Bring back free laptop scheme

Self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature.

— Charlotte Mason, English educator

About 10 years ago, I was selected to be part of a ‘privileged’ few to participate in the former Barisan Nasional (BN) federal government’s 1Malaysia netbook programme.

The netbook, which offered a passable user experience for a fraction of the price, was widely panned by a vocal section of Malaysians for its low-quality build, creaky plastics and its unbranded nature.

I was among those who criticised it, knowing that with the resources available to the government at the time, they should have provided better laptops to students.

Looking back, being born to parents who are teachers, a laptop is well within our means. I had burned through two laptops prior to that — an Acer in 2007 and a Compaq in 2008.

I was never the intended target audience, instead, it should be given to those who couldn’t afford it; those whose exposure and experience to technology is limited to the school’s computer labs or cyber cafes.

To them, it was the best thing since sliced bread.

Of course, when we finally got our hands on the netbook, which comes in a package that was slightly bigger than a shoe box, we didn’t use it to learn all the time — which was its intended use.

We would indulge in extra-curricular activities, there were many nights of video game LAN (local area network) parties when I slept over at my school’s hostel.

The 1Malaysia netbook is also, to most recipients, the first real computer in the family. I had often learned that friends of mine had loaned their netbook to their siblings to use.

I had used mine, or at least, a similar variant to it when my own laptop finally gave way. It wasn’t all that bad to be frank. Of course, it wasn’t the most powerful or the fastest thing in the world, it just worked.

The netbook served me for three years from 2011 to 2014. It helped me through my matriculation years. I learnt my first programming language, C++ at the time using a 1Malaysia netbook. I even did light video editing using that poor machine.

In a nutshell, it brought so much joy to the people that I reckon that it should be brought back.
While the federal government is looking to roll out a similar initiative as early as next month for 150,000 students, that in itself is never enough to fulfil the needs of people.

The state government, one priding itself on digital economy and technological revolution, should take the lead by issuing free laptops to B40 households.

It could be part of the next Sarawakku Sayang Special Assistance (BKSS) package or another similar package under the Education, Science and Technological Research Ministry.

I came to learn that the BN federal government back then had allocated RM1,000 for the purchase of each netbook. Thanks to the rapid advancement of technology, we’ll be getting more for RM1,000 today.

This is in line with Moore’s law, a prediction made by American engineer Gordon Moore in 1965 that the number of transistors on a computer chip was doubling about every 18–24 months.

Theoretically, within the last 10 years, the number of transistors on a computer chip doubled roughly five times. So, with the same cost, the experience will be better with more advanced and efficient components.

You can get a decent computer for RM1,000 or less nowadays. If you really want to dial in the savings, you can get a Chromebook — a laptop that uses Google Chrome (the web browser we’re all using) as its operating system.

The cheapest one can be bought for less than RM500.

If all we are doing is word processing, spreadsheet, internet browsing, all of which falls under the use case of a student, it should be a compelling option.

Raspberry Pi, although it is portable, power-efficient and ‘cutting edge’, is not practical in this case as its learning curve is a bit steep compared to Chromebooks. This is especially when users are not in a guided use situation.

Overall, to fully address the challenges of home-based or online learning, a thorough and well-thought-out free laptop initiative should be the focus of the state government.

This will also leverage on the telecommunication infrastructure that is currently being developed
in rural areas, maximising its benefit to the general public and realising our vision of being a digital society.