24 November, 2014

Nationbuilding In A Hyperconnected World


Ladies and gentlemen,

1. As the President of UMNO, it is an honour to welcome you all to Malaysia for the UMNO International Forum. We are privileged to host representatives from so many countries from so far afield. On behalf of all UMNO’s members, I wish to thank you for travelling to join us today. We hope that your experiences and insights will make our party, our government, and our nation stronger.

2. The theme for this year’s International Forum is ‘A hyperconnected world: challenges in nationbuilding’. That is quite a broad topic, so perhaps I should start by defining the discussion.

3. In 1858, the first transatlantic telegraph cables were laid. When that connection was made, the world changed. The concept of distance was never the same. Information could flow instantly from continent to continent – bringing news of discovery, opportunity, and war. The world was suddenly smaller, closer, and more complex.

4. Radio and television continued the trend. By the time Malaysia gained its independence, the BBC World Service had been broadcasting radio news for 25 years. Footage of the new Malaysian flag being raised was televised around the world. Countries, people and political parties knew more about each other than ever before. The world was becoming connected.

5. Over the past 25 years, that trend has accelerated exponentially. Most of us carry the world in our pockets. With one swipe, we can access more knowledge than any library can hold; we can find our way around cities we’ve never visited; we can video chat with someone on the other side of the planet. We have moved from connected to hyperconnected, and the world will never be quite the same.

6. The implications of this change for us – leaders of nations, parties and people – are profound.

7. The global economy is evolving, with old industries moving online, and whole new sectors emerging: six years ago, no-one knew what an ‘app’ was; today it’s the cornerstone of a 25 billion dollar industry.

8. The unprecedented sharing of data and knowledge has opened up new opportunities for scientific research and collaboration: as we speak, more than a million people around the world are using their computers to participate in the search for life outside our solar system.

9. And fast global networks allow for deeper cultural understanding and artistic collaboration across borders. Museums around the world are putting their collections online, in high-resolution, for all the world to see; and software allows musicians to compose together in real-time with nothing more than an internet connection.

10. These are all positive changes. We welcome them, as we welcome the best of this new hyperconnected society. But other changes are less clear-cut. And as we seek to build, develop and sustain nations, there are new challenges we must face.

11. That is what I would like to talk about today.

Ladies and gentlemen,

12. As we speak, the very concept of the nation state itself is undergoing new scrutiny, from new angles.

13. Earlier this year, much of the world watched the Scottish independence referendum with baited breath – including citizens who wish to form breakaway nations of their own.

14. At the same time, Europe continues to look for answers to questions about its own identity; about common bonds that cross borders, and about where to set the limits of regional government.

15. And at the world level, globalisation continues to change the way nations interact with their citizens – and with each other. The reach of multinational organisations, the removal of trade boundaries, and the growth of English as a global language are subtly changing the meaning of the individual nation.

16. These challenges to the idea of the nation are also being shaped by the internet revolution. There are three key changes that we must come to terms with.

17. Firstly, people are freer than ever to share ideas about governance – instantly and to a global audience. Empowered by the information revolution, those who have internet access – which, by the way, is still just one in three people worldwide – can hold their governments to greater account.

18. They can access a huge range of statistics, indicators and international comparisons. They can read and engage with opinions and political philosophies from different systems around the world. And if they are unhappy with the state of their government, they can and will tell the world about it, in real time, with pictures, videos and hashtags to help get their message across.

19. For young people, who have grown up with the internet, this is not considered a privilege or a right; it is part of daily life.

20. As we seek to build nations, we must realise that greater freedom of information also brings greater scrutiny. We must remember the benefits – economic, scientific, and cultural – when assessing the risks. And we should see that the truly revolutionary thing about the internet – its ability to open genuine dialogues – gives us an opportunity to engage with the public in a more meaningful way.

21. In the past, politicians have been accused of only fixing the roads when there’s an election coming up. Today, we are taken to task by our constituents who live-tweet from traffic jams. Yes: it is a more critical, and sometimes combative environment. But it also offers us a chance to see public opinion without the filter of the ballot box – and to respond in real-time ourselves.

22. Accountability online is not just reactive, either. We also have a chance to reach out to people and actively involve them in the business of government. Here in Malaysia, we have tried to open up policymaking to the public. For the past few years, I have asked people to use social media to contribute their ideas for the Budget, and made sure the best ‘crowd-sourced’ suggestions are included. The internet gives everyone a voice. This more directly democratic process shows them that their voice can be heard.

23. Of course, not all online discourse is quite so civic-minded. Countries around the world are working to find the right balance between promoting freedom of discussion and protecting individuals, the public and indeed national interest from harm. From defamation to cyberbullying, the internet age brings new questions about the hard limits of free expression.

24. This is especially the case in a multicultural nation like Malaysia. We must not let the internet become a medium for the stoking of racial tension or violence.

25. At times, the internet has been used here to spread half truths and outright lies. For example, during the last general election a host of unsubstantiated allegations were propagated online; it was said that the government was orchestrating blackouts in polling stations, and flying 40,000 foreigners across Malaysia to vote. These claims were all proven to be baseless lies, but not before they had been swallowed hook, line and sinker by many – doing real damage to our reputation. Internet stories can go viral and take on a life of their own.

26. People have a responsibility to think about the content they share in the heat of the moment. The public also need to be more discerning, and understand that allegations on the internet should not be accepted as absolute truth. Claims need to be questioned, and evidence assessed. Education could play a role, but it will take time.

27. There is no perfect solution. Legitimate criticism should be encouraged; that is part of healthy democratic debate. But sometimes content crosses the line; intruding on personal privacy, breaking domestic law, or invoking physical harm.

