Challenges and Opportunities in Introducing Information and Communication Technologies to the Kelabit Community of North Central Borneo

Roger Harris, PhD

Poline Bala

Peter Songan, PhD

Elaine Khoo Guat Lien

Tingang Trang

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak

94300 Kota Samarahan



This paper describes part of an action-research pilot project, which is to provide opportunities for a remote and isolated rural community in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo to experience the use of Internet to best determine the applications that meet their needs and support the special opportunities that exist within the community. The community inhabits the Kelabit Highlands, the traditional home of the Kelabit ethnic group.  The project aims to establish a telecentre as a place for the community to use computers, get connected to the Internet and make use of a variety of associated services. Due to its relative isolation, the community does not have the benefit of a wider range of information categories.  Their current sources of information are dominated by face-to-face communication.  Although many have heard of computers, they have not seen or used any, and many have not heard of the Internet. These situations dominate the context in which this project aims to achieve sustainable human development for the community through the deployment of ICTs. Phase I of the project is concerned with the collection of base-line data to provide a socio-economic profile of the community and to establish existing patterns of communication and their understanding of computers. This is partly in order to identify real needs and wants of the community and making the technology match these needs and wants. In view of the Malaysian government focus on computers in education and also of the significance of the school’s role in the local culture, the research project is paying particular attention to the lower secondary school in Bario, known as SMK Bario.  The initial study at the school was to determine the attitudes and the level of anxiety of the teachers towards computers.  Findings indicate that the teachers had a positive attitude towards the use of IT.  Other factors cited to be primary motivators of IT use include unfailing support from the School Principal, teachers willingness to provide team assistance to novice users, and teachers self-awareness of potential benefits of IT for the future development of the community.  Recommendations for future IT training programmes catering to the needs of rural secondary school teachers are discussed at the end of the paper.


In recent years, Information Technology (IT) has become central to Malaysia’s aspirations to be a fully developed nation, as embodied in Vision 2020 (Mahathir 1991). An important component in the stride to achieve this Vision is the development of Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) concept, which projected seven flagship applications to demonstrate IT’s expected impact on every Malaysian citizen. Nevertheless, current plans for the deployment of IT applications throughout Malaysia include few mechanisms to ensure its remote rural populations are able to receive the ensuing benefits although majority of the population are rural. For example in 19? ?% of % Malaysia’s population are found in rural areas. Unlike their counterparts in the urban areas, the rural people in Malaysia are deprived of a wider range of economic and education opportunities as well as other basic infrastructure for telecommunication services. Implications of these disparities between urban and rural communities in terns of income generation and economic opportunities (look at Papers for Catac-give examples of the implications). This is particularly so for the state of Sarawak as the majority of its population is rural. Harris (1999) notes that although Sarawak was promised a full and equitable share in the benefits of national development, Sarawak’s majority, rural, population stands to be left aside by the Nation’s progress towards a knowledge society, which will be based on IT. For instance, the following figure reflects current distribution of telecommunication infrastructure in Malaysia, which obviously conforms to the country’s population distribution density. Nonetheless exists a clear gap of telecommunication services between much of part of the country, and in particular for Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo.

Although the April 1st 1999 Communication and Multimedia Act requires telephone operators to provide public phone services in rural areas, Sarawak’s current tele-density is still low, which is seven telephones per 100 people, even though the ratio is expected to rise to 15 per 100 in 2005 and 25 per 100 by 2020 (Sarawak Tribune, 22nd April, 1999). This situation (not limited to Sarawak in Malaysia)[1]suggested by many, if left unchecked, would produce different forms of gaps and inequities as well as a new kind of poverty related to an imbalance in access to communication and information facilities. Today such an unfortunate plight is not inevitable, particularly with the emergence of imminent technologies, which can make it possible for remote communities to enjoy the benefits of connectivity that their urban counterparts now take for granted. For example in Madras, India, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation has established six Village Information Shops that enable rural families to access and exchange a basket of information using modern communication technologies (Balaji and Harris, 2000).

Inspired by such development, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) in Malaysia, is presently carrying out research that provides opportunities for a remote rural community in the Kelabit Highlands of north central Borneo, in the state of Sarawak to experience the use of ICTs to best determine the applications that meet their real needs and wants.  This effort is expected to demonstrate the opportunities for achieving sustainable human development within such a community through the deployment of ICTs.  It is suggested that useful opportunities for ICTs will emerge not solely from its deployment, but also from the project team’s close engagement with the community involved.  The latter will be achieved primarily through a participatory action oriented approach, which requires members of the community to actively participate in the process, i.e. in decision making.  There are currently 8 people on the team involving academics from social sciences and technical disciplines.

