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The smartphone rebate just got stupider

A. AsohanDec 27, 2012
  • Only eligible for pre-approved devices costing under RM500; other qualifying criteria just as bad
  • Smartphone rebate still stinks of an election ploy, with possible ‘crony play’ now added in as well

ONE of the most flabbergasting initiatives unveiled by Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak (pic below), Malaysia’s Prime Minister and Finance Minister, in his proposed national budget, was a rebate of RM200 (US$65) for youths to purchase a 3G smartphone.
 
As my colleague Karamjit Singh noted in his commentary, Budget 2013 smartphone rebate: A stupid thing to do, the RM300 million (US$98 million) could have been put to better use on other initiatives to develop the ICT ecosystem in the country.
 
It’s all about smartphones these days admittedly, with the device fast becoming the first point of access to the Internet and entry to the Digital Economy for an increasingly large segment of society.
 
Research firm Gartner recently reported that global sales of mobile phones to end-users in the second quarter of 2012 saw a 2.3% decline from the corresponding period the previous year; while smartphone sales accounted for 36.7% of total mobile phone sales and grew 42.7% in the same period.
 
Our own telcos are finding that smartphones are becoming increasingly important to their own customers as well. Maxis said that in an internal survey it found that 31% of its subscribers were smartphone users. Meanwhile, an analyst report earlier this year estimated that about 20% of DiGi Telecommunications Bhd customers are smartphone users.
 
This can only increase over the coming years as prices come down and telcos hopefully come out with even more attractive data packages.
 
So with market forces on our side, why do we – or our youths at least – need a rebate? Well, putting on my rarely-used ‘Mr Nice Guy’ hat, I could argue that even with prices coming down, the rebate can help bridge the divide between the haves and the have-nots. It’s not just about a device, it’s about ensuring that every Malaysian can participate and be a player in the Digital Economy.
 
I could argue that, but I won’t, if only because details have just come in about the smartphone rebate proposed under the nation’s Budget 2013, the so-called Youth Communications Package. Malay-language technology portal site Amanz.my broke the news that the rebate is only eligible for pre-approved devices that will cost under RM500.
 
The criteria for which a Malaysian youth can qualify for the smartphone rebate are listed in the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) website in a PDF file here or click the accompanying picture on the left.
 
The MCMC said the the list of approved devices and authorized dealers will be made available on its website starting Jan 1, although Amanz.my has already revealed that Senheng and SenQ will be part of that list.
 
It’s on a ‘first-come, first-served’ basis too. The rebate is open until Dec 31, 2013, or until the RM300 million allocated under Budget 2013 runs out, whichever comes first.
 
Also, as LowYat.net noted in a quick follow-up, one has to be “an existing subscriber or register for a new broadband plan with any of the telco that participated in the program” such as Maxis, Celcom Axiata, DiGi, U Mobile, YTL and Tune Talk.
 
The criteria to qualify doesn’t seem well thought out either – any youth earning RM3,000 or less per month is eligible. That’s individual income, according to the language in the MCMC document, not monthly household income – “Berpendapatan bulanan RM 3,000 ke bawah” or “monthly income of RM3,000 or less”.

I am hoping that this is a mistake, because as it stands now, if you’re between 21 and 30 years old, and you just got a job that pays you that much – and your parents are well-heeled executives earning 10 times your salary – not to worry, you poor thing. You too qualify.
 
And since that RM500 is just pocket money to you, you can beat out that poor guy whose entire family earns less than RM3,000 per month – if only because by the time he saves up the money to buy the device and subscribe to a data plan, it will be 2014. Or that RM300 million allocation would have run out.
 
Way to bridge the digital divide.

Of course, one could argue that a member of a family earning less than RM3,000 in total would not be able to afford a smartphone nor the data charges, but then why the RM500 price limit, and why the special packages from participating telcos?
 
Finding a smartphone priced at below RM500 (US$163) is going to be a feat in itself. Sure, in February, Malaysian company DMD Mobile Sdn Bhd launched an Android-based smartphone which it said would RM500 or less. We haven’t seen it yet, however.
 
Which makes one wonder; given that earlier this year we saw the launch of the 1Malaysia Pad for under RM999, whether there isn’t some kind of “crony play” involved in all this, where politically-connected businessmen get the goodies.
 
After all, the 1Malaysia Pad was launched by Domestic Trade, Consumer Affairs and Cooperatives Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob. The company making it was a previously-unknown MalTechPro Sdn Bhd, whose executive chairman Datuk Sohaimi Shahadan also happens to be an executive committee member of Umno Youth, the youth wing of Umno, the largest component party in the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional.
 
This is not helped by the fact that the Youth Communications Package collaterals all carry the 1Malaysia logo, which leads one to think it is an election ploy and not a solid government initiative to drive and develop the ecosystem.
 
After all, why offer such a rebate to only youths, a key electoral demographic that the Barisan Nasional is struggling to win over, and not also to older Malaysians who are just as economically-disadvantaged?
 
And sure, you could argue that the ‘1Malaysia’ label is slapped onto just about anything these days – which only reinforces the argument that it is a case of PR (public relations) trumping over actual policy.
 
I can just see the unscrupulous getting away with the same kind of abuses that we saw in the personal computer tax rebate first rolled out in the 1990s, while the people who are supposed to be helped – the poor and marginalized sitting outside the fence of the Digital Economy – are once again not reached at all.
 
I just hope I’m wrong.
 
UPDATE: The MCMC has released a statement on the Youth Communications Package and a list of pre-selected smartphone models.

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