Not Quite Wired Just Yet

By Piyapong Phongbai

BARIO, Malaysia — The airport in this mountain settlement in Malaysia’s Sarawak state has no computerized flight displays. But a buzzing sound heard from atop the mountains and over the plateau is enough to alert everyone in Bario to the arrival of an airplane, carrying mostly visitors and supplies from the outside world.

The “outside world” closest to this highland town is Miri, Sarawak’s port city. It is just an hour away by air, but by foot, it takes two weeks of trekking through dense jungles and rugged mountains. No paved roads lead to Bario, and even within the remote town itself, there are only trails. The world here is far removed from everything considered commonplace elsewhere.

But the people of Bario now have a window to the rest of the world – even that beyond Malaysia. That’s because Bario now has the Internet, thanks to the e-Bario project by Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS). The experiment was launched in 2000 through a Rs200,000 (about $53,000) grant from the International Development Research Council (IDRC) of Canada government and another Rs600,000 ($158,000) grant from Mimos Berhad of the Malaysian government. The aim of the project is to see how information and communication technology can help an isolated rural community develop and modernize.

The idea of a  “telecenter” or distant communication center — modeled after a Scandinavian IT success story — was proposed as an alternative for developing remote areas and a way to reduce the information and digital divide. Bario, which is inhabited by the Kelabit, one of Sarawak’s ethnic tribes, definitely qualifies as being far-flung. In fact, there were no records of this old headhunting community until the arrival here of Britain’s underground paratroopers to fight the Japanese imperial army during the Second World War.

The Kelabit are predominantly Christian; the Bario Highlands were first visited by Australian Christian missionaries many decades ago. Salim Sridahran, an ornithologist of Indian descent who has lived in Bario for more than 20 years , says the locals here are among the best-educated minorities of Sarawak

At present there are between 5,000 and 7,000 Kelabit, but only over a thousand of them live in the original community. Others have moved elsewhere in Malaysia; younger people have left for large cities to further their studies, while others married outside their community and never returned. Many have landed well-paid jobs overseas and have settled there.

A lack in the basics

The central government in Kuala Lumpur is understandably excited about the Internet linking faraway places like Bario to the rest of the country and outside. Yet while the objective of the experiment is laudable, the conditions on the ground are inadequate to make the project a fairly successful one. Sridahran quips, “The best thing to come with this project is the telephone.”

It’s an observation shared by many in Bario. Kelabit chief Nykmet Ayu, who is still going strong at over 80 years old and has been the tribe’s head since the colonial days, says in slow but clear English, “We had no phones and the government gave us two-way radios. But we had problems using them. The telecenter is good news for us. Before this, we relied on satellite phone, but it was too expensive.”

“Phones are very useful for people here. We can call our children who live far away,” says the chief, who has a son who lives in Toronto, Canada.

A usual scene in Bario every evening is that of local residents queuing up to use public phones in front of the telecenter. Even Dr Alvin Yo Wee of UNIMAS acknowledges the importance of the telephone in a town like Bario and says its value to the community is inestimable. “When someone is seriously ill, you can call for a plane in case of emergency,” he says. “Once a teacher here became so sick that people called for an emergency plane.”

The comments reveal the fact that although the Internet is useful, it may not be so vital to the community as the telephone.

“This is more like a trial project,” says Dr. Wee, a lecturer on computer science and information technology at UNIMAS, which is located outside Sarawak’s largest city of Kuching, more than 700 kilometers west of Bario. He says the project’s major problem is the lack of electricity, which forces short the telecenter’s service hours to a few hours a day.

Most parts of Sarawak actually have no access to electricity or running water. Bario, despite its remoteness, is in an even better position as it has at least an airport that allows its residents some access to the outside world. But energy has remained a pressing issue here, leading to electricity’s elevation into a status symbol in Bario. When it gets dark, almost all houses go without lights except for families that can afford generators.

