By Alvin Ung
One hot afternoon in March, I bought a woolen hat woven by a young woman living in FELDA Jengka 24, an oil palm plantation in the heart of Pahang.
The brown-and-yellow hat was adorned with a three-dimensional white flower. Aishah took eight hours to crochet the hat. It was for sale for RM18.
“Can I buy this hat online?” I asked, as we chatted at a rural broadband Internet centre which began as a Pusat Internet Desa, or PID.
“Yes, I’m on Facebook,” said Aishah, smiling shyly, as she sat on a tall chair. “Just let me know the size, colours, and how many flowers you want on the hat. You can also contact me on Yahoo Messenger.”
I fished out two red notes from my wallet. I wasn’t sure how to hand her the money.
“Thank you for buying the hat,” Aishah said in Malay, as she raised her leg high. She took the two bills from me using her big toe and second toe.
Noor Aishah Ariffin, 26, the youngest in a family of six children, was born with stumps instead of arms. The school teachers did not allow her to enroll in school, so she stayed at home watching television everyday until she turned eighteen, when she joined a community centre. She taught herself how to crochet. Using her feet, she used scissors to snip yarn, wrapped the yarn around the crochet hook, and began pulling loops. She made beautiful hats and bags.
But what use was it to sell a wool hat in the middle of an oil palm plantation? Who would buy Aishah’s foot-made products? How would this motivated, bright young woman find opportunities for growth and learning?
Aishah’s story of untapped potential could be repeated thousands of times in rural households all across Malaysia. Even for people who do not face the daily challenge of living without hands and arms, the rural poor face other kinds of invisible disabilities. For example, they spend far more time and money to do the things city folk take for granted, whether it is reading the news, writing an email, or applying for entrance into universities.
The Internet is the great leveller. Global research has shown that the rollout of Internet services in rural communities can reduce urban migration while generating new income and home businesses in villages.
Getting there has been a challenge for Malaysia. Less than fifteen years ago, Internet penetration in the country was less than ten percent. None of the primary or secondary schools were wired to the Internet. Access in rural areas was a big fat zero. Most villagers had not seen a computer.
Since then Malaysia has been playing catchup. The biggest game changer is the Communications Multimedia Act (CMA 1998) introduced as one of the Bills of Guarantee for the Multimedia Super Corridoor (MSC). This law encourages the building of civil society. Less known, but equally important, is one of the ten objectives: “to ensure an equitable provision of affordable services over ubiquitous national infrastructure.” In other words, rural folks should also get access to affordable Internet technology.
But creating sound policy and passing laws is only the first mile in a marathon. It’s the ability to implement simple, scalable and sustainable solutions that will ensure whether the change effort endures or withers away.
Therein comes the rub: It is not in the interest of private telecommunications to spend billions to lay out broadband for so few people across jungles, rivers and mountains. And even after you build Internet centres in villages, it is an even bigger challenge to educate the people to use the Net. Last month, a FELDA settler and village chief told me that when he first sighted a desktop PC, he grabbed the mouse by its “tail” and swung it like a lasso.
So who were the people who helped to build the foundation for rural broadband access in Malaysia? And years later, has that made a difference?
“Dr. Halim is the man you’re looking for,” declared Dr. Fadhlullah Suhaimi Abdul Malek, the NKEA director at PEMANDU. “He’s the spark who made broadband accessible in the rural setting. During a time when broadband was not available, he was persistent in pushing for the idea. He convinced the telcos to join in. And he always went down to the ground to make sure things were happening. It’s an amazing, untold story.”
A few weeks later, I found myself sitting in a Proton Perdana with Dato’ Sri Dr. Halim Shafie, the chairman of Telekom Malaysia, as we drove along the Karak Highway to visit a community broadband centre in Jengka, two hours away from Kuala Lumpur.
In 1999, when Dr. Halim was appointed as deputy secretary-general of the Ministry of Energy, Water and Communications, there was no broadband outside the city. Today there are hundreds of rural broadband centres. More than a hundred are still being set up this year. All 10,000 schools and hundreds of rural libraries are broadband-enabled. Halim helped to kick start these initiatives.
