A new fifth generation (5G) mobile telecommunications network was supposed to have been an infrastructure centerpiece for Malaysia, helping it keep pace with the global advance in the digital space.
Yet, within the space of 12 months, a shining example of modernity and progressive thinking was turned into an anachronistic fiasco, reeking of the old-fashioned cronyism that has plagued the country since it gained independence in 1957.
As the reformist Pakatan Harapan government was trying to find its feet — having been swept to power two years ago on a wave of euphoria — then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad and senior cabinet members knew the government had to press ahead with upgrading the country to 5G.
This was no mean feat. While costing an estimated US$1.7 billion to the taxpayer, the project included an array of technological and legislative hurdles to overcome.
Yet, the benefits would be enormous and wide ranging. Aside from providing the ever-demanding urban middle classes of the Klang Valley with the latest in high-speed mobile broadband to slake their thirst for social media, the project would have also given rise to more strategic farming in East Malaysia, along with major advances in healthcare provision for rural areas, helping to break the poverty cycle for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.
Crucially, 5G would provide people in rural Malaysia with cheap access to information and the internet.
During this time, the nation’s children had to study online, a minor inconvenience for urban families where internet access has almost become a basic right, but in the depths of poverty-stricken Sabah, for example — where large families were said to be sharing one mobile device if they were lucky — getting online was, and still is, an ordeal.
Ministers also had one other objective in mind, because opening up rural areas to the digital world would also provide them with more political freedom.
Up to the 2018 general election, the then authoritarian Barisan Nasional government had controlled the narrative through traditional state media — ie, television, radio and print — but had ignored the internet to its cost.
Malaysia’s voting landscape is such that conservative parties dominate where there is limited access to the internet, having almost no idea how to communicate digitally. Meanwhile, the reformists have embraced their online presence and maximize it to their advantage.
So, in opposition and fearing they would lose control, the conservatives did everything they could to scupper the 5G project.
As Mahathir and communications minister Gobind Singh Deo pushed forward, and civil servants met with their contemporaries from China, opposition MPs cried foul with well-used anti-Chinese rhetoric to strike fear into the Malay community.
They cited the Western reaction to Huawei, in particular the accusations of espionage and the likelihood Chinese companies would pilfer Malaysian technological secrets.
Mahathir scoffed and, in his familiar brand of sarcasm, said it was infinitely more likely Malaysia would benefit from Chinese technology, than the other way around.
Ministers also hammered out a deal with the telecom companies that the competition for mobile network spectrums would be by open tender, ensuring transparency, optimum return on investment and best value for the Malaysian consumer.
All this changed four months ago, as Malaysia’s political landscape was turned upside down in a flurry of skullduggery and betrayal.
The authoritarian conservative government is back in power and, despite repeated reassurances to an angry public, is quickly returning to “business as usual” with accusations of cronyism and corruption abound, not to mention detaining dissenters with zeal.
So, it really was a matter of time before the 5G project hit the headlines.
The Ministry of Communications and Multimedia is now headed by Saifuddin Abdullah, a man who has developed notoriety for aligning himself in the direction the political, or even popular, wind is blowing, so much so that local wits joke he U-turns like a weathervane in a typhoon.
He was a rising star in the Barisan Nasional administration, before losing his seat in the 2013 general election. Spurred by the 1MDB corruption scandal, Saifuddin quit his party and defected to Pakatan Harapan, which was then in the ascendancy.
In 2018, he was appointed foreign affairs minister, before becoming instrumental in the political upheaval earlier this year. Once again, he quit the government to join (or re-join) the opposition, which in turn was able to wrest power.
Barely had he warmed his minister’s seat then Saifuddin’s ministry brought charges against South China Morning Post reporter Tashy Sukumaran, which — when facing a media and public backlash — he said would be withdrawn, because he believed in free speech. According to the latest reports, the charges remain in place.
Meanwhile, the much-vaunted competition for mobile spectrums took place behind closed doors, with very little in the way of competition.
In the middle of May, quietly and with no fanfare whatsoever in a darkened corner of the ministry’s website, it released the names of the companies that had “won” the tenders for providing the country with mobile communications for the foreseeable future — all at the express instruction of Saifuddin.
No doubt, this was to fulfil some legal technicality governing supposed transparency.
At the same time, the list of names included the usual mobile telecoms suspects like Digi, Maxis, Celcom etc and one other: Altel Communications, an obscure company owned by local entrepreneur Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary with strong connections to the government.
The public was justifiably outraged by the surreptitious manner in which the government had tried to steamroller through a supposedly transparent process, not least the stench of cronyism in awarding a contract to Altel.
While on the surface the other companies involved remained tight-lipped on the affair, it is understood they are quietly seething.
In speaking on condition of anonymity, investors said companies with publicly traded stock had a duty to keep shareholders informed of developments of this magnitude, which are akin to the portioning out of oil fields.
Meanwhile, executives are angry over the manner in which the government abruptly backtracked on agreements so exhaustively laid out by the previous administration.
Barely 24 hours after the furor erupted, Saifuddin U-turned, ordering the process to be halted without offering any further comment.
Given the abysmal track record of the current government, this fiasco looks set to be the first of many for this critical project, which ultimately harms the people.
More so, there are millions of poverty-stricken Malaysians waiting on this jump in technology to improve their lives and help them break their endless cycle of destitution.
With no further word from the government on the issue since, they will just have to keep waiting.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.