Yet it has been proven many times that money alone can’t help, particularly during an oil shortage when chartered flights that bring in diesel supply are cancelled. That means there will also be no fuel for the generators.

“Bario is facing an oil problem,” says Nabun, who runs the only guesthouse in Pa Lungan, a jungle village eight kilometers away from Bario. “There have been no chartered flights for two months already. People rent them (planes) for use in West Malaysia.”

Apart from chartered flights, the other means of air transport are the so-called Rural Flights operated by Malaysian Airlines (MAS). The future of these flights, however, remains in the balance after the company experienced losses in 2002.

Nabun explains that without air transport,  the town cannot have access to diesel and other oil products, thus disrupting almost everything here – including the e-Bario project.

An ironic situation

Yet Sarawak, among whose vast rainforests Bario is nestled, is an energy resource-rich state. Malaysia itself is an energy supplier to other countries. Petronas, Malaysia’s state-owned oil company, is among Fortune magazine’s top 500 firms, with revenues Rs97.51 billion ($25.6 billion) in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2004. Its earnings from export hit nearly half of the total at Rs41.8 billion ($11 billion). The New Straits Times also says Malaysia has crude oil reserves of 4.5 billion barrels and natural gas reserves of over 89 trillion cubic feet.

Yet despite the huge revenues Malaysia earns from selling oil and gas, very little is ploughed back to Sarawak. Many people in this eastern part of the country believe that the central government in Kuala Lumpur is keener on developing West Malaysia. They even say the government seems to have sacrificed much of East Malaysia for the sake of the western part of the country.

Several tribes in Sarawak were opposed to the Bakun Dam hydroelectric power project, which was built to supply West Malaysia with electricity, as well as to numerous logging operations that deprived them of their farming land. The tribes were upset that the federal government refused to accept their right to these forests but instead allowed logging companies to fell trees on a large scale.

Flying over Bario on a flight from Miri, visitors can catch a glimpse of logged-over forests and streams turned murky from soil washed away from the mountains. That only points to another irony: The Malaysian government is promoting Sarawak in Borneo, the world’s third biggest island, as the Amazon of East Asia, a land of rainforests and tribes, but the practice of handing out generous concessions for commercial logging over the past 20 years has resulted in the destruction of the famed rainforests. Now what one sees are large swaths of land with little forest cover left.

At least Bario and the villages around it have remained verdant, although the Kelabit have also cleared a few areas to make way for cash crops. Bario is famous for its fragrant rice, which enjoys a price premium compared to other rice varieties from around the country and is regarded as Malaysia’s best-quality rice.  The Kelabit are known for their generations-old form of rice farming, but the tribe also cultivates a variety of other crops well-suited to the cool climate of the highlands.

Sridarhan says that when it comes to selling its rice, the Kelabit do not need the Internet. “Forget e-commerce, “ he says. “Rice from Bario is so popular that demand far exceeds supply.” He also notes that “there are no banks here,” which makes it complicated to carry out any financial transactions online.

Problems in bringing the outside in

Bario still relies heaviest on planes for access to the outside world. Yet flying is by no means reliable. During bad weather, no flights come in days, sometimes even weeks. And flying in a mountainous area has its own perils. On July 12, 2004, a chartered Bell-206 helicopter flight operated by the Hornbill Skyways crashed at the foothills of Mount Murud near Bario. Seven passengers went down with the helicopter, including a Sarawak state councilor.

Flying, however, remains the best means to get in and out of Bario. Nykmet Ayu recounts that in the old days, “we had no contacts with the city. What we could do was to walk nine days from here before taking a long boat for five more days to Miri.”

“After 1960 we had the first runway and then there were flights to closer towns like Marudi,” he says. “We have traveled by plane until today … The road closest to Bario is too far to reach by walking.”

The Internet, of course, now brings the rest of the world to Bario.  But the town’s initial attempts at hitching a ride on information superhighway remain hobbled by the community’s chronic energy problem, among other things.

