In East Malaysia, Internet connection is still a privilege.
Recently one of our students from East Malaysia, Veveonah Mosibin, received an international spotlight after documenting her journey to take an online test on top of a tree in Sabah, Malaysia. Her video attracted attention from local and global media, highlighting the existing digital divide in the supposedly hyper-connected world. Veveonah’s experience is not exclusive and is a reality for many East Malaysian and the rest of Southeast Asian people.
East Malaysian states, Sarawak and Sabah, are located on Borneo island, next to Kalimantan, Indonesia. Unlike its peninsular counterparts, the East Malaysian region is considerably less developed despite its abundant natural resources and are hubs for the oil and gas industry in Malaysia.
As a scholar who originated from Sarawak in East Malaysia, I have been observing conversation on social media related to Internet connectivity in these two states for many years. When the Malaysian government announced that the country would be under partial lockdown from March 18, 2020, it was unprecedented that the lockdown would last more than two months, pushing for schools and universities to move to online platforms for teaching and learning.
Aware of the digital disparity in East Malaysia, I was concern about how effective teaching and learning would be made possible in these two states, especially for students in rural areas? In East Malaysia, having a stable high-speed Internet connection for teaching and learning is still a privilege many could not have.
Survey and in-depth interviews: Exploring the digital divide in modern Malaysia
To further understand the situation in East Malaysia, I developed a simple survey that was distributed to people of Sarawak and Sabah to study their concerns related to Internet connectivity in East Malaysia recorded from April 15 until May 30, 2020. A series of telephone interviews were also conducted to get detailed responses from 20 informants living in these two states during the research period.
Out of the 574 responses, 67.1% (385 respondents) expressed dissatisfaction with the current Internet connectivity in East Malaysia, citing poor connectivity, slow and unstable Internet connection, and no access to the Internet. 178 respondents (31%) of the respondents from rural Sarawak and Sabah also reported that they had to travel out from the comfort of their own house to look for a stable Internet connection, while 84 respondents (14.6%) asserted that they have no access to the Internet at home.
When asked if they reported the issue to local government or Internet service providers, as many as 51.9% (297 respondents) said they had experienced reporting this issue to local government representatives or Internet service providers. 50.3% (289 respondents) said that the problem persists, and no effective action taken by local government representatives or Internet service providers.
From an in-depth interview with 20 informants, including teachers, parents, and students, I also found that there are several dominant issues repetitively highlighted. These issues include 1) business monopoly by government-linked Internet service provider Telekom Malaysia, 2) poor connectivity for mobile networks by local telecommunication companies, 3) lack of support from local representatives to champion for this issue, and 4) slow telecommunication development despite plans to closing digital gap were announced since the last decade.
Students interviewed also posited that connectivity disturbance had resulted in teachers sending homework via WhatsApp without an active teaching-learning session. Even if teachers conducted an online class on platforms like Google Classroom, students would face constant connectivity problems. They also said that to have a stable Internet connection for studying, they would have to leave their home to be at odd places with a better Internet connection.
Lack of support from local government representatives and business monopoly by a government-linked company, Telekom Malaysia
Findings also showed that 44.8% (257 respondents) felt like they received a lack of support from local government representatives to help in expediting the telecommunication development in East Malaysia. Despite campaigns to establish ‘wireless villages’ across Malaysia under the former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 1 Malaysia initiative, informants perceived the effort as a part of a political campaign to win voters in the rural regions. The project is criticized as a failed mission as Internet accessibility remains a problem for many people in the two states, even for residents living in these ‘wireless’ villages.
As high as 407 respondents (74.4%) felt like Telekom Malaysia, the largest broadband provider in the region monopolized the Internet service industry, leaving them with little option to choose Internet service from. Many resorted to subscribing to mobile Internet services through telcos such as Celcom, Maxis, and Digi among others. Informants interviewed also stated that they had experience making complaints to Telekom Malaysia for their poor Internet connection and to request an Internet service, and allegedly ignored numerous times. Sarawak and Sabah in East Malaysia still highly dependent on services by Telekom Malaysia due to limited fixed-line broadband service providers in the two states. The fixed-line broadband Internet service offered by Telekom Malaysia is also perceived as more reliable than mobile Internet services provided by mobile telecommunication companies.
Closing the digital gap: Moving forward
Although there are efforts placed by the Malaysian government to increase the internet connectivity in Sarawak and Sabah, based on the responses received from this study, evident dissatisfaction is prevalent among research participants. Six informants interviewed in this study believe that plans for digital transformation, especially in rural areas, were empty promises during the election period. This is a wakeup call for government and its representatives to carefully observe and listen to their constituencies or else risking increased distrust as time passed.
In Sarawak, through Sarawak Multimedia Authority (SMA), the Sarawak state government announced its SMART 300 project under Sarawak Digital Economy Plan to decrease the digital divide through the erection of 300 new telecommunication towers across the state by the end of 2021.
While in Sabah, after the video of Veveonah Mosibin went viral receiving much attention from a local and international media outlet, Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) pledged to install a new communication tower in her village area. Another 49 towers will also be erected across Sabah under the National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan (NFCP) 1. The project is expected to be completed by the second quarter of 2021.