$16m Malaysia email plan sparks online protest

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Thousands of Malaysians mocked a 50 million ringgit ($16 million) plan to offer government-linked email accounts to all adults, saying Wednesday that most Internet users already have free email service.

The project has swiftly turned into an embarrassment for Malaysia’s government, which is often accused of spending lavish sums on unnecessary initiatives spearheaded by companies that have friendly ties with government officials.

Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the “1 Malaysia Email Project” Tuesday as part of efforts to boost administrative efficiency. It aims to provide an estimated 16 million Malaysians with free email accounts to facilitate direct online communication between them and government agencies.

Within 24 hours of Najib’s announcement, more than 23,000 people had joined a Facebook group opposing the project. Many ridiculed it on online forums, describing it as a publicity stunt that was pointless because Internet users already have free email accounts on Google, Yahoo and Hotmail.

“Please use this money to help poor people, they need food more than email,” wrote one of the Facebook group’s members, Yap Fook Sin.

Najib has since assured taxpayers that their cash would not be used for the project, which Malaysian technology firm Tricubes hopes to have ready for public use in July.

“Before I sleep, let me clarify that the 1 Malaysia E Mail is a private sector project. No public money is involved,” Najib wrote on Twitter after midnight Wednesday.

Nevertheless, many fear the project is an attempt to bolster a financially troubled but well-connected company, and that the government will eventually need to spend some money for its use.

The Prime Minister’s Department says the project would require an investment of 50 million ringgit through 2020, which would include setting up a website for social networking and bill payments.

Some people claim the project could also be an effort to spread government propaganda. The email addresses are expected to contain the word “1Malaysia,” a slogan widely used by Najib’s administration to promote national unity.

Other critics suggested the project could have more sinister motives, potentially enabling the government to view private email correspondence. Lim Kit Siang, a top opposition lawmaker, said it could turn into a case of “Big Brother-ism gone mad.”

It is the second time in recent months that a high-profile venture announced by Najib attracted widespread scorn. In October, he was forced to defend plans by a government-backed fund management firm to construct a $1.6 billion, 100-story commercial skyscraper, saying it would contribute to the long-term development of Kuala Lumpur.