Internet connections here are made through VSAT satellite dishes that run on solar energy, with a diesel-powered generator serving as the backup source of power. There are four connection lines – three for public telephone and the remaining line is for accessing the Internet.

The telecenter is open Monday to Friday, from noon to four pm. The charges are two ringgit an hour for a member, four ringgit for a community resident, and eight ringgit for a tourist or an outsider. It has eight desktop computers and one printer, but only about half of the computers are working.

Peter Matu has become a regular face at the telecenter. But he says, “The main problem is electricity – when there’s no power, you can’t access the Internet. Another problem is satellite signals – you can’t go online when the signals are bad. Next is the center’s caretaker – if he’s absent, the center is closed and you can’t use the Internet.”

While gathering material for this report, this writer discovered that the telecenter had been closed for days because its caretaker was away on a business trip to Miri. The key was left in the care of a local public health official whose office is near the center. On days that the official was too busy with his work, the center remained closed.

Those who have become hooked on the Net like Matu are thus left frustrated. Businessmen to whom the Net has become almost an indispensable tool for business are left tearing out their hair. For guesthouse owners (there are no hotels here), who are trying to boost tourism, the Internet, particularly e-mail, has been the main channel of communication with people wanting to visit Bario to do some jungle trekking.

The owner of J.K. View Lodge says he checks his Internet mailbox every day; he adds, though, that he lost three or four prospective customers due to an Internet breakdown two weeks ago. Douglas and Munny from De Plato Lodge check their e-mails every day as well. Whenever the telecenter is closed or is having connection problems, they resort to Plan B, which is to have their sister in Miri check their e-mail and call to pass on any information.

Worries outweigh website’s success

No doubt, part of the interest in Bario and the Kelabit is being drummed up by the website developed by Salim Sridahran. “I set up this website because I found that the e-Bario project could not sufficiently respond to the community’s demands,” he says, presenting a different perspective from that of the telecenter project.

For him, the website’s goal is to show the uniqueness of the Kelabit community and serve as a meeting point for its people, who now live all over the world and have multiplied to exceed the number of those remaining in Bario. To respond to a community with its people so widely scattered, a portal site should be the best answer.

At present, has more than 18,000 hits a month, with its server in the United Kingdom. There are more than 300 pages of content, occupying a space of 150 megabytes. The website contains community news and information about interesting tourist destinations in Bario, in addition to a Kelabit dictionary project and local music for downloading. The website also offers free online e-mail service for all Kelabit people under the domain name

Sridarhan says that PCs may not have been the wisest way to go for the e-Bario project. “Laptops should be preferred to PCs,” suggests Sridahran, who has had experience using solar cells during his bird surveys that took him and his computer into the forest for weeks at a time. He points out, “In using PCs, you need an adaptor to turn direct current into alternating current, which leads to energy loss of tens of percent.” By comparison, a fully charged laptop battery lasts for a long period with no need to always rely on the solar-powered main system.

Peter Matu, however, is more concerned about another resource drying up: funds. Among the telecenter regulars, he is the only one not connected with the tourism business. Yet he seems the most concerned that the e-Bario project would be unable to remain self-sustaining once the subsidies run out. Telekom Malaysia, which operates the satellite used in the project, is a business and therefore is unlikely to shoulder the costs for the community when the current agreement expires. Matu says, “We are telling local council members about this in the hope of obtaining state support.”

Perhaps Matu is haunted by memories of a previous fiasco of a government project in Bario. Two years ago, the Malaysian government built a $3.4-million hydroelectric power plant here. The small project sputtered to a premature end only minutes after the power plant started operating. There was insufficient water to run the generator. Critics agreed that the failure was caused by the fact that the government did not conduct a feasibility study for the project. These days Bario has useless power poles and rusting steel pipes in its forests to remind it of the project —  but still no electricity.

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