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AMID THE RUBBER TREES, A MULTIMEDIA SUPER CORRIDOR?

Plans don't get much more audacious than the one to build a Multimedia Super Corridor in Malaysia. Consider this: Government officials need to scrounge up $40 billion in a country where the per capita income is just $4,200. They must encourage the birth of tech startups in a land where computer literacy and entrepreneurs are scarce. And if that weren't enough, they must lure global electronics companies, so that the result is a hothouse of technological activity--a sort of tropical Silicon Valley.

Sound a tad over the top? Not when you consider it is backed by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. When the physician-turned-politician took power 16 years ago, the country's economy pivoted on palm, rubber, and tin. Mahathir aggressively wooed Japanese and Western electronics makers, turning Malaysia into one of the world's largest producers of disk drives and other electronic components. Corporations such as Intel, Sony, and others have propelled economic growth to an annual average of more than 8% a year for the past decade.

But Malaysia's elite are worried that simply being an electronics assembler won't be enough in an age where ideas create wealth. So Mahathir wants to use new technologies, government money, and tech giants to create a site beyond Silicon Valley. The bait: heavy government spending to make the 465-square-mile corridor a leader in using high tech in real-world settings. Mahathir is backing his pitch with 10-year tax holidays, work permits for foreigners, and duty-free imports of capital equipment. ''Malaysia offers the Multimedia Super Corridor as a huge test bed,'' he says, ''for trying out not just the technology but also the way of life in the age of instant and unlimited information.''

VALUES. The boldness of the vision has won key support. Mahathir has attracted a who's who of the digerati onto his advisory board, including Microsoft's William H. Gates III and IBM's Louis V. Gerstner Jr.

Still, enormous problems lie ahead. Computer-savvy workers are hard to find. And while it desires the fruits of digital technology, Malaysia's elite fear that the Internet will usher in corrosive Western values.

Mahathir's focus has always been on big, easily definable projects, such as construction of the world's tallest buildings in Kuala Lumpur. If the economy remains strong, he should be able to get the corridor built. Still, Mahathir faces one of the toughest challenges in his career--trying to impose from the top an economic order that relies on creative bubblings from below.

By Mark L. Clifford in Kuala Lumpur


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Updated Aug. 7, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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