A DAUGHTER

There is an elegant beauty in the structure of troubleshooting and fixing laptops. Finding the right matching power adapter (in a ‘loose adapters’ pile) with the right voltage and amperage, powering it up and waiting for sights of light to wink saucily at you (or not), turning the unit on and waiting for it to hum through the BIOS checksums and hardware tests, and finally, seeing an operating system present itself to you on the screen.

At any point in time, the computer might start misbehaving— refusing to turn on, or flirting with you by winking teasingly for a brief second or two, before sputtering out; the laptop might start beeping angrily and unceasingly at you, a steady digital stream of expletives aimed at the person who dared wake it from its slumber; or the unit might suddenly freeze, or decide it was time to go into an auto-restart loop like it was rehearsing for a bit part with Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”.

That’s when the fun begins. Trying to diagnose what’s wrong with the digital patient, if the patient can be fixed, and if you have the patience for deciphering the cryptic hints of what might be wrong with the patient. Software fixes are relatively easy if all data is in the cloud and nothing needs to be saved—a full reset or creation of a new user account often resolves most issues.

Hardware fixes are more complicated. Is it a hard disk or RAM failure? Or did the Wi-Fi card fail? Maybe the ribbons or connector fell out? There will be a need for multiple things to be unscrewed, to find out whether the unit is indeed screwed or not. And should there be an unhinged unit (as in, its hinge is broken), it’s a job for the big guns: epoxy, clamps, and an overnight stay in the clinic to get cured.

And when I get stuck, it’s time for a query (and maybe a photo or two) to be sent to my friends: my tribe at a late-night community called the DPC network which runs on caffeine, chats, and challenges, and who are always up to offer advice on a suggested fix or two.

These are some things I work with, as I refurbish donated laptops for underprivileged children in the Computers Against COVID (CAC) project, a ground-up initiative by a local Singapore non-profit organisation, Engineering Good. Our project motto: “As many laptops, to as many children, in as short a time as possible”.

I had signed up intending to help for two hours on a weekend.

It’s been over a year, 500 hard disks, 120 beneficiary partners, along with 4000 laptops (and counting).

This has been some weekend.

*****

MY FATHER

I’ve been here before.

The year is 1995, and I’m with my father, Lim Kin Chew, at his Enable 2000 project workshop at Mountbatten Road. Their objective: collect donated personal computers, repair and refurbish them with Windows 95, and give them to the underprivileged community. Customise them where necessary to ensure digital inclusion, such as setting the computer to display very large font sizes for the visually-challenged (poor vision), enabling text-to-speech functionality where it was available, ensuring touch-typing and responsive keyboards were being issued.

I’ve been here before.

There are differences of course, not the least that you could switch on your computer back then and go get a full kaya toast with kopi—and finish it—before the computer booted up! Also, these were monster machines to transport: a full CRT screen, CPU, keyboard, mouse, possibly a joystick, and a clutch of heavy wires (and maybe an accompanying dot matrix or inkjet printer) would be a single machine donation.

Yet while some things change, some things stay the same. The same computer repair principles my father taught me—together with some helpful volunteer uncles at the repair centre—remain fundamental.

Process is everything: power everything up, wait for the BIOS and hardware tests, brace yourself for possible angry motherboard-error beeps, and wait for the operating system to boot up. Diagnose software and hardware issues and swap out components where you have spares in the workshop.

The community ethos, too, has not changed. In the same way that I now have the DPC network to lean on for technical advice, the ‘workshop uncles’ were the original weekend warriors whom you could lean over to to ask for advice—or when a klutzy 15 year-old, hovers over you, concerned about your grounding as you attempt to stifle a sneeze while replacing a RAM module on a dusty motherboard.

Besides myself, one such workshop uncle has unwittingly bridged both the Enable 2000 and the CAC projects together, Chong WM. Originally a volunteer alongside my dad in the earlier project, we found ourselves working side by side in the CAC project unaware of the link until some idle chit chat while fixing laptops revealed our Enable 2000 connection.

To tell this tale twice well, I went back to the wellspring, and asked my dad about his project.

It was called Enable 2000 because we wanted to ensure that all people in Singapore were included in the new digital and internet age, explained my dad. The millennium year 2000 was on its way, and it was a good idea to aim for full digital inclusion then if possible, since it marked the dawn of a new age for everyone.

It’s now 2021.

I think the goalposts for digital inclusion might have shifted a little. Are we there yet? Not quite.

But I’ll keep at it.

*****

RAISED

There are no gender barriers when it comes to learning technology and fixing laptops. I thank God for my dad’s foresight in this respect.

Thank you, Papa, for that first Wearnes computer with the 5″1/4 floppy disk drive, and for signing me up for computer lessons for children.

For the endless supply of computer books strewn carelessly around the house, corrupting young minds with gender-neutral hardware and coding knowledge.

For that early 14.4kbps internet connection on Lynx.

Most of all, for the heart and legacy of helping people in need, with enabling technologies.

May-Ann is Director for Asia at research consultancy Access Partnership, and is concurrently the Executive Director of the Asia Cloud Computing Association (ACCA). She has extensive experience in public policy, technology policy development, and government relations communications across the Asia Pacific, and has worked with many global, regional, and local organisations such as APEC, ASEAN, PECC, INTERPOL, the WTO, the ACCA, and the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), on thought leadership development, government outreach and stakeholder engagement efforts, such as the development of the ASEAN ICT Masterplan 2020.

She was appointed to the Singapore Data Protection Appeal Panel 2019-2023, and is an APNIC 52 Fellow 2021. She also sits on various task forces, such as the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s Digital ASEAN Taskforce, the Data & Jurisdiction Team for the Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network, and has served as Exco member for the Internet Society (ISOC) Singapore Chapter. Her career has spanned global, regional and local institutions, including the World Bank, World Vision, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), and the Singapore Internet Project.

Based in Singapore, May-Ann also volunteers with Engineering Good, an NGO focusing on technical laptop repair, and digital inclusion policy, and lectures on InfoComm Policy in the Department of Communications and New Media at her alma mater, the National University of Singapore (NUS).

GovInsider and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2021 edition of The Birthday Book: Are We There Yet?

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 56 contributors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on where Singapore is today, where we came from, and where we might be going.