He was speaking at a session on “smart education” at yesterday’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Malaysia is made up of 14 states, which are spread over two main islands and a number of smaller islands in the Sea of China. According to Mr Yeoh, the dispersed nature of its country created a “digital divide” between students in its city schools and those in rural areas.
“A rural kid in Malaysia has always been given the short straw when it comes to education,” he said.
“The Malaysian government wanted to give the same level of education to children in rural areas as the international kid in Kuala Lumpur who pays $50,000 a year gets. It wanted to produce 21st century-educated children and it wanted to give every kid the same chance.
“We simply couldn’t continue to turn out 80,000 school-leavers a year who were unable — or weren’t properly prepared — to get a job in the marketplace. The government had the vision, but it needed to partner with private companies to realise the vision.”
Malaysia has a nationalised education system. The government began the project in 2013, following the publication of a ministry of education blueprint paper. It invested $850m (€760m) in providing technology for the 10,000 schools in the coun-try. It included a “one device per child” scheme that distributed 200,000 computer devices to rural-based children.
Its partners included Google and YTL Corporation, having tendered the project to more than 20 international competitors.
“It is amazing now to look at the eyes of the children who have benefited from this project,” said Mr Yeoh.
“You can see that spark in their eyes. You can see the passion. I know we will have the next Steve Jobs as a result.
“I’ve seen a poor fishing village where the whole village put together the money so it could subsidise the government scheme and buy a Google Chromebook for every child.
“The children can view presentations and videos. The teachers can download the best teaching materials. The access to this technology allows them to experience knowledge beyond what was possible. Before children had to be in an expensive classroom to get a good education in Malaysia; now because we have provided 4G connectivity, once they have their Google Chromebook, they can be sitting in a field to get it.”
Mr Yeoh said there were twinning programmes between rural schools and “smarter schools” in the city. Rural children can ask questions about subjects from children in these city schools over the internet.
“It’s really useful for research and for English-language classes. The children are finding that online dictionaries are faster than conventional dictionaries. It really helps with language proficiency.”
Mr Yeoh said government officials from several African countries have visited Malaysia to study its “smart” education system.
“The Finnish government came to study this model,” he added. “Finland is one of best countries in the world when it comes to education. It shows how successful the initiative has been.”