Although the Internet dates back to the late 1950's with the early development of communication networks, it is a relatively new phenomenon in Malaysia beginning with the Malaysian Institute of Microelectric Systems (MIMOS) who launched Joint Integrated Networking (JARING) as a main Internet Service Provider in 1990 (Hashim & Yusoff, 1999) as an extension to RangKom, an earlier computer network. Starting with the installation of a satellite link between Malaysia and the US in 1992 (Hashim & Yusoff, 1999), Internet penetration in Malaysia grew from 30,000 users in early 1996 to 300,000 subscribers by the end of 1997 (Bociurkiw, 1997). As of the year 2005, Internet penetration in Malaysia was recorded at 36.7 percent of the entire population.
The impact of the Internet can be observed in many areas including trade and commerce, politics and government, society and community and science and technology. In the area of politics and government, the Internet is said to provide the tools for greater transparency, openness, accountability and the opportunity for providing marginalized groups the chance to have their voices heard by other people. In the interest of democracy, it is this last point (that of the Internet as another means of getting one's view heard) which provides a field for consideration of the Internet's impact on democracy.
In Malaysia, the right to freedom of speech is regulated by several laws such as the Sedition Act, The Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Internal Security Act, Official Secrets Act and Contempt of Court Law. These laws have been invoked on occasion to silence voices of dissent such as in 1987 when the licences of The Star, Watan and Sin Chew Jit Poh were revoked under the Printing Presses and Publications Act whilst one hundred and six Malaysians active in politics and civil society were detained, some up to 541 days under the Internal Security Act (Ser, 2006). Moreover, all newspapers are required to possess a publishing permit from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the decision of the Minister is exempt from judicial review (Heufers, 2002) which vests upon the Minister discretionary powers to disallow the renewal of any publication permits deemed prejudicial to public order (Heufers, 2002)
Quite apart from strict legislation, the ownership of the media companies in Malaysia makes them less efficient as watch-dogs of the people. For instance, The Star, Nanyang Siangpau and the China Star are owned by the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) a member of the ruling coalition (Lau, 2003) whereas the New Straits Times and Malay daily Utusan Melayu are controlled by UMNO (Lau, 2003). It may thus be assumed that these newspapers would never run any stories to the detriment of the political party holding its reins.
This and the restrictive legislations aimed at damping down opposing voices may be viewed by some as a denial of information to the masses and hence be considered undemocratic. The issue of freedom of information has been an oft broached one as access to information is seen as the key to a democra...