As a preliminary step, the team obtained base-line data about the community. The result will provide a profile of the community in terms of its social and economic make up, its cultural values, its access to information and its understanding of and exposure to computers.  The data derived will facilitate the introduction of the technology by indicating what associated measures will be required for community familiarisation and training, and for the development of information content.  The base-line studies consisted of a survey, which was augmented with a variety of interviews and focus group meetings. In line with the aspirations of the Malaysian Government, school teachers, identified as the key players in realising the success of this programme, have been introduced to computer literacy courses since 1992 in teacher training colleges in the country (Wan Mohd Zahid, 1995).

The Kelabit

Prior to the World War II, little was known by outsiders of the Kelabits and their surroundings. They were one of the most remote ethnic groups on the island of Borneo, and their only means of communication to the closest town was by foot, climbing mountains, following the mountain ridges, crossing and re-crossing rivers and valleys for several weeks. Nowadays, flying to Bario, the main Kelabit centre is the only practical way to get there.  There is no road, and a land expedition requires a river journey plus an additional weeklong trek across forested mountains.  Prior to the early contacts around the 1920s, the Kelabit had been known as headhunters. Rapid change after the initial exposure to outside influences led to the introduction of formal education when the first school in Bario was established in 1946, drawing pupils from the surrounding longhouse communities hidden deep in the forest.  Prior to this there wasn’t a single school in the Highlands and no Kelabit was literate.  Today there are two schools in Bario, primary and lower secondary, with nearly 200 pupils.  Despite the isolation and rudimentary facilities, the schools achieve enviable results and many of their pupils have progressed to attain advanced university degrees.  Today, many Kelabits occupy influential positions in Malaysian national life as senior government officials, academics, business people and professionals. 

In 1939 the first Australian missionaries visited Bario and the Kelabit community began to adopt Christianity. In 1973, a spiritual revival took place in Bario and the Kelabit as a community embraced Christianity wholeheartedly, becoming actively involved in spreading the revival to other parts of Sarawak. Most Kelabit in the highlands are rice cultivators cultivating both dry and wet rice.  It is the latter, wet rice that distinguishes them from many other indigenous groups in Sarawak, most of whom grow dry hill rice.  Bario rice is famous for its sweet aroma and pleasant taste.

Even though the Kelabit have gone through rapid social and economic change within the very short span of 50 years, they have managed to maintain certain aspects of their culture which are still unique, particularly their music and dance. Many Kelabits still live in traditional longhouses, which contain a mix of communal living areas running the length of the house and individual apartments for each family.  The Kelabit also maintain certain features of their traditional attire, for instance in forms of hats for men and bead caps for women. The intricate beadwork of the women’s caps are especially admired in Sarawak.  But probably the most distinctive features of bodily decoration of the elderly generations are their elongated ear lobes and their tattoos.  The ear lobes of both sexes were pierced shortly after birth and the hole gradually distended by the insertion of larger and larger studs.  Eventually the lobes were further stretched, often to the shoulders, by hanging brass weights.  Arm and leg tattoos were popular with women up to the 1950s, and can still be seen on the older ladies.  They were begun with simple designs that were slowly filled in over the years until giving the appearance of a limb entirely covered with tattoo.

Another important practice that continues to thrive is that of name changing.  When a married couple produces their first child, both they and the child’s grandparents, change their names, completely and permanently.  The names are announced at an irau or feast, which was traditionally more important to a Kelabit than the wedding ceremony.  At a name changing irau in Bario in May 1999, seven to eight hundred people attended 16 pigs and two cows were slaughtered and two oil drums full of rice were cooked. The event was held in the long hall of the longhouse and included many formalities, music, traditional dancing and a huge feast.

Embracing change has not been without pain for the Kelabit. With education, for instance, came an attendant drift away from the highlands. Many educated Kelabit leave their homeland to seek well-paid positions in the distant Malaysian towns and cities of Miri, Kuching and Kuala Lumpur. Today, there are about a thousand out of approximately 5,000 Kelabit, who remain in the highlands, and these are the elderly and the very young ones. They remain in the highlands to tend their family farms, often with the help of neighbouring, and related, immigrant labour from across the Indonesian border.  Local facilities in the Bario area include public radio-phone, a clinic, library, forestry, agricultural and veterinary services.

As the Kelabit move away for further education and better job opportunities, they also meet people from outside the community. One of the results is the increasing occurrence of inter-marriages between the Kelabit with non-Kelabit, (with locals as well as with foreigners).  Intermarriage has become such a common phenomenon that it is not unusual for several members of a family to marry non-Kelabits. For example, all 5 daughters of one couple are married to foreigners. The increasing occurrence of intermarrying with non-Kelabit has caused some concern in the community in recent years. Many have permanently left the highlands or even migrated overseas to the U.K, U.S.A, Canada, Holland, Australia and New Zealand.

As a result of the recent history of the Kelabit people, as well as their diasporic geographical situation, there exists a need to bridge distances between Kelabit in the Highlands and those living outside the highlands.  One of the first attempts was to build an airstrip. The first grass airstrip was built by the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) in 1953, and was mainly for mission purposes, but eventually was taken over by the Department of Civil Aviation in 1957 (Talla 1974:417).  This airstrip was eventually officiated by the Colonial Government in 1961, which improved communications and transportation tremendously (Bala 1999:50).  In 1996 a new airstrip – the long-awaited concrete airstrip - was completed. This development further eases movement of peoples in and out of the highlands.

