Fed up with poor internet access in her village, a plucky 18-year-old Malaysian girl decided to get creative by climbing up a tree to obtain better signal, building her own study area, and hunkering down there during online exams.
Veveonah Mosibin filmed herself carrying out the project near her home in the East Malaysian state of Sabah and shared it on her YouTube channel on June 13. The video quickly went viral - earning her the title of Malaysia’s “Treetop girl” as well as a local scholarship for her determination and commitment to education.
“I never thought that I would go viral,” she told The Star newspaper, adding that she didn’t expect to receive that much public attention. Many Malaysians applauded Veveonah’s efforts and said her treetop studies highlighted the alarming lack of accessibility and resources facing villagers across the country.
Poor internet connectivity plagues many parts of sprawling Malaysia, especially in rural villages and hilly areas. The issue has always been politically-charged in a country that boasts of development but was revived in parliament on Monday, September 7 when a male member of parliament challenged Veveonah’s account.
Deputy finance minister and MP Abdul Rahim Bakri, 59, attacked the teenager’s account, saying she had “faked” her situation as “a stunt to gain attention and publicity”.
“If she had fallen, it would have been a disaster not only for the family but also to the country,” Rahim said.
He added that he ordered a probe into Veveonah’s story.
“I asked a local officer from a neighboring village to investigate the matter. From his findings, after interviewing two village heads, we learned that the Sabah student and her family left their village long ago as her father works in another town,” Rahim said in a now-deleted Facebook post, reported the Kuala Lumpur-based Malay Mail newspaper. His sentiments echoed another Malaysian minister, Zahidi Zainul Abidin, who earlier accused Veveonah of faking her plight to garner views for her YouTube channel.
Opposition politicians moved swiftly to criticize and rebuke Rahim, with former deputy minister of women, family and community development Hannah Yeoh calling it “a form of cyberbullying”.
Former Malaysian youth minister Syed Saddiq, who regularly advocates for youth causes, called Rahim out for skirting the main issue: unreliable internet access in rural communities.
“From wasting time and energy to belittle Veveonah, it’s better to focus on expanding the internet network in Sabah,” Syed Saddiq tweeted.
The news hit Malaysian Twitter and began trending under the hashtag #WeStandWithVeveonah where hundreds of users attacked the minister. “All this energy to bully Veveonah but not to see the core problem,” said one Twitter user. “Witch hunt on an 18-year-old,” tweeted Jalil Rasheed. “We need political maturity to prevail and priorities to be set straight. Leave her alone.”
Cheryl Fernando, a school principal, wrote: “Every time a young person tries to speak up, they get told they are lying, exaggerating or that they should be lucky because things used to be ‘so bad back in the day’. This can lead to our kids not speaking up about abuse, injustice and just generally when they see something isn’t right.”
Malaysian journalist Zurairi A. R., also a local columnist at the Malay Mail, told VICE News that the incident reflects the “patriarchal sides of Malay culture.”
But those mindsets are being challenged by a “new generation who is resisting and wants to be less shackled by tradition.” “They do not wish to be complicit with this kind of prejudice,” he said.