28. Where exactly we set that line is for individual countries to decide. But regardless of our own legal boundaries, we must understand that online discussion takes place in a global commons, and that attitudes are spread and absorbed as part of a worldwide conversation.

29. I believe we should preserve what makes the internet what it is: a place for the free exchange of views, a place where truly interactive discussion can progress knowledge, development and democracy. But I also believe we can all commit to encouraging more civil and responsible online debate, to ensure that behaviour online reflects the norms and values that we expect of each other in real life.

30. The second challenge we face is almost the opposite. Nation-building requires the engagement of the people who make up the nation. It is a collective endeavour that requires us to tap into a deeper identity, a sense of belonging to a bigger community.

31. But in an online world, people are increasingly getting their social interaction from friends, family and even strangers who live in different cities, different countries, and different continents. These much wider networks can be put to fantastic use – for example, when raising awareness or promoting charitable causes – but they can also isolate us from our immediate surroundings. Increasingly, time spent online is replacing time spent socialising in real life.

32. In a connected world, our location no longer defines us. People can follow their interests online wherever they are. They can socialise without all the local interactions that make a community, and bind communities together into a nation.

33. We’ve all seen a family or group of friends sitting silently at the dinner table, everyone looking at their phones or iPads. In fact, I suspect a few of us have been guilty of that ourselves, especially since we work in a 24-hour business culture.

34. Unfortunately, the age of information is also the age of distraction. Understanding when to put down the phone and engage with people – when to talk face-to-face, not with FaceTime – is for individuals and families to decide. But on a wider level, we must be aware that the pattern of social interactions is changing from local and personal to global and anonymous.

35. In response, we must find new and creative ways to ensure people remain engaged with their local communities; that they feel as much part of their nation as they do their favourite Facebook group. We have seen that the internet can be a tremendous channel for giving – from the ice-bucket challenge to disaster relief funds. If it is done authentically and honestly, we can tap into that spirit to ensure that online interactions are also a place where national pride and belonging come together, so that online life augments real life, not replaces it.

36. The third and final challenge we face is diplomatic.

37. Successful nation-building cannot happen in a vacuum. Nations are built, and prosper, on good relations – with neighbours, allies and competitors.

38. For centuries, diplomacy has been a guarded world, with carefully established conventions and language. It has also been perhaps the ultimate ‘black box’, an invisible process by which governments interact on behalf of their people.

39. In a connected world, that box has been opened. Diplomacy is now more public than ever before.

40. This change has come from below and from above.

41. From below, because the release of thousands of classified documents online has changed public and diplomatic discourse forever. Governments and businesses now know that their secrets can be shared not just with their competitors, but with the whole world – instantly, anonymously, and permanently.

42. That will affect the way we conduct the delicate and sometimes messy business of international relations. So too will the sharing of graphic content online by non-state actors. The most immediate example is the horrific stream of murders released by extremists, who seek to wrestle influence from nations, and attract people to global militant groups. The international community is still figuring out the best way to shut out those who sensationalise violence; and how established diplomatic channels can compete with the speed a modern social media outfit.

43. But it also comes from above, because nations themselves are now online. According to recent research, more than 150 countries have government Twitter accounts, and more than 500 government ministers are on Twitter. The reasons are easy to understand: social media is an extraordinary tool for reaching people, especially young people who may not ordinarily engage with politics in traditional ways.

44. But with so many people tweeting on behalf of nations, and so many lively discussions online, it is inevitable that sometimes tweets, status updates or blog posts will slip past the diplomatic and common-sense protocols. Already there have been squabbles between nations conducted on twitter, and posts by prominent individuals have led to diplomatic incidents.

45. It is easy to dismiss this as part of the rough and tumble of online discourse. But good nations depend on good relations, and in a connected world – where communication is instant – there are opportunities for online disagreements to threaten the fundamental principles of good diplomacy.

46. Like all of the challenges I have spoken about today, we must understand that this is part of an ongoing debate. Mass internet use is still a new phenomenon. YouTube is only 9 years old; Twitter is 8. We are still understanding the possibilities, limits and potential uses – both good and bad – of these new technologies. So we must accept that mistakes will be made as this learning process continues. And in place of suspicion or sensationalism, we should deploy established diplomatic principles – and common sense.

Ladies and gentlemen,

47. The challenges I have spoken about tonight – accountability after the information revolution, disengagement in the age of distraction, and the practice of digital diplomacy – are part of a bigger, more positive storyline.

48. The internet affords us huge opportunities – for education, economic development, and social interaction. In such a fast-moving and innovative environment, there are bound to be a few collisions along the way. But we must not forget that the prize on offer is substantial.

49. I believe a connected world can be a better world. As leaders and parties, we can ensure that the internet – one of the most significant inventions of our time – remains one of the most beneficial. And we can harness its power to the cause of nationbuilding.

50. Sometimes that will mean adjusting our own expectations – of the scrutiny we will face, or the limits of our ability to change behaviour that crosses borders. Sometimes it will mean educating our citizens, working with them to build more civil online dialogue, and encourage them to engage with the real-life nation beyond the screen.

51. And sometimes it will mean understanding that many countries are facing similar challenges, and asking themselves similar questions; and that for the global community to extract the most value from this remarkable technology, we must continue to learn from each other’s experience, and to collaborate in the service of the greater good.

52. That is what this forum is all about, and I look forward to learning from the wisdom collected here today. Once again, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you to Malaysia, and to open the 2014 UMNO International Forum.

Thank you.

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