For many people in the highlands, the airport is their closest link to the outside world.  As people move in and out of the highlands, they (the people themselves), including outside visitors, become important sources of information. Data gathered from the survey on 140 household depicts that 93% of the respondents receive a lot of information through face to face communication. One of the ways in which face to face communication is done is through metatad whereby a person is asked to relay a message for and to someone else.  For example, when a person boards a flight for Bario in Miri or vice versa, most likely that person will be asked to relay messages for and to someone else at the destination. Besides metatad, one can nulis surat or write letters to be handed by a passenger to the receiver.  Consequently, as many as 41% of the survey respondents receive very little information through the airmail/postal service provided through MAS (Malaysian Airlines System) flights.

Besides face to face communication as an important channel to receive information, particularly from outside Bario, in recent years modern facilities such as radio/audio player and television have increasingly become important channels of information.  About 79% of the households surveyed own radio, and about 66% suggest that they do receive information through the radio.  Although only 30% of the households surveyed own a television set, almost all of them (26% of the 140 households) indicate TV as a channel of information.

However, as noted by one of our respondents, Ribuh Balang, these facilities are basically one way flow. He says, “we cannot respond to those voices from the radio and television.  We cannot say yes or no to their comments, suggestions and so forth.” He desires a more interactive communication. He went on to say, “what you are hoping to introduce will help us to at least say yes when we agree with their stories and to say no when we do not agree. Besides that, it will be very beneficial for those whose relatives, especially their children who live very far away, in foreign lands.” [2]

This does not mean to say that the Kelabit in the highlands have no means to interact with the outside world, i.e. through radio services. A radio service centre, popularly known as inan radio call (lit. radio call place) was set up about 7 years ago to help the locals. These calls are subsidized by the government through Very High Frequency (VHF) radio services. One has to line up to book a call with the operator who then will place a booking by calling the telephone operator several hundred kilometers away in Penang who then connects the line.  By the end of 1999, the Bario community of almost 1,000 people was averaging 750 calls per month from this facility.

ICTs and Rural Development

Nearly 75% of the population of Asia is reckoned to be living in rural districts. Dysfunctional patterns of technology diffusion serve to prevent the poor, mostly rural, majority populations of developing countries from benefiting from information technology to the same extent as their educated urbanised compatriots. Although the information revolution threatens to increase income inequity, nationally and internationally, it can provide tools, which can dramatically reduce isolation and poverty and alleviate its worst effects.  A pro-poor agenda of technology-improved access to education, health care and information is increasingly possible for developing countries.  Contemporary information and communications technologies can now be used to integrate rural and poor urban communities into economic life, thereby raising income, and improving their quality of life.  Appropriate regulatory services can be designed to encourage the provision of rural telecommunications on a commercial basis.  Satellites network, wireless communications, public telephones and community information centres, cyber kiosks, or telecentres, are effective arrangements for reducing information inequality.  

The World Bank recommends a systematic approach to the application of IT to the needs of rural communities (World Bank, 1998).  In order to support IT adoption that will contribute to rural development, it is essential to begin with the needs of the rural community.  As a first step, a feasibility study is required in order to:  


Identify the needs and priorities of rural communities for such areas as agriculture, education, commerce, natural resource management, and health, etc.  


Determine the types of information needed to help meet those needs, including information gathered from the rural population and transmitted to policy-makers and project designers, and information shared among rural communities.  


Determine the gaps between the information currently available and what is needed.  


Determine how IT can close those gaps and build valuable synergies by mobilising information across sectors.  

Evidence suggests that rural dwellers have more to gain than do urban dwellers from any increase in the density of communications capability (ITU, 1998). For example, the economics of telecommunications are related to distance.  The greater the distance from communities of interest, the greater the savings in travel costs and time which individuals enjoy with improved communications. Unit gains from additional telephones are greatest where density is at its lowest.  The greatest social payoff from telecommunications improvements, therefore, is found in rural and isolated areas.  Unfortunately, these areas do not generate as much total revenue for private telecommunications providers as do high density urban areas, even with higher revenue per individual subscriber.  Consequently, special arrangements and incentives are needed to upgrade telecommunications networks in rural and remote areas and such facilities have to be designed to keep capital, operating and maintenance costs as low as possible.  In gaining access to information, geography alone places rural people at a disadvantage compared to urbanites before communications are taken into account. 

