Reflections on the digital gap in Malaysia

When StandUp Malaysia, an organisation that raises awareness about sexual and gender-based violence among women and girls in Malaysia, launched its aid programme for undergraduate students, the aim was to solely provide temporary financial relief for food, internet, and any other essentials.

However, we noticed some students desperately seeking aid to buy new or second-hand laptops.

Soon after, we launched the laptop4siswa campaign together with Bukit Gasing assemblyman Rajiv Rishyakaran. The campaign saw over 2,000 applicants but only a few donors to meet the needs.

All the applicants were in need of the device but due to the lack of supply, we couldn’t help most of them.

Constant appeals via letters, emails and phone calls to various companies for sponsorships were largely ignored. I regret I did not try hard enough.

The shift towards an online lifestyle, where the boundaries between leisure and work or school are blurred, brought on a nationwide awareness about the digital gap.

This specifically applies to students who had insufficient access to proper online learning. One key theme I observed was insufficient access and the state’s failure to provide resources. The lack of digital access underlines a deeper issue.

As I was vetting through the applications which were submitted via Google Form one late night, an applicant caught my eye.

A student, whose mother’s salary of only RM600 prior to the Movement Control Order (MCO) last year, was subsequently reduced to RM300 during the MCO.

My initial impression was that the employers were breaking labour laws by paying her less than the minimum wage. However, I was unsure if she was working full-time or part-time.

Therein lies the issue. Students who had requested second-hand laptops were mainly driven by their economic standing.

There were students who had taken on odd-jobs to ease the financial burden of their parents, even if they were enrolled in a state-funded higher education institution.

This places additional mental stress, which can be the causal link to other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.

A family’s financial standing influences almost every aspect of a young person.

The realisations come through subtle but significant experiences, feeling frustrated that your friends can afford certain things you cannot, or staying up late to finish assignments because your sibling used the only computer in the household for online classes.

This can lead to a stronger or lower motivation for academic success. The former being that it is the only possible way to exit current circumstances and the latter due to the lack of comfortable educational resources that would outweigh an individual’s effort to break through his or her current circumstances.

When tied with the lack of resources from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the constant politicking among the political elites, you get many more discouraged youths who are only one part of a vicious cycle that may go on for generations.

I call on the education and higher education ministers to gain a comprehensive view of this issue. Reliance on NGOs will only highlight incompetency and populistic efforts.

Action will follow where political will leads.

The digital gap will not come to a halt once we regain normalcy post-Covid-19. It will remain as long as the nation keeps emphasising on a digitised lifestyle.

If addressed later, the socio-economic consequences will be even more dire and hidden. Can we afford another year of ignorance; or will the solution only come when electoral campaigns are held again?

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.