘advanced’ countries is minimal. Moreover, having reviewed the literature on e-democracy around the globe, it does not appear as if the West had much to teach Subang Jaya. Western local authorities and cyberactivists may, in fact, wish to learn from this suburb.

Read on…

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