Issue #15 January 2006

Free and open software in Malaysia

by Colin Charles


Malaysia, like most other developing nations, generally has a positive view on the open source movement. Malaysia stands out in the free and open source software (FOSS) movement, mainly because there's a fairly well organized FOSS movement, the media is FOSS-aware, and there's support from the government for FOSS usage.

Beginnings

How it all began in Malaysia, is probably very much like how it began elsewhere. Like-minded individuals meet up, they enjoy similar company and share similar ideas. Then a mailing list gets formed. And you can say the rest is history, right?

Not quite. The activities in almost a decade have been numerous, and far reaching. With efforts from helping the local Thalassaemia association, to providing schools with Linux labs, giving advocacy talks and running open source workshops, the community has come a long way.

Why the importance?

Seeing that Malaysia is still a developing nation, trying to achieve developed status by the year 2020, FOSS helps pave the road towards moving the economy towards a technology driven, knowledge-based one. Allowing one to "peek under the hood" and learn how some piece of software works, is crucial to a nation where skills are still being developed. It allows a nation to play a part in the international software community, and not be dependent on 100% foreign built proprietary software.

FOSS deployment has now been institutionalized, and the government pushed two feasibility studies to push the open source agenda. The main reasons cited include, but aren't limited to: reducing the total cost of ownership, increase the freedom of choice for software usage, hence increasing the growth of the local ICT (get acronym definition) industries.

Bridging the digital divide

In a country where pirated software is still rampant, buying a copy of an open source distribution like Fedora Core (4CDs) could cost more than the average commercial OS that comes on 1CD! Pressure is being added to protect intellectual property and reduce piracy, which all seem to point in the direction of a boon to the FOSS world in Malaysia as more companies take it up on the desktop.

As a bid to help more home users get cheaper PC's, the "One Home One PC" campaign was launched a few years back that aimed to sell a full-blown Linux PC for under USD$250. These machines came custom-configured with Fedora Core 1, with fully working hardware, and all the multimedia and educational software home users felt comfortable with.

FOSS also enables the locals whom aren't as well versed in English as their counterparts to use technology (hence assist in reducing the digital divide). In a country as diverse as Malaysia, where the main spoken languages besides English include Bahasa Malaysia, Tamil, Mandarin, Cantonese and a few more dialects, localization is a large part of the open source movement.

Some of the earliest contributions to the GNOME and the Red Hat Linux projects were from community members, in the form of localization to Bahasa Malaysia. Key applications like Mozilla and OpenOffice.org have also been translated in various stages. There have been others ranging from the popular KDE to a fairly obscure tool like bison!

Where the community's at

A hub for all discussions tends to be the MYOSS mailing list, the oldest surviving home for the movement in Malaysia. It seems more skewed towards technical discussions, whereas the Malaysian National Computer Confederation (MNCC) have an Open Source Special Interest Group (OSSIG) that runs the OSSIG mailing list, that is more user focused. For local Bahasa Malaysia discussions, the mypenguin99 mailing list is the place to be.

As open source gains more momentum, it can only be said that 2005 was probably one of the most productive years in terms of community development and expansion. It started with the MyOSS Meetups, a regular monthly happening, where there would be up to two talks on some form of FOSS topic. These discussions range from low level talks on compilers, to higher level ones on podcasting the FOSS way. After the presentations, there would be community bonding at a local restaurant, where a lot more FOSS discussion would happen.

The MyOSS Magazine, started mid-2005, went up to six editions last year, and started off as one man's itch to educate both the Malaysian OSS community as well as the international one. Some key articles included open source power management, developing applications with PHP, as well as Linux LiveCDs.

Community run low-cost LPI Certification exams were run twice last year, enabling about sixty candidates to take the LPI101 and LPI102 examinations, allowing the locals to be LPI Certified. These examinations were proctored by "Malaysia's open source father", Dr. Nah Soo Hoe, whom is synonymous with many local activities.

Going back to 2003, Malaysia hosted its first FOSS conference, dubbed FOSSCON, where internationally acclaimed speakers like John "maddog" Hall and MySQL's David Axmark presented keynotes. These talks were well received, and since then, Malaysia has played host to Paul "rusty" Russell of Linux kernel fame, as well as Richard Stallman, who came not once but twice, to preach about free software.

But it's not just advocacy the community is good at. ADOdb, the famous database abstraction library for PHP, m0n0wall, the complete embedded firewall/traffic shaper/router, and e-HRMS, the web-based human resources managed system, are all open source projects run by Malaysians. Both ADOdb and e-HRMS have won the Excellence in ICT Awards, Open Source Software category, run by the MNCC. For more projects, the Malaysian FOSS Contributors list would serve as a more complete resource.

When the community isn't doing serious work, they can be found hanging out at #myoss on the Freenode IRC network, or writing blogs, syndicated at Planet MYOSS.

As Ditesh Kumar, local FOSS Developer and a member of the community puts it: "We hope to continue to build the momentum in 2006 and continue to build the local community via empowerment activities and knowledge dissemination."

The government strongly behind it all

Two main organizations that have government backing, that are highly into open source, would be the Malaysian Institute of Microelectronic Systems (MIMOS) and the Malaysian Administration Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (MAMPU). They both came up with independent open source roadmaps and paved the way for open source within the country; the MAMPU Master Plan coming out the stronger of the two.

MIMOS has established an open source R&D group for a few years now, whom incidentally organized FOSSCON 2003. They maintain a knowledgebase, called the Asian Open Source Centre (AsiaOSC), where there exists a community server, including mailing list services and a mirror of open source software. Local workshops are held, and extensions to OpenOffice.org including the help files have all been translated into Bahasa Malaysia.

MAMPU have created an Open Source Competency Centre, and an OSS Master Plan, that has been accepted by the Malaysian Government and paves the way for the future of FOSS in Malaysia. The plan takes action in time periods, and in the first two years, simple tasks like e-mail, web browsing and use of office software should migrate to an open source solution. In the next two to five years, there should be an accelerated adoption, where databases should be migrated along with usage of LDAP, etc. Currently, Malaysia is at its first 0-2 years, laying the foundation for the early adopters.

While not a local government agency, the International Open Source Network, an initiative of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP-APDIP), started its roots in Malaysia, before moving to Thailand. They are a body that helps the local FOSS movement within means and endorsed Software Freedom Day, providing a calendar for upcoming events, as well as a lot of information about FOSS in Malaysia.

What about businesses?

Businesses that circle around the FOSS arena tend to be in education (via training and certification), systems integration, application development and consultation. In a later issue, I will cover ISVs, and the local FOSS business scene.

I hope this is a fairly broad guide to the open source movement in Malaysia, and if there are queries, comments, brickbats, and the like, please give us some feedback.

About the author

Colin Charles is a consultant, author, and student who's involved in the OpenOffice.org and Fedora projects. He now works for MySQL AB as a Community Engineer. He has an affinity for Fedora/ppc. Besides tinkering with computers and other electronic gadgets, he has interests in bowling, cycling, chilling out and watching movies.