“How did you even get started?” I asked Halim.
“We started by asking a question,” Halim recollected as our car motored past trucks going uphill on the Karak Highway. “How do we push communications and the Internet into rural areas?”
“If you can put Internet access into Bario, you can put it anywhere,” said Leo Moggie, the then-energy minister from Kanuwit, Sarawak.
Bario was a Kelabit village in the highlands of Sarawak near the Kalimantan border. As a kid, Idris Jala (now CEO of PEMANDU) recollected walking one week through jungle and travelling another week by boat to reach Miri.
Halim enlisted Telekom Malaysia, MIMOS and UNIMAS to install a VSAT facility and an Internet centre so that villagers could access voice and Internet services via satellite. When the service was launched in 2000, the headmistress in Bario spoke, in tears: “For the first time in our history, we can make a phone call from Bario.”
Halim was almost in tears too. “We saw how the Internet opened up the whole world for rural folks, particularly kids,” Halim told me.
Now the challenge was scalability: how do you do this again and again in hundreds of obscure villages in Sabah, Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia? And how do you put in place the systems and structures to make such an undertaking sustainable over the long-term? Or to put it bluntly: how do you avoid building glorified cyber-cafes left to rot in the jungle?
Interestingly enough, Halim’s childhood prepared him to tackle these perplexing questions.
Halim grew up in a rural village in Kuala Ketil near Sungai Petani, Kedah, where he walked or cycled five kilometers to an estate primary school called Batu Pekaka English School, led by the then-headmaster David Raman. “David was the best teacher I ever had. He knew we all came from very poor families,” said Halim, who grew up selling rubber, banana, chickens and flowers from the backyard in order to buy rice, flour and kerosene. When Halim entered Standard Six, the headmaster applied for Halim to enter Malay College Kuala Kangsar even though Halim had not heard about the famous boarding school. “David was extraordinarily kind and committed to us. He gave us opportunities we never had. I could never repay the debt I owed to him,” Halim said.
Halim went to MCKK without a school uniform during the first week but he made the decision to work harder than anyone else. He woke up in the pre-dawn hours and walked alone across an dark field (where the “Green Lady” was rumoured to haunt) so that he could study in a lit classroom. Halim subsequently read Economics in University Malaya, graduated in the top two percent in the Masters programme at Pittsburgh University, and obtained a Ph.D in information transfer from Syracuse University in 1988.
“I am not intelligent,” Halim said. “Coming from a rural school, I did not get much exposure to the world. But I realised I could go somewhere in life because I made the decision to work harder than almost anyone, almost anywhere.”
Hard work drew him across the divide from rural poverty to the urban middle class where he spent nearly three decades climbing the ranks in several government ministries until he became Secretary General of the Ministry of Energy, Water and Communications in 2000.
At this point, unbeknownst to him, all the pieces of the jigsaw were now in place for Halim to repay the debt he owed to his primary school headmaster.
Halim’s reminisces were interrupted by our arrival at the FELDA Jengka 24 — a squat building with a dozen PCs, WiFi, a living room area and a training room. The TM chairman was given an official welcome. Amid the speeches, I found myself drawn toward Mohd Shahfudin Mohd Hatta, the manager of the community broadband centre, which was recently rebranded as Pusat Internet 1 Malaysia. As we chatted, I discovered that Shahfudin’s essentially a tech evangelist who transformed the broadband outpost into a community hub.
Since starting his job in 2010, he has trained more than 1,400 people on how to use Word, access the Internet, assemble computers and set up a blog. He has educated homemakers on the dangers of cybercrime. He has helped grassroots entrepreneurs set up blogs and e-commerce sites to sell products such as coins, rings, keris, frozen food, apple vinegar, olive oil, papaya seed extract, virgin coconut oil, and even marital-enhancement oils.
