Malaysian Cybercafes Could Be Banned

The Malaysian government outlawed all video game arcades last week and may now be gunningfor cybercafes.

KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian authorities' sudden decision last week to ban all video game arcades has cybercafe owners worried.

Net Surfing Zone cybercafe owner Lim Kah Hai appealed to the government not to extend the ban to cybercafes. "They should leave us out of it. The games we offer in cybercafes are totally different from video game arcades."

Lim, who runs two cybercafes in Ipoh, said most cybercafe owners run "clean" businesses and should not be lumped together with video arcade operators. "The illegal video arcades run machines solely for gambling. They make tons of money and have no interest in the Internet."

Lim was among various cybercafe owners who expressed fears that authorities may target them as well and extend the arcade ban to encompass cybercafes.

On Saturday, Energy, Communications and Multimedia Deputy Minister Tan Chai Ho fueled fears that cybercafes could be the next target when he warned cybercafe owners not to take over gambling activities from the arcades.

The warning came after the Malaysian government slapped a blanket ban on Wednesday on all video game arcades with a two-month deadline to revoke all licences.

The Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the ban was necessary to curb rampant slot-machine gambling and because the games had become "like an opium" for the younger generation.

Local media indicated that the most popular games at the illegal arcades are electronic horse racing and strip poker.

Gambling is illegal for the Muslim Malay majority in Malaysia, who make up more than half the population of the country, and is restricted to licensed outlets for the other races.

The stern action drew mixed reactions with consumer associations, teachers, unions and civic leaders favoring it, but some opposition party leaders question why legitimate operators were being penalized.

Better enforcement, not a total ban Kerk Kim Hock, secretary general of opposition party DAP, told ZDNet Asia that a total ban was unfair on legitimate operators and could "ruin businesses".

"We do not advocate a total ban. The rise of illegal gaming arcades is due to slack enforcement. The government should target those operators and not ruin legitimate businesses and put people out of work," said Kerk, who is also a member of parliament for Kota Melaka.

Kerk added that a blanket ban is not the answer. "If you start banning video arcades, where do you stop? Should you now ban cybercafes, snooker centers and nightclubs?"

Kerk said contradictory statements from government leaders that the ban would not affect the Genting Highlands Theme Park, which also houses the only licensed casino in the country, and various gaming machines in private clubs, suggest that the ban decision was made in haste.

="The decision to impose a total ban shows that the= Cabinet has adopted a knee-jerk reaction which is missing the forest for the trees. They must distinguish between gaming machines in illegal arcades and non-gambling machines in licensed video centers. The authorities should also understand the difference between youths who squander their money by playing the gambling machines and those who seek excitement and become addicted to non-gambling machines," he said.

Kerk said that since the ban announcement, local enforcement agencies seem to have suddenly "woken up". Local media have played up reports of various police and local council crackdowns on illegal arcades across the country. Some councils have even resorted to cutting water and electricity supply to shut down the arcades.

"Any social problem needs to be resolved with better enforcement and education. Get to the root of the problem first - whether it is corruption on the part of local councils or gambling addiction. Study how to tackle those for the long term, then introduce appropriate control measures if necessary," he said.

Net Surfing Zone's Lim conceded that some 'bad hats' among cybercafe owners offer gambling, but such activities call for better enforcement not a total ban.

"Cybercafes offer a cheap means for people who can't afford computers to access the Internet. I have parents who bring their children in here on weekends and nearby college students who need them to complete assignments," he said.

He added that the games in cybercafes are useful to introduce computer use to the young. "They gradually get bored of these games and start taking a keen interest in the Internet. That's good for our country's drive for a knowledge economy. "

Lim continued that such games should not be confined to the fortunate middle-class and upper middle class families that can afford PCs and PlayStations for their children at home. "Even those who can't afford it should have access. If they don't play games and access the Internet, how are they going to become game designers and software experts?"

The Malaysia authorities had previously backed down on plans to monitor cybercafes and for operators to take down details of customers because the move had raised the heckles of Internet privacy and anti-censorship advocates.

Malaysia has assured investors of the Multimedia Super Corridor project, a technology initiative deemed crucial to the economy, that it would not censor the Internet.

The Malaysian Cabinet is expected to meet tomorrow to discuss whether the ban would be extended to legal arcade operators and cybercafes.

Julian Matthews is ZDNet Asia’s correspondent in Malaysia.