Sabah: A rural transformation

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The digital age will be heading deeper into the heart of Borneo soon – that was the message delivered by Deputy Information Communication and Culture Minister Datuk Joseph Salang Gandum in Sarawak recently. The Minister said in early December that more than 500 villages in Sabah would gain access to the internet via satellite next year as part of the “Kampung Wi-Fi” project.

The plans are the latest in a raft of measures being undertaken by state and federal authorities to boost the infrastructure and standard of living of Sabah’s rural population – one of the main thrusts of the 10th Malaysia Plan (10MP). The 10MP is a five-year plan to become one of the world’s most competitive countries, unveiled in June.

Federal and state governments are attempting to accelerate the state’s economic development, with a focus on improving the physical and human resources infrastructure, as outlined in the 10MP. For Sabah, the plan calls for reducing poverty among ethnic minorities by more than half to 12%; building new roads, supplying clean water and electricity to most rural households and investing in school infrastructure and facilities, especially rural schools by 2015.

The 10MP relies heavily on the private sector to reach its goals, and one company stepping up to the challenge is Maxis, one of Malaysia’s largest communications companies. In 2010, Maxis invested more than RM80m ($25.4m) to bring internet network and telecoms coverage to rural Malaysia.

In recent comments to the press, Maxis’ Chief Operating Officer, Jean Pascal Van Overbeke, said this investment came in response to the government’s call to narrow the digital divide in Sabah and Sarawak.

The extension of broadband networks to rural non-peninsular Malaysia is in line with the government's Universal Service Provider (USP) fund initiative, which aims to provide telecoms facilities and internet access to underserved areas such as rural Sabah. In addition to private sector investments, funds from the USP facility are to be allocated for setting up internet access and telecoms in rural areas, as seen in the “Wi-Fi kampungs”.

Sabah has been progressing towards its target of achieving a 30% penetration rate in the domestic broadband sector. The rate now stands at 26%, and it is hoped that with the cooperation of all the country’s telecommunication outfits, the target will be met, particularly in rural areas where the shortfall is the greatest.

Improving rural infrastructure is one of the government’s six National Key Results Areas (NKRAs). The NKRAs – reducing crime, fighting corruption, raising the living standards of low-income households and improving rural basic infrastructure, student outcomes and urban public transport – are being administered by the Government Transformation Programme (GTP).

Sabah’s rural population ranks high on the list of those that stand to benefit from NKRA’s improvement scheme. According to the GTP, approximately 40% of households in Sabah do not have access to clean water, many villages are not connected by roads, and more than a quarter of households do not have access to electricity.

The GTP’s mission is to come to grips with such challenges, and it has made many inroads in the past year. In 2010 in Malaysia as a whole, 538 km of rural roads were constructed, 1358 pre-school classes benefiting 54,569 children were opened, and the number of “hardcore poor” households was reduced by 55%.

According to the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU), a unit under the Prime Minister’s Department that oversees GTP and NKRA implementation and progress, by 2012 Sabah is to see the construction of 1035 km of roads and 1000 houses, 56,200 households hooked up to electricity and 103,000 households fitted up with a water connection.

The GTP’s initiatives for all of Malaysia include constructing more than 7000 km of new and upgraded roads, with 1900 km of these in Sabah and Sarawak. It also envisions providing approximately 50,000 new and restored houses to the rural poor and hardcore poor, two-thirds of whom live in Sabah and Sarawak. Of the 50,000 homes, more than 16,000 are scheduled to be provided by the end of the year.

The programme will raise the percentage of rural houses in Sabah with access to clean or treated water to 59% in 2010, rising to around 90% by 2012. Access to 24-hour electricity will increase the percentage of households with access to electricity in Sabah to 81% in 2010.

To meet these targets, the government plans to employ innovations in technology and design. Ideas on the table include using distributed power generation technologies – such as micro hydro-electricity and solar power – for rural populations that lie far from electricity generation and transmission infrastructure. The government will likely come under close scrutiny in the near future over its ability to realize what would be life-changing improvements for Sabah’s rural population.

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