- An ambitious plan to transform education in Malaysia marred by lack of transparency
- 1BestariNet has become a political issue as the country heads to the polls
ONE of Malaysia’s most ambitious technology-in-education projects has been dogged by controversy and has become a political hot-button issue as the country heads to the polls on May 5.
The vision is bold: To propel all the nation’s 10,000 schools into the digital age with laptops for every child and Internet connectivity for every school, thus creating a virtual learning environment and in the process, transforming teachers and the education system as a whole.
Dubbed 1BestariNet, the project will cost the Malaysian taxpayer RM1.5 billion (nearly US$500 million) at least, and would take 13 years.
The first steps had already begun more than a year ago and was later folded into the National Education Blueprint that the Barisan Nasional government unveiled late last year.
The project was mooted at one of the many labs or brainstorming sessions organized by the Performance Management & Delivery Unit (Pemandu) of the Prime Minister's Department as part of the Malaysian Government’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP).
Then in 2011, a tender was announced with 19 companies making bids. By August, they had been shortlisted to six: Celcom Axiata, Jaring Communications, Maxis, Multimedia Synergy Corp, Telekom Malaysia/Time dotCom Bhd (which submitted a joint bid) and YTL Communications.
Then something unusual happened: In October of that year, without much fanfare, the Ministry of Education posted a notice on its website that the project had been awarded to YTL, which operates the YES 4G wireless network – then took down the notice two hours later.
Those two hours were enough to foment murmurs of discontent throughout the industry, especially since the VLE solution would be provided by another YTL-owned company, FrogAsia.
This was followed by a period of silence until May 2012 when YTL Communications, part of the politically-connected YTL Power International Bhd, officially announced that it had been awarded the project and would be rolling out the first phase.
In April this year, the Malaysian Government announced that 10 million schoolchildren, teachers and parents would be provided laptops for free – but only if Barisan Nasional is returned to power in the general election.
And the laptops would be Chromebooks running Google Apps, the Mountain View, California tech giant’s cloud-based solution suite – a move that was lauded by the company’s chief executive officer and co-founder Larry Page.
Industry sources on three fronts – those which wanted to provide the Internet connectivity, the software and/ or the hardware – that Digital News Asia (DNA) spoke to then and even as recently as last month have complained about the tender’s evaluation process.
None wanted to speak on the record, but sources in a few different companies said they felt that their solutions were not given a fair shake, and that request for meetings with Ministry officials to make their pitches were rebuffed.
“We were blocked at every turn; it was as if they had already made up their minds,” said one source who requested anonymity.
The murmurs of discontent have moved up the grapevine to become a political issue, with Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim promising to cancel the project, describing it as a crony deal, if his Pakatan Rakyat alliance were to form Malaysia’s next government.
‘Don’t politicise the issue’
Just about every aspect of the project rollout has come under attack. Teachers at one school where 1BestariNet has rolled out complained to DNA they could only get Internet access in one room, and connections dropped when they moved around the school compound.
The project requires the installation of telecommunications towers in each of the 10,000 schools, and the residents of one Kuala Lumpur school have protested, citing the dangers of electromagnetic radiation as reported by the Penang EMF Radiation Protection Association.
“The Ministry of Education cares about the health of pupils and teachers, I can assure you of that,” said interim Deputy Minister of Education Wee Ka Siong after launching a ‘Digital School 2.0’ project at the Choong Wen Chinese primary school in Kuala Lumpur.
Acknowledging his ministry’s issuance of a circular directing all schools to cooperate with YTL in installing the towers, he said: “Before we implemented the project, we consulted with the Malaysian Nuclear Agency and the Ministry of Health to ensure this is safe and properly implemented, subject to MCMC guidelines.”
The MCMC or Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission is the telecommunications and Internet industry regulator.
“Let’s not politicise the issue,” said Yeoh Seok Hong, a director at YTL Power International. “Japan has the highest density of base stations in the world – at 150 per square mile – and look at their long lifespans.”
“Towers going up at the schools won’t just provide wireless Internet connectivity at the school, but in surrounding areas too – each has a 4km radius for Internet connectivity,” he said.
Wee meanwhile noted that the Opposition-held Penang state, and its Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, have also launched a WiFi project there.
Last year Lim launched Phase II of the state’s Penang Free WiFi services, begun in 2009, which would see the installation of 1,550 free WiFi hotspots throughout the state.
“Lim and (his chief of staff) Jeff Ooi had a lot of studies to show that these towers are safe, and I will use the same argument they did,” Wee said.
“I hope we can be consistent here – we don’t have scientific evidence that this radiation is harmful,” he added. “We just need to explain to people and we will continue with maximum consultation with the relevant agencies as we roll this out.”
The Choong Wen project involved the establishment of a Chrome Lab undertaken by the school’s Parent Teacher’s Association and its board of directors, with learning material provided by education company Eduspec. YTL Communications donated 50 Chromebooks to the computer lab and will be providing the school with access to its YES 4G mobile Internet.
YTL officials at the official launch confirmed that it was not part of the 1BestariNet project but was the school’s own initiative.
Next page: The two tower issues