Accepting that information poverty is as debilitating as any other form of poverty, the means of overcoming it is more readily available in urban settings than in rural settings.  However, when telecommunications are considered, the advantages that they bring are almost exclusively delivered to urban centres, not to rural populations.  In many cases, this is the bi-product of processes of deregulation, which amplifies the focus on telecommunications as a source of profit at the expense of telecommunications as a social service.  In some cases, near-saturation in urban areas has resulted, with households in metropolitan areas enjoying multiple telephone connections whilst entire rural communities go without.  The technology itself does not prescribe such a disparity.  Contemporary technology enables implementations of telecommunications where previous generations were nowhere near economic or practical feasibility. 


Telecentres are currently attracting considerable attention in international development discourse and are being hailed as the solution to development problems by providing desperately needed access to ICTs.  Telecentres are springing up in Africa, Latin America and Asia.  Telecentres take the form of public-access facilities to provide electronic communications services, especially in marginalised or remote areas where commercial development of ICTs is not prevalent.  (Gomez, Hunt and Lamoureux, 1999)

Telecentres come with a variety of names, such as telecottages, information shops, and no single definition serves to satisfy all of them.  However, a common characteristic is a physical space that provides public access to ICTs for educational, personal, social and economic development.  Telecentres are usually designed to provide a combination of ICT services, ranging from e-mail to full Internet and World Wide Web connectivity.  Additionally, services such as fax and word processing may be provided or even specialised applications for tele-medicine or distance education (Gomez, Hunt and Lamoureux, 1999).

Despite the near euphoric response to many telecentre initiatives, there exists a considerable research agenda to satisfy the need to understand the conditions whereby they can deliver sustainable human development which serves to reduce inequalities rather than increasing them.  In particular, research on the social impact of ICTs should avoid technological determinism, which suggests the inevitability of a technological influence on society, instead of the reverse.  Rather, it should be conceptualised as social and economic studies of computing and communication technologies and not as technology impact studies (National Research Council, 1998).  Concerted effort is required in a number of areas to conduct in-depth research on:

  • the demand by people for telecentre services
  • community involvement, participation and use
  • gender and cutural issues
  • training needs and materials
  • marketing and operation
  • policy, tradde and regulatory issues
  • technological choices and develupments
  • sustainability
  • social impacts
  • telecentres in development

(Gomez, Hunt and Lamoureux, 1999)

The UNIMAS research project in Bario conducted its base-line studies in order to equip itself with the knowledge required to address these, and other issues.  The information gained serves to guide the planning functions for the introduction of a telecentre.

Patterns of Information use in Bario

Data was gathered from 140 households in the Bario district during a survey that was conducted during September and October 1999.  Among other information obtained, the survey gathered data on the patterns of information use in the community.  The following data was obtained:

  • the type and amount of information they would like to receive
  • the type and amount of information they are receiving now
  • the type and amount of information they are sending now
  • the sources and amount of information they receive from them now
  • the channels and amount of information they received from them now

These are shown in figures 1-5.


In relation to the use of information and the channels by which it is transferred, a number of additional observations can be derived from other sources in the community, such as interviews and focus group meetings.  In summary, they indicate the following:

  1.  Sending of memos/letters to make an announcement of a visit, or even to call for a leaders’ meeting, for example, is a common feature of the local information system.  The person in charge will send a memo to all people involved, and these memos or letters are usually sent through another person. For instance, if the Penghulu (village head) wants to call for a meeting involving all the community leaders from the surrounding 12 longhouses, he has to draft 12 memos to be sent out. He will have to look for a person from each of the longhouses to carry the memo back to the longhouse for the headman.  Another example is if the Agriculture officer wants to announce his annual visit to each of the longhouses in the Highlands, he needs to draft a memo and send it through a person from each of the longhouses.
  2. Contrary to findings from the survey, which indicate that 92.9% of the household surveyed suggest that none of the respondents see the grapevine as a source of information, observation and experience indicate that rumours and gossip seem to be an important source amongst the locals in the Highlands.
  3.  Communal meetings, whether during Church services, or community meetings called by community leaders, do play an important role in disseminating information locally. This is particularly so when new projects are implemented or introduced, for example, by the government.
  4. Working together through Group work such as Kerja Sama (communal work), Kaum Ibu (women’s group), Baya (reciprocal group) are also important situations where those involved pass and received information. These are important groups that are actively involved in many community development projects and in the Agriculture Rotation and Reciprocal System in the Highlands.
  5. Many express frustrations over the ineffectiveness of relaying important messages particularly to people outside Bario. This is particularly so for government servants who work in different government departments in Bario, for example
  6. Health Department, Agriculture Department, Forestry Department, Immigration Department, etc. Most of these workers need to report to their supervisors and bosses in Miri, Marudi, Kuching or even in Kuala Lumpur.  Many times their reports and messages are delayed.

Patterns of Computer Awareness in Bario

Figures 6 to 11 depict the findings of the survey with regard to the community’s awareness and exposure to computers.





