Living Wirelessly in Malaysia

by Chelsi Sparti
Senior Permit Technician, Land Use Department

In 2014,Chelsi Sparti had the opportunity to teach English and American Culture in Sarawak, Borneo, Malaysia under a generous Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship (ETA) Grant through the U.S. Department of State and the Malaysian Ministry of Education (MOE). She spent her time teaching secondary school, traveling throughout South East Asia and exploring Asian cultural relationships with nature. The opinions expressed within this piece are strictly her own.

Maintaining internet and cell phone connectivity was a U.S. Department of State requirement during my year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) to Malaysia. Prior to my placement, I was accustomed to daily life with a smartphone. Upon my arrival in the state of Sarawak, on the bio-diverse island of Borneo, I learned firsthand just how spotty wireless coverage could be, and quickly discovered that the quality and reliability of connectivity abroad varied dramatically, particularly in rural areas.

Telecommunications in Malaysia is centered in Kuala Lumpur (population 1.6 million), with its skyscrapers, business economy, ex-patriot havens, and nightlife. However, mobile coverage ripples outward from the capital city with decent coverage in suburban locations, spotty coverage in semi-rural communities, and virtually no coverage in the villages and jungle rumah panjang (long house dwelling). To put it plainly, in my small, remote farming town of Sri Aman, Sarawak, I was a world away, with a vastly quieter lifestyle that did not center around my mobile phone.

Choosing a mobile service provider seemed a daunting task. The Malaysian mobile industry is not driven by cell phone contracts, and each operator offers a service localized to a particular region of the country. This set-up makes it necessary for piecemeal mobile solutions that often involve people owning one phone for calls in the village, one phone for calls in the city, and another phone for data and apps. I knew I couldn’t keep track of three phones, so my objective was to find an uncomplicated mobile solution that yielded the highest reliability.

On the first day in Sri Aman I went into a branch of the most established telecommunications company in Malaysia, Celcom, bringing my American telecom knowledge with me. After customary introductions about my teaching contract, I asked the single, most important question on my mind, “May I see your wireless coverage map for this area?” I received blank stares. After describing the colorful blots on a map showing mobile signal strength in various parts of the county that are a well-known staple to American television viewers, the employee looked up at me, smiled and said, “don’t have.” So I blindly chose the oldest Malaysian company for my hand phone (Malaysian term for cell phone). In the months that followed, I learned that the lack of sophisticated telecom information such as coverage maps would foreshadow the limitations of the hit-or-miss wireless communication that is standard in Malaysia. Although I was at first frustrated by the limited connectivity, I soon learned to adopt the gratitude of locals in receiving any wireless signal at all.

On an island that has only implemented a network of formal roads for land transportation within the last 60 years, it is not surprising that the wireless network infrastructure is in a similar state of infancy. “The line,” as Malaysians so fondly refer to the Internet signal, is incredibly weak on public Wi-Fi networks. Much like users around the world, Malaysians enjoy “selfie” uploads and video streaming but they do it on networks that are substantially slower than what I was used to having. To compensate for slow speeds and limited connectivity, I opted for the internet upgrade to the plug-and-play “wingle” internet stick that I could use anywhere in the country. A wingle is Huawei’s term for portable 3G USB modems with built-in Wi-Fi and just like its counterpart, the dongle, in the USA and Europe, it is only helpful when it is connected to a quality cellular and/or Wi-Fi network. To my initial irritation, my wingle never worked in the teacher’s staff room, so I chose the student library as my permanent office. This turned out to be a fortunate decision as the student library had a strong signal line, reasonable air-conditioning, and I was able to get to know my students in an area where they were more relaxed.

In keeping with Malaysian trends, my mobile service was pre-paid and my wireless Internet service was post-paid. Learning to budget and ration my 1 GB allotment of monthly mobile data and 5 GB of Wi-Fi data was defined by a steep learning curve of tough love. When you run out of data in Malaysia, you are out of luck until the next month, unless of course you buy another wingle.

In my day-to-day life, the geographic limits on my wireless connectivity were demonstrated by the two LED indicator lights of the wingle that supplied my life with data. A green instead of blue light made me cringe; it meant that network speeds were less than 1 Mbit/s. As the weeks passed, I drew on experience to predict a poor connectivity day. Storms with high winds and heavy rains could disable the power resulting in weekends without functioning wireless systems. Freezing screens, videos lacking animation, dropped calls, and delayed speech were factors that marked all attempts. It made for entertaining Skype video calls, but created obstacles for maintaining relationships overseas. In the face of adversity I developed the following coping strategies to find low traffic times: became nocturnal, stopped uploading photos to social media, started sending postcards, accepted that text message correspondences would take on the standard email response time of two days minimum and I joyfully kept my T-Mobile phone service active for the first few months of my job abroad. I had to let go of my expectations and concept of what a normal phone call was like, and instead take on the Malaysian virtue of patience consistently exhibited by my friends on slow Wi-Fi days.

The only landlines I spotted were in government buildings and hotels. Business practices in Malaysia have markedly less phone calls than I expected and often occurred in “Manglish” (Malaysian-English Creole) which is subtle enough to confuse an English speaker without completely revealing that the person on the phone swapped in some Chinese, Malay or Iban words mid-sentence. These mixtures of language are what mark Malaysia’s cultural exchange between diverse citizens.

One very interesting note is that regardless of race, religion, or position on the social or business hierarchy, the default mode of communication is “WhatsApp,” which unfortunately proved that I was functionally illiterate in the language of abbreviations and British slang. But I managed my way up that learning curve too as I used the messenger app for lesson planning with fellow teachers, extracurricular outings with students, and logistics with high-ranking public servants.

My experience with connectivity in Sri Aman was often “all or nothing.” Before my placement abroad, I never thought small, colored LED lights could cause negative emotions in me. On the failed technology days I usually resorted to journaling. Now when I revisit those pages I find notes about the, “painfully slow internet,” and how I was, “patient enough to let the photos upload.” This cultural exchange experience deeply familiarized me with the ways communication varies with local conditions. After months of frustration, I learned to let go of the tension and began to appreciate the lack of wireless consistency as an opportunity to set my phone down and focus on cultural immersion and intentional engagement in the community. And on my first clear phone call upon returning home, I felt like a giddy teenager who had her phone privileges back (and functioning!) after being grounded for a year.

April 23, 2015
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