Digital inclusion in remote villages in Malaysia – A rural-urban, ethnic or political divide?

This post is based on my second presentation at the 2019 EUROSEAS conference in Berlin. The presentation was part of the panel with the title: “The Sociality of Infrastructure-Mediated Development: Dynamics of In/Exclusion in Southeast Asia.”

The presentation aimed to discuss, based on data collected during our 2015 – 2017 research, whether the digital divide in Sarawak contains an ethnic or political divide, or whether it is principally a rural-urban issue caused by the technical difficulties in providing mobile phone and mobile internet access in remote areas.


Most Southeast Asian countries have made rapid progress in the uptake of ICTs and use of the internet, and Malaysia’s remote Indigenous communities have not been exempted from this process. However, differences in access between urban, rural and remote areas remain significant across Southeast Asia. The lack of reliable and affordable ICT infrastructure is a key barrier to full participation in the digital world, and a key determinant of social and economic disadvantage for rural and remote communities.

This impacts on the ways people engage with ICTs and the benefits they can derive from their use. At first glance the main barriers in providing access to remote communities appear to be technical, with remote location, geography and weather complicating the provision of technology. However, there are also political obstacles, as the provision of infrastructure to some villages under Malaysia’s Universal Service Provision suggests. The lack of transparency and community involvement in the process of infrastructure planning leads to inequitable distribution of projects.

The lack of maintenance for existing infrastructure and obscure channels of responsibility in the case of breakdown prevent members of the community to become involved. Three years of research between 2015 and 2017, including in-depth interviews, observational data and a baseline survey form the background to this paper on the dynamics of digital inclusion in remote Sarawak.


Figure 1: Telephone boxes as part of the Universal Service Provision policy



The research used qualitative and quantitative methods, including a survey with 330 survey participants and 35 in-depth interviews carried out by a team of 6 researchers from Australia and Malaysia, together with local research assistants and translators.

The data for the survey was collected in 11 villages, but researchers visited over 20 villages in the region in total, and their observations and data from casual conversations is also included in this paper.

The region is remote with no paved road, grid electricity or piped water. Out of the 11 villages included in the survey 4 villages had no digital connectivity at all. Seven villages had some connectivity, but some without data, others only had access in the evening or during fine weather.

Out of a total of 331 respondents,56% were women, and 44 % were men. In terms of their digital engagements, 36% or 119 respondents had used the Internet. 64% or 212 participants reported that they had never used the Internet.



Like elsewhere in the world, reliable, affordable service is often lacking in many rural and most remote communities. This compounds disadvantages related to remote location including lack of other infrastructure.

The Malaysian government is supporting the uptake of ICTs in remote villages and has strategies are in place to foster digital inclusion. Policies in place to connect remote communities in Malaysia include Universal Service Provision funded through 6% contributions from telecommunications service providers. Programs under the USP include small cell towers, village wifi, and internet centres. However, even in villages where access was available, the potential for development through digital technologies was not necessarily realised.

Two specific issues were encountered during the research. The first concerned a lack of maintenance of existing projects including village wifi, small cell towers. Where infrastructure was available, people tended to depend on digital communications for a number of important interactions. These included communicating with friends and family in the city, organising transport, arranging for supplies from the city, and more. Where connectivity was available but unreliable or prone to breakdown, people expressed their frustration about being cut off and isolated.

The second issue concerned the distribution of infrastructure, where a lack of transparency in the allocation of projects meant that people were unclear about which area was to be connected and when.

A third related issue was the lack of community awareness and communication, for example with regards to land use for infrastructure construction, maintenance processes and responsibilities

The following two case studies illustrate the potential of digital technologies:


“[Those people who applied for it] had fill in the forms, for the BR1M back then to receive it for the second time…had to inform again. [It was necessary to] re-do the steps needed once again.

Some contacted [the office to ask], “How can we keep going back and forth to fill in the forms each time? The payments are not sufficient to keep going back and forth like that.”… In 2013, I received RM400 only…

Then I needed to fill in the form again… So that they’ll know that we’re still alive, that’s what they’ve been saying. If not, then we’ll no longer be receiving it.”

Headman in remote village



“Those [villages] where they have phone services, it’s so much easier…You see, the road [in my constituency], I don’t have to go there [to identify problems]. Every day people go up and down the road… A few of them… take photos and give the GPS location where the particular [problem] is, on the road…

When I get photos from them I immediately give it to JKR [Jabatan Kerja Raya, Public Works Department] and say, “Here, send you repair guys… the picture is there, the date is there, the GPS position, you should be able to find it immediately.”

Member of the Sarawak legislative assembly, MP

Figure 2: Most participants practiced subsistence agriculture



Where members of small ethnic groups live in remote areas, ethnicity and disadvantage are at times correlated. In theory, remote users could derive substantial benefits from the use of specialised online practices, but simple practices are more common. This may in part be due to the way technologies are taken up by new users, by learning from friends and family members

Social media and chat apps were the most common practices in our field sites. Local languages were used while online as well as Bahasa Malaysia and English:

Language used on the internet*

Bahasa Malaysia 105 (88%)
Local language or dialect 68 (57%)
English 41 (35%)

Social media and chat apps were the most common practices in our field sites. Access to news sites, online learning, banking or e-government services was less widespread.

While some users were relatively confident, older participants in particular had issues around skills and capabilities.


Activity n (%)
Use messaging apps such as WhatsApp 114 (96%)
Post pictures or videos on social media 108 (91%)
Look for information on topics of interest 100 (84%)
Watch TV or videos 99 (83%)
Read the news 90 (76%)
Read and send emails 75 (63%)
Play games 69 (58%)
Read about social & political issues 69 (58%)
Make calls using Skype or other apps 47 (40%)
Access e-government sites 43 (36%)
Buy products online 36 (30%)
Look for work 36 (30%)
Online banking 36 (30%)
Sell or promote products online 20 (17%)


Small language groups and users with low literacy experience higher barriers to the use of some tools and platforms. More specialised sites and platforms with simple structures and sites in local languages may facilitate practices offering potential benefits to remote users.



Engagement with current affairs is more difficult in areas that lack access to the Internet. This also includes access to government services. Some forms of direct participation are dependent on digital media, including participation in grassroots groups, or communicating with local representatives.



“A lot of longhouses in my area are not accessible to [mobile phone] service. That’s why, even in meetings I always keep my phone on. I never put silent mode…because sometimes, someone from the river up there, they went to one spot in the middle of the jungle, climbed a small hill [where mobile phone reception is available] just to call the YB…

If they call, I quickly pick up because if there’s a missed call, I can’t call them back. I normally tell my friends in a meeting, I have to put my phone on. Just in case my Ketua Kampung [headman] calls…”

Member of the Sarawak legislative assembly, MP


Figure 3: Mobile phones placed in an area with reception near the house


Digital inclusion has an economic, social, and political component, and greater inclusion continues to be of great importance for remote communities.

Rural and urban users have different needs and dedicated platforms could be useful to foster greater inclusion.

Small ethnic groups benefit from the use of digital technologies, in particular in the context of community cohesion and cultural maintenance.


The full report for the project is available as: Horn, C; Rennie, E; Riman, RM; Wee Lik Hoo, G: ‘Digital inclusion and mobile media in remote Sarawak’,

The research was funded through a Swinburne University of Technology Mebourne / Sarawak collaborative grant.



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