An analysis of information gaps was derived from data that relates to the types of information the community now receives and how much of it is received.  Figure 12 depicts the gap between the proportions of respondents that currently receives no information about certain topics but which would like to receive a lot of information about them.  The priorities are set by examining both the sizes of the gaps and the position at which they appears along the x-axis.  Accordingly, we can see that almost nobody receives no information about agricultural practices whereas around 90% of respondents would like to receive a lot of information about them, whereas 68% of respondents currently receive no information about information technology but about 98% would like to receive a lot.  Delivering more information about information technology would appear then as potentially more popular than delivering more information about agricultural practices.  A further indication of information gaps can be depicted by accumulating the proportions of the community that receive some information about a topic (either a little, some or a lot) and deducting that from the proportion that would like to receive a lot. 

Attitudes and Computer Anxiety among Teachers at the School

Very little has been done to determine if teachers currently in service in rural areas of Malaysia are ready for IT penetration in their classrooms.  Reports on their attitude and readiness in using IT in steering the younger generation towards IT literacy are especially vital in the case of Malaysia’s largest state situated in Borneo, Sarawak.   Present efforts and mechanisms to promote IT have concentrated mostly amongst Malaysia’s urban dwellers, raising a concern for those who may be sidelined in the Digital Divide, i.e. marginalised populations living in telecommunication-deprived rural areas.

The study investigated the attitude and anxiety levels of teachers in the Bario Secondary School (SMK Bario) towards the use of IT.  SMK Bario, the only secondary school on the Kelabit Higlands of Sarawak was established in 1967.  It caters mostly for students’ from Bario’s 12 villages and offers lower secondary school education (Forms 1 to 3).  The school provides boarding for its entire 158 student population (as of July 1999) and has amenities such as piped water, medical care services and two diesel operated generators to provide electricity (Trang, 1999).   Presently the only form of IT in the school includes five Personal Computers (486s), 2 printers (dot matrix) and one Scanner.  The only means of communication available in the school is via Very high Frequency (VHF) radio services.  In order for SMK Bario to fully benefit from any IT literacy programmes, alternative source of telecommunication facilities would need to be found.

Attitude refers to an individual’s feeling towards the personal and societal use of computers.  A positive attitude includes an anxiety-free willingness or desire to use the computer, confidence in one’s ability to use the computer and a sense of responsibility when using computers.   Computer anxiety as the fear or apprehension felt by individuals when they use computers, or when they consider the possibility of using the computer.

There were 12 teachers (excluding the School Principal) teaching in SMK Bario (as of October 1999).  All were selected as respondents for this study.   Quantitative and qualitative methods involving instruments such as the Computer Attitude Scale (Koh, 1998) and the Computer Anxiety Sub-Scale (Trang, 1999) as well as structured interviews were used to obtain data in the study.  Chronbach alpha values, obtained from a reliability test conducted in a pilot study, for the 29 item Computer Attitude Scale were 0.93 and 0.86 for the 9 item Computer Anxiety Sub-Scale, respectively.   Data collected from both scales were nominal and used a four point Likert scale with possible responses ranging from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree.

Computer anxiety was categorized into either high or low level, while computer attitude was categorized into either positive or negative, based on mean scores.  Descriptive statistics, such as, mean and percentage to describe the demographic features of gender, age groups, teaching experience, computer ownership and number of computer courses attended were used.  Transcriptions obtained from the structured interview sessions were categorised according to recurring themes on teachers’ attitude towards the use of computer. These themes encompassed teachers’ hope, expectation, dream, aspiration regarding the use of the computer in the school, willingness to use the computer for teaching purposes, teachers’ feelings and level of comfort when talking about computers with others, and their attitude towards computer literacy training programmes.

Figure 13. Distribution of Computer Attitude and Computer Anxiety Levels




Computer Attitude








Computer Anxiety








Note.  1 Mean score more than 2.5.  2 Mean score less than 2.5. 

There was a high negative correlation between Computer Attitude and Computer Anxiety (r= -0.813, p<0.01), indicating that teachers who have positive attitudes towards computers have low computer anxiety levels.  The Mann-Whitney U Test, a non-parametric statistical test used to test for significant differences for sample size 30 and below, was applied to determine significant differences in computer attitudes and computer anxiety levels according to selected demographic factors.   No significant differences occurred in the computer attitude or computer anxiety between: (a) male and female teachers, (b) different age groups; (c) those who owned and those who did not own a personal computer; (d) those who never attended any computer courses and those who had attended 1 – 3 computer courses; and, (e) those with different years of teaching experience

The one-to-one interview sessions with the respondents indicated that in spite of their geographical isolation, generally teachers in SMK Bario had a positive attitude towards the use of computers.  The results are reported below:

1.      Majority of the respondents (83.3%) of the teachers looked positively at the prospect of having to use the computer in the classroom.  One of the respondents, R1[3] was quoted as hoping to provide a fair advantage to the students by giving them an early start on the computers.  She did not want a situation whereby the students suffered from inferiority complex just because they were computer illiterate when they pursued further studies. Apart from this, she would like to see both students and fellow teachers able to use the computer in their schoolwork:

R 1:      I would like for one thing my students to be literate to the point where they can actually feel at home writing their essays on the computer. For the teachers, I’d like to see more of their report, their work done on the computer … particularly when you ask them to give you data. I’d like to see it done on computer and kept on the computer one day when computer is introduced in a bigger way….what I would really like to see is to have some teachers knowing how to programme.

