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Malaysia's Internet Road Show

Wayne Arnold.
Produced by
The New York Times

TUNJANG, Malaysia -- NAFIZAH ISMAIL had heard of the Internet, but she had never used it until one day in April when a special bus rolled up to her school, deep in Malaysia's northern rice bowl.

"We realized that the Internet can connect us to the outside world," Nafizah, 12, said as she and two village friends sat in their school canteen, heads covered by scarves as tradition dictates in this conservatively Muslim area. Now Nafizah is learning to prepare her homework on a computer, navigate the Internet, send e- mail and even design Web pages, as more than 2,800 other Malaysian children have done since the bus hit the road two years ago.

The bus, called the Mobile Internet Unit, is an attempt by Malaysia to help bridge its digital divide by delivering technology to its poorest, most remote schools on a 40-foot bus loaded with 20 personal computers. To the United Nations Development Program, under which the idea was conceived, the bus is an experiment in hastening the spread of the Internet to young minds in areas where infrastructure is scarce and suspicions run high.

"These mobile units are perfect in raising awareness, building interest and understanding — and reducing the fear," said Vijay Parmar, deputy regional coordinator of the agency's Asia-Pacific Development Information Program in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur.

A sort of bookmobile for the Internet age, the original bus has already been supplemented by seven scaled-down versions, and the government plans to put two in each of Malaysia's 14 states by 2005. The United Nations agency, meanwhile, has organized a similar initiative in Ghana and says countries like Lebanon and Iran have expressed an interest.

Development experts involved in the effort say the Internet can play an important role in providing education and new opportunities in such countries — or at the very least, can help them avoid falling further behind the developed world. That is no small challenge in places where villagers are lucky to have phone lines and electricity, much less an Internet cafe.

In its own development, Malaysia lies somewhere between the extremes and is trying to leap ahead. Homes in the rice-farming village where Nafizah lives have telephones and televisions. There are paved roads for motorbikes. The peasants and water buffaloes toiling in the paddies are gone; farmers hire combine harvesters to reap their crops.

And thanks in part to government initiatives, Malaysia is also disproportionately well networked. It has almost half as many Internet users per capita as the United States. Since the mid-1990's, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has made the creation of a "knowledge economy" a national priority, clearing a swath of oil-palm plantations for his version of Silicon Valley, seeking counsel from American technology executives and even badgering Muslim clerics to embrace the Internet.

At the same time, plans to install computers in the country's roughly 8,500 schools, starting with those in rural areas, have been slow, impeded in part by the financial crisis of 1997 and 1998 and the latest global economic slowdown. Since the endeavor was announced four years ago, only 90 of the so-called smart schools have been established.

"Malaysia is a very good country to start with," said Gabriel Accascina, who until last year headed the Asia-Pacific Development Information Program. Mr. Accascina came up with the idea for the Mobile Internet Unit based on his experience in the 1980's in Mali, when he and other aid workers used a four-wheel-drive vehicle to cart a television and videocassette recorder to rural villages to show instructional tapes. "We would go into the village and pull out the TV and hand out brochures and teach the villagers how to dig a trench or recognize malnutrition," said Mr. Accascina, who now heads his own consulting firm.

With $75,000 in initial funds, Mr. Accascina sold the government's own technology research company, the Malaysian Institute of Microelectronic Systems, or Mimos, on his idea of an old school bus carrying personal computers down the country's muddy back roads.

Mimos had even bigger plans. It persuaded the local distributor of Isuzu vehicles to donate a $263,000 bus tailored for the project. The result is a sleek, silver coach that is well beyond the battered bus Mr. Accascina envisioned. Three air-conditioners and a pocket of insulating air protect the computers and their users from the tropical heat. If no reliable power source is handy, a diesel-powered generator slides out of the bus's belly.

Mobile Internet Unit is something of a misnomer, however. The bus can establish Internet access only by stringing a telephone cord to a telephone jack nearby. If one is not available, pupils on the bus surf Web sites stored on the bus's computer server.

To start the program, organizers selected 20 rural schools in the state closest to Kuala Lumpur, reaching out to children from fishing villages, oil-palm plantations and rubber estates. One of the first obstacles was convincing not only educators, but village headmen, clerics and parents as well, that the bus was a good idea.

"Mostly they hear about the negative side of the Internet" — like pornography — "so they're frightened," said Kang Wai Chin, the Mobile Internet Unit's voluble project manager. "We want parents to understand the value of the Internet to their children."

The bus program is typically built around an eight-hour course delivered in one-hour installments to 20 children at a time. It starts with such basics as learning how to turn the computer on and use a mouse, then progresses to basic word processing, e-mail, Web browsing, even manipulating spreadsheets and designing simple Web pages. A visit, typically lasting one day every two weeks, can also include a teacher-training session at the lunch hour.

The Mobile Internet Unit's organizers leave behind a PC, a modem and an Internet account so that pupils can practice and teachers can find ways to work computers into the curriculum. There is another goal: to convince parents of the computers' value, prompting them, perhaps, to buy a PC for the home or to raise money to equip the schools with more.

(c) Copyright: The New York Times

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