In the context of my visits to various sites in Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak I’ve now got a bit of perspective on the current situation in Malaysia and I see that in certain respects at least the goals of the 2005 Plan as evidenced by the document Bridging the Digital Divide in Malaysia have been realized—a telecommunications infrastructure is in place throughout Malaysia sufficient to support local Internet access for a substantial majority of the population including those understood in the 2005 document as being “underserved”. Further, a number of program initiatives have been undertaken as indicated in this document to facilitate the availability of opportunities for access and adoption through among others the implementation of a variety of telecentre programs in various parts of the county.
Several things are not mentioned in the document however, which should be noted as providing a very significant contextual change for the 2010 Plan which is currently being prepared. These include among others:
- The widespread availability of computers and the Internet through schools, cybercafés, and places of employment
- The general take-up of the computer as a significant element of contemporary practice throughout the broad Malaysian (and global) culture as manifest in many ways but not least by the provision of an Internet address (URL) as the part of normal communication and advertising which reaches all but the most isolated communities and virtually all social strata again except for the very marginalized and the poorest of the poor
- The widespread popularity of social networking (Facebook, Youtube, etc.) and particularly among the young and the basic education in computing/Internet skills that is necessarily associated with this
- The almost universal availability and distribution of cell phones (and not incidentally the access to Internet applications by means of cell communications capabilities and devices)
Malaysia’s 2005-2010 plan as with other parallel plans in other countries was based on an assumption that computing and the Internet was something that was relatively rare (or scarce) and needed to be extended and implemented and to do this required overcoming a lack of awareness and interest. I think that for your next plan this is no longer the case – that is, awareness of the opportunities presented by the Internet is now almost universal and knowledge at least of the basics of Internet use is very very widespread at least among the young.
So this being the case what could or should be the objectives of a plan which has the intent of “Bridging the Digital Divide”. As a first point it should be noted that the Digital Divide has itself changed significantly—no longer, and particularly in urban areas is it about “access”; rather it is now about use and value almost exclusively.
Secondly those for whom “access” is still an issue are likely those for whom conventional approaches to providing access have not for a variety of reasons, proven to be successful and so alternative strategies need to be developed and implemented to ensure accessibility by these populations.
Third the issues related to “adoption” and “value” have become rather clearer in the last period. “Adoption” i.e. “use” is clearly now about finding or creating applications and uses which are of interest or benefit to the individual, the family or the community. For those who have not yet begun to use computers or the Internet the issue is for most not lack of access or knowledge but rather lack of interest or an inability to link their areas of interest into the available computer/Interest resources in a meaningful and usable way. This inability in turn may be because of a lack of training, a lack of linguistic skills, a lack of available materials (in the required language) and so on. But in each instance to overcome this lack of use will require some sort of external intervention whether through the provision of training, the development of information sources in specific areas, or languages and so on.
Further and finally, the means for the realization of individual or social “value” for the underserved in using computing and the Internet is also beginning to become clearer. It is becoming clear that value is realized through gaining meaningful and usable access to a widely expanded range of services and supports where this access had previously been either unavailable, highly restricted or overly costly. The Internet provides a relatively efficient and effective means for filling those services gaps in personally and socially cost-effective way.
Access to training and small business support services, to information services supportive of classroom work for students, to government information and services, aids for housework or for specific employment opportunities are all sources of real value to the underserved and finding and creating the means to ensure the availability of these services could become a key element in the next planning cycle.
Figuring out how to build and configure a sustainable and very widely distributed means for ensuring universal access to these services and sources of value is of course, the central challenge that Malaysia (as others) will face in this area. Malaysia again with other Developing Countries of course, can’t assume near universal in home Internet access as is the case in the Developed Countries.
In a context where there have been many failures, enabling and facilitating communities to realize this value for themselves would ensure social sustainability and very likely financial sustainability as well, but finding the means and the models for doing this of course, remains a central challenge still to be addressed.