2.      Majority of the respondents, 83.3%, mentioned that although they knew only the basics about the computer, they would not mind teaching computers as a subject, albeit at a basic level only.

R3:       At the moment I don’t use it for presentation in the class, teaching in the class, but I have a bit of training during that one (Smart School Programme) … I know that it is very good … bring about a new change for the students, especially. When you have the audio and visual … so that will make a lot of difference … .

3.   Many of the respondents (75.0%), expressed positive feelings towards the use of the computer.  Half of them (50.0%) expressed excitement, 8.3% expressed happiness, 8.3% felt wonderful, while 8.3% expressed gratitude.

Amidst the excitement about using the computer, there was the prevailing fear of the negative influence of the Internet eroding the morality of the children. Teachers, however, were of the opinion that the benefits that students tend to gain by using the computer, especially the Internet, far out-weighed the potential negative influence the computer would have on the students. This required teachers or those holding responsible positions to exercise caution. 

            R3:       … that is very excited (sic) err … and then … very eager to me but err … there are some fear to me of course, because there are always the negative influences that can come in … that we need to control. Well, any way even if we don’t expose, lets say our community or even our young generation like the students in the school, eventually, they will come in contact with these things. So, to me it is as we progress on, we start slowly … so that when they have what we call that kind of shock, I think, even like the students coming into town schools, that is a school to them also. The same with this computer to me …. I think … the same with these old people also. Because there are so many good things that we can gain, you see.

R12 expressed her reservation towards introducing the computer to her students.  Easier access to information on the Internet might make her students too dependent on the Internet for quick information at the expense of the conventional means, such as, referencing for information using the school library.

R12:     I am very excited about it and I don’t have any fear, I don’t have any anxieties about computers. My only reservation is that everything will be instant. I teach my students to get information from the library. But if they have the computer, everything will be instant. They don’t really want to work hard…the traditional way of looking for information. I can’t imagine the atmosphere when everything is computerised. My ideas now is if I teach students with computer, maybe I will tell them to open the file and write something in it, you know.

4.  The general level of comfort felt when respondents were asked to discuss about computers in general with their colleagues, ranged from feelings of fear to feelings of confidence.  8.3 % of teachers felt confident, 16.7% were ambivalent, 8.3% were quite confident, while 25.0% were not very confident.  One of the respondents, R8, gave a reason for the level of comfort experienced by the teachers when talking about the computer.

R8:       I feel scared and confident, depending on whether I understand what is being said.  If someone talks about the Internet that I never use, I do feel scared.

5.   All teachers expressed their eagerness to attend computer-related training. Among the reasons stated were to increase knowledge, prepare in anticipation for the Smart School programme, and equip themselves for the next millennium.  One of the teachers, R3, was even interested to take up Computer Science because he regarded Computer Science as an interesting subject and because he felt that computer was important in all aspects of teachers’ lives:

R3:       Ya. I’ve thought about it. Actually, if I’m given the chance to pursue further study or even to go for this what they call Computer Science. (Why would you be interested in such a course?) The reason is … this is a very interesting … I am very interested, that is one thing. And secondly, I don’t know for what reason, because to me, computer means a lot to our world now. In most of our administration system and also in education system also. Computer is the ‘in’ thing.

6.   Majority of the teachers (66.7%) did not mind paying to attend computer courses on their own because the implication of such courses promised increased knowledge, expertise, improved mode of teaching presentation, and improved IT skills.  16.7% agreed to spend an amount of RM400.00 [4].  This amount is equivalent to the substantial amount of one third of a secondary school teacher’s salary.  33.3% were willing to pay RM200.00.  8.3% was willing to pay the present rate for a computer course while another 8.3% indicated that they did not mind paying without quantifying the amount they were willing to contribute.  One respondent, R8, believed that she could increase her knowledge on computers further, even after having attended 4 computer courses:

            R8:       Of course I’d love to given the opportunity. We can increase our knowledge and understanding about computer. Spend my own money? Okay, okay. Going to and from Marudi … Miri … 75 –75 (RM), already 150(RM). RM 400 will do.

A quarter of the teachers (25.0%) were however, not committed to paying for computer courses on their own despite the benefits such courses would offer them.  For instance, R2 stated that paying to attend computer courses depended on the nature of the need. If he had no choice but to go because it was his duty to do so, he would go willingly provided that such decision would not burden him financially:

R2:       Well. I have to think twice before I could make my mind to go on my own expense. That depends on immediate need. If it is the pressure of need, well, I think err … we have to … sometimes we have to sacrifice. Well, I guess if we have to think about sacrificing … I think the amount doesn’t go beyond monthly salary that I think I don’t mind at all. Well, if given a chance I would prefer to go. At the moment I can’t think of any particular objective. I’m just interested.