“We try to give our best using the existing infrastructure in this centre,” Shahfudin told me. “We do everything from sweep the rubbish to recruiting volunteers to emceeing community events.” If the elderly cannot come to the centre, Shahfudin and his assistant manager will bring computers to their homes to educate them. Last year, Shahfudin made a video on Aishah’s story which won a U-Pustaka 2012 national award.
What keeps Shahfudin, a Gen Y university graduate, motivated to work in a rural place? Shahfudin said he’s allowed to earn extra income when he opens the centre after hours or when he provides a service, such as installing Windows into a PC. “I use the centre to help the community, but the community also helps me. My work here has given me the business opportunities to improve my life,” said Shafudin, the father of a one-year-old son.
Ongoing efforts to bridge the urban-rural divide are being coordinated under PEMANDU’S Economic Transformation Plan – in an Entry Point Project called “Extending Reach.” The first initiative is building community broadband centres such as the one I visited; 162 new community broadband centres are expected to be set up this year. The second initiative provides wireless access to selected villages through an initiative called “Kampung Tanpa Wayar.” There were 2,489 rural wireless spots built in 2012; 689 more wireless sites are planned for 2013.
Of course, transforming any community requires a combination of high-tech and down-to-earth initiatives, including revamping the local Saturday market.
“Jengka is a rural area made up of local Malays, FELDA settlers and Orang Asli,” said Dr. Faz. “The government is trying to make it economically attractive.”
One of the projects which PEMANDU is coordinating with Federal Agriculture Marketing Authority, or FAMA, is to modernise local markets into a 24-hour community market called Pasar Komuniti (PAKAR) in Jengka. PEMANDU is also coordinating efforts with the Rural Ministry to build rural roads and implement five water supply projects in Jengka under the Government Transformation Plan.
Azlin Abdullah, a FELDA manager, told me the Jengka community – comprising 70,000 people who live in Maran, Jerantut and Temerloh – were fortunate to have four Internet centres. “With these centres, the kids don’t have to go to cybercafes. During school breaks, hundreds of children come here everyday. The older kids use the centre to fill in online applications for universities,” Azlin said.
“When I was in the city, I didn’t dare to touch a computer,” said Samad bin Arshad, the ketua peneroka of Felda 24. “Now I dare to hold a mouse.”
On our car ride back to Kuala Lumpur, I found Dr. Halim, an extreme introvert, in a reflective mode.
“When we put Internet access in rural areas for farmers, housewives and kids, we are opening up their world. I really believe in that. There are kids with potential everywhere. What we need to do is provide them opportunities and facilities to realise their potential,” he told me.
At that moment something clicked for me. I realised there wouldn’t be a Shahfudin or an Aishah talking to me today if not for the foundation that Halim built a decade ago when he was Secretary General of the Ministry of Energy.
“You built a foundation of success for these people just as David Raman built the foundation for you,” I told Halim.
“What I’ve done is nowhere near what David has done for me and so many others,” Halim said immediately. After a while he nodded slowly. “But, yes, I suppose I am now doing it for others.”
Aishah herself is a recipient of Halim’s — and therefore David Raman’s — legacy.
Since meeting Shahfudin at the community broadband centre in Jengka, Aishah has begun sharing her story through her Facebook page and selling hats, bags and origami through the Internet. Aishah’s now downloading Youtube videos to learn beading — which she hopes will make her products more saleable.
“If I could, I would come here everyday. I’m learning so much by studying what other people do in their arts and crafts,” Aishah said, as she keenly observed me taking notes on my iPad.
Now, Aishah sells only a couple of hats or bags a month. But that’s not the point. The point is that the Internet has connected Aishah to the world. She now has the opportunity to contribute her gifts and talents in ways she could never have done before. Who knows where this will lead her? So if you are able to connect tens of thousands of Aishahs to the rest of the world, then you are, in the words of Steve jobs, making a dent in the universe.
“There are thousands of people in the most rural areas who will flourish when we give them opportunities,” said Dr. Halim as our car reentered Kuala Lumpur. “Even under the most extreme circumstances, we can discover human potential.”