A viral video of a Malaysian student in Sabah who filmed herself studying and taking exams from the tree tops — where she had better Wi-fi — has drawn attention to the lagging state of infrastructure and development in the far reaches of the Bornean state.
Veveonah Mosibin, 18, was praised for her grit and resourcefulness for erecting a makeshift wooden platform kitted out with a mosquito net and exam supplies, including stationery, power banks, insect repellent, food and water.
Netizens and corporations sent her messages of support and study equipment, and she later also won a scholarship. Malaysia's Communications and Multimedia Commission pledged to improve internet connectivity in her village.
The episode comes as Sabah is due to vote for a new state government on September 26, and comments by two deputy ministers accusing Veveonah of lying may impact the balance of federal power, analysts say, particularly as Sabah boasts a young electorate.
The resource-rich Sabah is considered a "kingmaker" in federal elections, with politicians from both sides of the divide vying to make inroads in a state that has been beset by poor development despite its massive natural wealth.
As part of anti-coronavirus measures, schools in Malaysia have increasingly turned to e-learning. According to state education officials however, poor internet access and hardware in rural Sabah have hamstrung online education, with 52 per cent of students lacking access to the internet, computers, smartphones or tablets, local media reported.
In early September, some weeks after Veveonah shared her video on YouTube, deputy finance minister Abdul Rahim Bakri and deputy communications minister Zahidi Zainul Abidin accused her of faking the poor connectivity issues to gain publicity and attention.
Abdul Rahim, an MP for the Kudat constituency in Sabah, said he had conducted "investigations" which showed Veveonah lived in a town, not a village.
"How can this student claim she studied on a tree in the village when she actually lives in a town? Why would a student need to endanger herself ... when she had the option to go to [the nearby town of] Pitas, whether it is at a school or a public place that has good internet coverage?" he wrote on Facebook.
Zahidi, meanwhile, said the teenager was trying to "to make a name for herself".
In response, Veveonah posted a photo of her exam schedule on Instagram with the caption, "fake news is dangerous", before going silent on social media.
The two politicians faced widespread backlash for what the public perceived as the bullying of a young woman, and many Malaysians leapt to Veveonah's defence, including the science minister Khairy Jamaluddin, who described the remarks as "silly".
"It has resulted in a very embarrassing episode for the government. The deputy ministers concerned doubled down on their [foolishness]," said Khairy, who later met Veveonah in Sabah.
Ex-minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan, from Sabah, asked detractors to leave Veveonah alone, praising her "courage and strength of character".
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, 95, released a TikTok video praising Veveonah; while opposition strongman Lim Guan Eng demanded that the politicians who had started the online witch hunt against Veveonah step down.
As outrage grew, Abdul Rahim deleted his post and Zahidi faced scrutiny over his own academic qualifications. While the deputy communications minister claimed to have earned an MBA from the US-based "Global University", efforts by local media to verify the information with the institution had failed.
Observers say the gaffe could cost the ruling coalition at the state-level polls.
Sabah's election was triggered after a slew of politicians defected to other parties, leading to a possibility the state could fall into the hands of the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition, which holds a slim majority in parliament. The saga has now made the outcome less clear.
"The Veveonah issue is a big one among younger voters in Sabah, and politicians will be using this as one of the main issues to speak out against the Perikatan Nasional government," said James Chin of Tasmania University's Asia Institute.
"Nearly 50 per cent of the voters are under 30, so the young people will decide the election outcome," he said. "Sabahans are already angry because in terms of infrastructure, they lag behind the peninsula, and this is an example of how politicians ignore the reality of Sabahans."
Sabah senator Adrian Lasimbang said there were students in the state who had to "climb hills for 30 to 40 minutes" to get an internet signal, pointing out that the country's National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan (NFCP) under the previous Pakatan Harapan government had promised enhanced internet access with a speed of 500Mbps by 2022.
The Perikatan Nasional coalition came to power in February after cobbling together an alliance consisting of defectors from both the previous Pakatan Harapan coalition, which was dethroned in a coup, and from the earlier Barisan Nasional regime that was turfed out in the 2018 general election.
While Perikatan Nasional holds federal power, with Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin at the helm, Pakatan Harapan has maintained a hold on several of Malaysia's 13 states.
Former Sabah chief minister Annuar Musa, who was a key player in attempting the coup, said the Veveonah issue "should be an eye-opener for us".
The government has to "accept the reality that many villages, especially those in the interior of Sabah and Sarawak, need better infrastructure facilities, including a better communications network", he wrote in a post on Twitter.
"Work on it and stop being in denial," he said.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.