6.       Slightly more than half of the teachers (58.3 %) preferred full time training during the holidays, 16.7% preferred short full time training, while 25% preferred part time training.  R9 stated that teachers could not cope with the vast amount of information to be learnt during each training session. She would prefer breaks in between these sessions to give teachers time to actually use their knowledge and skills. This would enable teachers to chart and monitor their own progress:

R9:       I will surely need a few sessions because I think the computer is very complicated.  In one day you cannot learn … everything.  I think … part time. As you move on you need to … like me, I don’t think I can get the whole lots of things in just one sitting. Maybe it could help … better… if we have separate sessions. It means, from there also you can see your own development. During holidays (training). Maybe depending on our situation in  SMK Bario … that is the only time we can go to the centre of training … so that we can concentrate only on the training, not on other matters, for example teaching in class … this sort of things.

However another respondent, R12 did not agree to full-time training. She questioned the effectiveness of full-time training. She thought that there was too much information to grasp at one time. Besides, she felt that holidays ought to be regarded as a break from work and could be better spent for preparation for the second half of the year:

R12:     I think part time will do.  If you do full time, everything will be jammed, jammed, jammed – one time. I don’t think it is effective. But if it is part time, you can tell what you need. During holidays is absolutely out. Obviously here we all look forward to holidays. We are planning to go somewhere. This is an isolated place. We have to do a lot of things in town  … shopping for the next 6 months. After school hours are okay, weekends are all right. Holidays … of course not.

When queried about their present level of computer usage in the school, only 16.7% of the respondents use the computers for teaching purposes.  Other uses include record keeping, preparing test papers, preparing their teaching plans, preparing notes and handouts and for corresponding purposes.  Lack of time and availability of electricity supply and availability of computers have hindered these uses.  Other specific reasons include:

1)      Inadequate computers for teachers’ use;

2)      the student-teachers-computer ration was too high (158:12:5);

3)      the limited supply of electricity.  Two school diesel-run generators operate alternately   

    from 5.30 a.m. to 6.30 a.m., 8.30a.m. to 1.00 p.m., and 6.30 to 10.30 p.m.

4)      priority was given to students’ night computer classes.

Among the virtues of the computer extolled by teachers of SMK Bario were:

1)      the computer made their work more presentable, more systematic; and

2)      they helped reduce redundancy of repetitive work, thus giving teachers time for other things.

Overall results of the interview sessions with the respondents indicated no suggestion of negative elements such as the lack of interest, or being complacent with their status quo (see Markrakis, 1991), resistance to change (North, 1991), or to sabotage the use of computers (Clements, 1981).  On the contrary, teachers in SMK Bario, with the help of the school principal were looking for every opportunity to attend computer courses in order to increase their levels of computer literacy and skills.

Despite the apparent constraints faced by the teachers of SMK Bario, they maintained an overall positive attitude towards the use of computers.  Probable motivators were their individual need to strive for self-development and self-actualisation, especially towards attainment of higher computer literacy levels in guarding the interest of their professional development and to serve as role models for their students in the school.  Teachers also shared a strong sense of responsibility towards educating students in the use of the computer to ensure they would not be excluded compared to urban students when furthering their education in town schools later on.  These teachers also work as a team rendering support to one another where necessary, i.e. teachers who were competent in using computers offered their support and assistance to their counterparts who were not as skilled.

In addition, the School Principal of SMK Bario was genuinely concerned with the welfare of both teachers and students, in terms of promoting computer literacy.  She was the driving force behind efforts to introduce a new IT Literacy Programme in the school.  Besides looking for the much needed computers and opportunities for the teachers to attend computer courses, she also made it her personal responsibility to render her full support to teachers who would like to pursue further studies or training in the field.  

Based on the findings of this study, future IT training programmes designed for the benefit of rural secondary school such as in SMK Bario, will need to regard the following:

  •      Almost all of the teachers have positive attitudes towards IT use for teaching-learning purposes in the school and are eager to attend IT literacy programmes.  A positive attitude towards computers is further related to a low computer anxiety level.  This trend is generally observed regardless of teachers’ gender, age, ownership of computers, computer literacy levels and teaching experience.  Such enthusiasm possibly arises from their own professional development in preparation for the implementation of Smart Schools and need to serve as role models in engaging student interest in IT to become the IT literate workforce of the future.  IT literacy Programme implementers/ instructors’ task are already expedited with teachers’ prior interest to embrace and participate in IT literacy programmes.   These Instructors would however need to be cautious of a possible halo effect in affecting teachers’ enthusiasm towards IT.

  •      A majority of the teachers expressed willingness to become IT trainers to their less IT competent colleagues and students.  IT literacy programmes can capitalise on a ‘cascading’ model of training involving the training of a pool of ‘master’ IT literate teachers who are then able to train counterparts and students in the same school or from schools in the vicinities.  These trainees can then train others and so forth.

