Bridging Malaysia’s rural divide

Interview with the Chief Officer of Communication, Digital Services and Standards Sector.

Villagers in a remote district in Terengganu used to travel long distances for internet access, but Malaysia has a plan to bring digital services closer to rural communities. The plan has three elements: using sensors to improve public services; increasing the connectivity of villages; and training locals to build eCommerce sites. GovInsider spoke to Dato’ Ali Hanafiah - Chief Officer of the Communication, Digital Services and Standards Sector, Malaysian Communications And Multimedia Commission (MCMC) - to find out more. Sensors for Smart Communities The Smart Community project was first trialled last year in Kemaman, a rural district in the state of Terengganu, and has now expanded to Langkawi and three other states - Selangor, Sabah and Sarawak. MCMC found out that Kemaman faced heavy floods towards the end of the year, so they helped the district develop a flood management system, Hanafiah says. There were already sensors set up by different agencies to monitor water level, but the data was not utilised because local departments did not aggregate the readings. The team solved this by building a control centre that pooled sensor readings and linked it to relevant departments. flood 1 MCMC also created a protocol to follow when floods are likely to happen. Village leaders are given automated notifications through texts and phone calls whenever there is need to evacuate the village. “Before we had this… everything [was] done manually”, Hanafiah points out. Citizens are also kept in the loop with notifications from mobile flood apps, developed by both public and private sectors. These are free of charge, and provide information such as water level, rainfall data and the speed of flood flows. TogetherWithU even includes a nifty strobe light to signal during emergencies. Infrastructures and e-learning internet centre The second part of the Smart Community project brings internet services to citizens, and teaches them digital skills. Across all Smart Community projects, villages are provided with internet centres, fibre optic infrastructure and internet towers. In Kampung Gong Chengal, east of Kemaman, 25% of villagers own computers, and the problem has always been internet connection, a project manager explains. “We used to go to the cyber cafes in town, the nearest of which was 10 km away. Now that we have [an internet centre], we are not the only ones that benefit from it; other nearby villages use its services too”, Nini Faressa Binti Baharuddin says. Nini encourages locals to share ICT knowledge with the rest of the villagers. The centre has also introduced communities to e-books, tapping resources from the national library. Training in digital skills Staff are being appointed in the internet centres to teach basic ICT courses and provide business opportunities - the third part of the plan. Managers of the centre can share with the community on how to create websites to market their products or services, Hanafiah says. Giving an example, Hanafiah recalls that in Langkawi, people who want to rent out spare rooms in their homes will head to the internet centre to learn how to advertise their rooms online. A key learning for MCMC has been the importance of engagement. Rural developments have previously stalled because local authorities have not been included, and so didn’t run the project once agencies stepped back. “One of the biggest lessons that we learned from Kemaman is… the importance of engaging the stakeholders and local communities from day one”, Hanafiah says. When the team arrives at a district, “we use the word ‘we’, we don’t use the word ‘I’”. The team has to locate the district’s centre of power. Depending on the problem, “it could be the village head, a member of parliament or the district head of police”, he says . They ask how MCMC can use their technology to address local concerns, and this way, “we have a working relationship with the head and the community”. But MCMC tries to draw parallels from all districts that they work on. “When we work with one district on tourism it is something that we feel can be replicated across other districts as well”, he says. When his team engages with the community in Langkawi, they think of how to “utilise this Smart Community project to push their tourism agenda ahead”. According to Hanafiah, Langkawi’s economy is also dependant on its fishing industry, and he intends to replicate efforts in Langkawi to boost the fishing industry in Kemaman as well. The Smart Community project in Kemaman is funded by both the public and private sectors. The team first identifies infrastructure gaps, and industry players with commercial interests in those locations will then fund the development. MCMC is working smart to tackle its urban-rural divide: engaging directly with local leaders to understand the needs of communities; learning what works in certain districts, and applying them elsewhere. Villages previously travelled to the centre of town to visit the well. Water is now free-flowing, but another form of plumbing is proving just as vital: connection to the digital opportunities of the 21st century. Images by Kemaman Smart Community