The poor deserve more than exploding mobile phones


By Erna Mahyuni

RECENTLY, we got a reminder that too many of us, politicians included, have the mentality that the poor do not deserve nice things.

Take the fiasco of donated phones that many Malaysians rightly criticised as substandard and no good for any other purpose besides recycling.

The excuse for giving out those phones was that it was “better than nothing.”

I find that ridiculous. The illusion of scarcity is pervasive when the reality is that if there is truly a need then it is up to the ones in power to find a way.

When it comes to giving or donating, the rule should be “If it’s not good enough for you, it’s not good enough to give away.”

I would really like to see the politician who claimed the phones were adequate try to use them instead of whatever expensive model he has now.

Internet divide too wide

Recently a telco has once again started promoting its internet plan targeted at lower-income groups.

The plan is not a new one; it was introduced not too long ago and even then it was derided as expensive for what it offered.

In what universe would 1GB of broadband a month be enough for anyone? The average operating software updates are larger than 1GB — does this mean the telco expects poor people to never update their devices?

It is exploitation as well as insulting. Most mobile plans offer 10 to 20X more data for less than what the telco is offering.

Sadly the previous government’s efforts to lower broadband costs and make the internet more affordable for all seem to have been ignored by the current administration.

Instead we have students forced to climb trees for internet; even now kids in my home state of Sabah trek up hills to get mobile reception.

How, in 2021, is our internet divide still so terrible? Why must poorer states still be denied access to widespread fiber broadband coverage and mobile reception?

Yet what we have seen instead is an assistant minister mocking a university student for documenting her struggles to get internet access.

How now, brown cow?

While the Prihatin plans from mobile providers are decent options for lower-income groups, what about those for whom even RM30 a month is hard?

Sabah is procuring a lot of laptops but what good are those laptops without an internet connection?

What needs to be done is to apply pressure on those providing broadband fiber infrastructure.

It makes no sense that these telcos are still making large profits while leaving too many rural areas bereft of decent internet — or is it just the belief that the poor, again, do not deserve nice things?

The internet is not a luxury but a need as is proper infrastructure and means to keep educating our kids during a pandemic.

We cannot keep side-lining the poor because they are seen as undeserving.

There was a time when our-then-prime minister saw Malaysia as a tech hub and promised that to make that happen, the internet would not be censored.

That prime minister has stepped down but now we see our former technology park left in ruin, other countries beating us in terms of expertise and being a conducive business environment, our IT dreams only dust.

Why did that happen? It was because of so many missteps including the nonsensical establishment of Cyberjaya, which was too far from the city centre and pouring incentives and grants into the hands of kickback seekers.

The pandemic has demonstrated that without digital access and adequate tech proficiency, many will be left behind.

Look at how the government keeps talking up e-wallets when many people in rural areas cannot even afford smartphones.

The time for digital equality needs to be now but I fear until we address that huge millstone around the nation’s neck that is corruption, we will forever be a nation of digital haves and have-nots.

We cannot dally if we want to have any hope of catching up to our South-east Asian neighbours such as Vietnam and Indonesia who are now leaving us behind in terms of infrastructure (the former) and foreign direct investment (the latter).

We can start by just giving the poor internet and decent devices, instead of letting them become the victims of profiteering.

Sometimes we have to look gift horses in the mouths because too often, in Malaysia, they come with rotting teeth and our poor deserve better.

This opinion piece first appeared in the Malay Mail. All views expressed are the personal views of the columnist