  •      Although most teachers are keen to pay for participating in IT literacy programmes, such fees would still need to be subsidised or obtained from public or private sponsors to fully involved all teachers.

  •      A majority of teachers favour attending a full time IT literacy Programme held during school holidays although a few preferred it to be held on a part time basis.  In organising IT literacy programmes, such a consideration for timing as well as ensuring adequate numbers of computers for teacher use is critical.  

  •      While teachers respond enthusiastically to using IT in their classrooms, there is still a prevailing fear that IT, specifically the Internet, if misused, is liable to erode students’ moral values and result in the under utilisation of other forms of conventional search for information such as the library.   IT literacy training programmes will need to address this reservation before teachers can fully appreciate the benefits of IT.

The recommendations above can provide directions for policymakers and IT literacy implementers to develop sustainable IT Literacy Programmes in rural schools such as SMK Bario in particular, and in the Kelabit community of Bario in general.  This will assist in bridging the gap in the Digital Divide and bring rural communities in Malaysia up to par with urban communites in order to achieve the aspirations of Vision 2020.


The survey data indicates that the community places most importance on information that relates to agricultural, medical and religious practices.  Information technology, job opportunities, government policies and family matters rate slightly less important.   Current patterns of information actually received are dominated by religious information, with agricultural and family matters ranking next.  Most information that is sent outside of the community is concerns families, with religious information ranking closely behind.  Relatives are the major source of information, outranking others in terms of the amount of information received by the community, with community leaders next.  In this respect, face-to-face contacts outweigh all others as channels of incoming information, with the radio, church congregation and community meetings ranking about equally next.

The survey data paints a very clear picture of a community who have heard of computers, have seen them, but have hardly used them and have never heard of the internet.  Information technology has received considerable attention in Malaysian society since the government announced a number of schemes to infuse its use further into daily life as well as embarking on an ambitious project to construct a “Multimedia Super Corridor” close to the Nation’s capital at Kuala Lumpur.  IT is the subject of a popular song heard on the radio, which is available to the Bario community, as is television.  In addition, the project team spent some time explaining about computers to members of the community.  Given this exposure, it is to be expected that the inhabitants of the most remote communities in Malaysia will at least have heard of computers.


The paper has outlined the circumstances of a remote community that has rudimentary capability for communication with the outside world compared to urban and other less isolated rural communities.  Existing patterns of information demand and usage have been described.  The survey results provide a background for continuing research into the effects of introducing greatly enhanced communications capability into the community in the form of the internet, both as a direct connection to the secondary school and in the form of a community service.  Base-line data from a household survey coupled with data from interviews and focus groups have provided a socio-economic profile of the community as well as contributing towards an understanding of the priorities that the community places on new forms of information provision.  This knowledge will help the research team develop new information systems for the community development and to track their impact and efficacy.

The analysis of the quantity of information that the community receives and would like to receive does not touch on the quality of that information.  Furthermore, the analysis suggests a presupposition that when an individual is asked if he/she receives sufficient information about a certain topic, they are able to conceptualise how much of that information is in existence, or is potentially available, and to compare that with what is actually received.  Experienced designers of information systems are aware of the futility of such an approach in attempts to derive definitive statements of information requirements.  Unfortunately, few potential users of information systems possess the forethought to respond when asked the question “what information would you like and how much of it do you need?” with their own question, “what information is available and how much can I have?”  Nevertheless, the survey data that has been collected is useful in indicating the community’s need for information as they now see it.  As processes for information delivery, and, more importantly, information discovery, get under way, the research team expects that the community will respond positively to their empowered status and will begin to understand what information will become available to them and how much of it they will be able to obtain. 

It hardly seems credible that among the rhetoric of the information age in which the authors live their daily lives that a community could be discovered for whom computers and the internet mean nothing.  On reflection, though, we cannot imagine that in this respect the Kelabit community of Bario is any different from thousands of similar societies in both rural and urban settings that have also been sidelined by the information revolution.  From a research perspective, the study faces a particular challenge in raising the community’s technology awareness above its zero base in its efforts to empower them with the knowledge building capacity that such awareness can bring.  The additional challenge then emerges of ensuring appropriate forms of information can be provided to the community such that they are able to use it to increase their well being.  The research intends to shed light on how similar activities can reduce the digital divide and include the majority populations of the developing world in the information revolution.


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[1] The United Nations is greatly concerned about the imbalance in access to communication facilities. The information technology gap and related inequities between industrialised and developing nations are widening. In fact, most developing countries are not sharing in the communication revolution, which currently changing today’s international system.

[2] From a “chit chat” session with Ribuh Balang in October 1999

[3] Respondents were identified as R1, R2, R3, and so forth.

[4] The exchange rate for the Malaysian ringgit to American dollar is RM1.00 = US$3.80


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