Closing Sabah's Digital Divide

Malaysia is so close to achieving universal access to the internet. The percentage of household access to the internet is at 90.1% as of 20191. The percentage of individuals using the internet has been steadily increasing over the years, and so has the number of individuals using computers1. Internationally we rank 40th place in Speedtest Global Index with 81.46Mbps fixed broadband speed in 2020 and our mobile cellular penetration is at 135.4%2.

There is, however, an existing digital divide between urban and rural households. 88.8% of urban households have access to mobile broadbands, whereas only 80.4% of rural households have access2. In Sabah, problems of the digital divide still persist in both domains, especially in rural Sabah.

Key Issues Affecting Digital Divide In Sabah

Internet Access In Rural Areas

Sabah’s broadband penetration rate is amongst the lowest in the country with only 2.7% fixed broadband penetration rate in 2019, second to Kelantan (2.1%)³. Kuala Lumpur has a rate of (13.9%). Even Sabah’s neighbouring island Labuan has a better broadband penetration rate of 7.1%³.

  • However, Sabah’s mobile – broadband penetration rate is higher, at 78.5%3. This brings the state’s total broadband penetration to 81.2%. In comparison to the national average of 127.1%, it is obvious that Sabah has room for improvement3
  • As a result of difficulties in obtaining the internet, Sabahans have gone above and beyond to find a stable connection. Be it climbing up the tallest tree, spending days under the hot sun, hiking through the jungle, Sabahans have been trying their best to cope with the new norms, despite getting the short end of the stick. 

Digital Divide Impacting Education

The digital divide in Sabah received incredible spotlight during the pandemic – when schools were shuttered and students went online for classes. The case of Veveonah Mosibin, the girl who climbed a tree to get good internet to sit for her exams went viral. This happened in Pitas, rural Sabah⁴. Her story highlighted the extreme lengths students in remote areas had to go to, in order to keep up with their online education.

  • Connectivity is half the problem. Students in rural Sabah also lacked the digital devices required to have a proper online education. In Veveonah’s case, she only had a mobile phone – for classes, assignments and exams. Many more stories similar to Veveonah’s surfaced and it was found that the majority of those in Sabah did not have access to necessary digital devices such as laptops or smartphones. Others needed to share a device amongst multiple people. 
  • Twenty-two young students and their teacher had to travel for two and a half hours to reach a site suitable for e-learning5. Nurlieda Khaleeda had to set up a tent on top of a 20-metre hill so she can attend online classes and sit for her exams6. Standard four student, Muhammad Amru Umair, from Sandakan Sabah, has to travel to an oil palm estate for internet coverage just to participate in online classes7, and there are many more just like them. 
  • Whilst this does commitment of the students wanting to continue their education at all costs, these struggles can lead to severe safety risks. In Ranau, Sabah, seven villagers fell off a bridge in their attempt to get internet access8. These students were met with injured spines and a fractured femur. It was lucky that the incident didn’t result in death. 

Growing Sabah's Digital Economy

Online businesses are not the future anymore, they are the new norm, the present, here and now. That’s the reason it is of utmost importance that the digital chasm between urban and rural areas be closed.

  • Leaving rural areas disconnected would lead to further economic disparity. Digital transformation is meant to ensure equitable outcomes for all. By improving connectivity, access to digital devices and ongoing digital education, Sabah’s economy can grow – whether in the rural or urban areas.
  • A close working relationships between the government, private sector and community are important to ensure the success of the implementation of Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the digital economy in Sabah9.


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Explore Our Sources

  1. DOSM. (2020). ICT Use and Access By Individuals and Households Survey Report, Malaysia, 2019. Link.
  2. Economic Planning Unit. (2021). Malaysia Digital Economy Blueprint. Link. 
  3. MCMC. (2019). Communication and Multimedia Facts and Figures 1Q 2019. Link.
  4. Wiki Impact. (2020). This Girl From Sabah Who Put a Spotlight on Malaysia’s Digital Divide. Link
  5. Liew, E. (November 2020). Sarawak Teacher Takes 22 Students On A 2-Hour Hike Just To Find Internet For Studies. World of Buzz. Link
  6. The Star. (November 2020). Father sets up daughter’s ‘classroom’ in a tent at top of a hill. Link.
  7. M. Chalil. (2021). Standard Four student in Sabah endures hot sun, mosquitoes at oil palm plantation for better internet connection. Malay Mail. Link.
  8. Chung, C. (November 2020). Government urged to bridge connectivity divide. The Star. Link.
  9. Olivia Miwil. (2021). IDS: Sabah must address issues before digital economy goal can be met. New Straits Times. Link.

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