This month Policy World talks to Datuk Yasmin Mahmood, CEO, Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC)
Q. Datuk Yasmin Mahmood, in interviews you have said you were surprised to be offered the role of CEO of the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) in 2014, as you had always worked within the private sector. What was it that made you see this as a positive role and who are your stakeholders and ‘shareholders’ now?
A. Yes, in September 2014, I accepted the national calling of becoming CEO of Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), thereby fulfilling a life purpose of serving the nation by making a difference and utilising my expertise and experience for the betterment of Malaysia. In particular, and besides technology, public-private partnerships is an area that’s close to my heart and, when done successfully, ensures sustainable growth for a country.
Q. The remit of MDEC is both wide ranging and ambitious – you look to encourage economic growth through technology policy and the development of the digital economy within Malaysia, but you also are actively developing and promoting an international footprint. How can both these areas be balanced–the domestic and the international at the same time?
A. Last year was a very important year for Malaysia’s Digital Economy having been marked as “our Year of the Internet Economy.” The digital economy has so much potential – not only as an industry on its own, but also in how it can impact the other industries. Currently, we are continuing to build upon the strong momentum established last year – and in preceding ones – to ensure that the Digital Economy continues to be an engine of growth for the Malaysian economy.
At the end of the day, and as part of balancing the domestic and the international areas, we also need to strengthen Malaysia’s trade credentials. We are a trading country, and trade now is going for eCommerce. It is going to be so disruptive that if we, as a trading nation, do not capitalise on eCommerce, it is going to marginalise us economically.
In the past, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that had great products found it very difficult to do cross-border trade. In order to export, they had to deal with foreign exchange, the Customs Officers of all the involved countries – many factors, for which only some had the capability of dealing with. What we are doing now is what we call the ‘Uberisation’ of cross-border trade; it is going to be end-to-end, and I am really excited about this initiative.
The most important initiative that Malaysia created in 2017 for this area was the establishment of the Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ), which is a major regional eHub. It includes a major digital component of a free-trade zone, and it is about being optimised for eCommerce. So, part of the zone includes basically a physical location in KLIA Aeropolis, coupled with end-to-end digital systems. DFTZ will help SMEs facilitate cross-border transactions as well as ensure more seamless logistics.
The DFTZ – a joint undertaking between Chinese eCommerce conglomerate Alibaba Group and MDEC – was launched in March 2017 by Malaysia’s Prime Minister.
Q. ‘Empowerment’ is a word that you have used quite a lot, for example in relation to driving economic growth or giving people the skills to work within the digital ecosystem or bringing women into the workforce. What does this word mean for you and how can MDEC play a role?
A. Talent is another area of extreme importance. Based on studies, we estimate that 65 percent of children in schools today will end up working in new job types that don’t yet exist. It’s a moving goalpost. So how do you teach children things that don’t even exist yet? We are taking a bet, and this is a bet that people like Mark Zuckerberg and the Googles of the world are taking too. The bet is that you’ve got to teach kids to think. Not about the doing, but to think. And some of the things that have to be put into place is about critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, collaborative ideation, and much more.
Implementing computer science, coding, and programming in the education syllabus will trigger this. We have our #mydigitalmaker movement, which is a very important initiative – one that that we are adamant about doing well, because it is about helping to future-proof our kids and the next generation. We are embedding computer science and programming into the school curriculum, which should be fully integrated by the year 2021.
I feel really comforted by that, because at least our children – including girls – of the future generations will be growing up with the right kind of thinking skills.
We also seeing some great fulfilment with two other important national initiatives: the eRezeki and eUsahawan programmes. The Digital Economy cannot be a real economic driver for the country if it is not felt by all of the rakyat (trans: citizens), and we have to make sure that it is about the empowerment of the Bottom 40% (B40), as well as the youth throughout the whole country. Our two programmes have trained thousands, and we are very proud of to see our efforts bringing positive change into the lives of those who have gone through these programmes.
Q. The ‘digital ecosystem’ or ‘convergence’ are phrases that signal a coming together of many different technologies and services. When talking about the regulatory models – and the regulatory structures you work within – you offered the metaphor of ‘a lot of cooks trying to blend the Malaysian ecosystem ingredients’. Added to this is a world where national boundaries become hazy at best. How in your view, can Malaysia – or any country – create legal and regulatory conditions which will allow the effective digital transformation of its economy and bring positive benefits to its society?
A. The burgeoning Fourth Industrial Revolution talks about the pockets of innovation in a digital world. We have heard about Cloud Robotics, AI (artificial intelligence), the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, eCommerce, and all that. But if you converge it with what’s happening in the physical world, in the biosciences, in the area of life sciences, and other areas – you put all of this together, and it becomes a disruption that is really phenomenal – now this is both exciting and scary.
How are we going to prepare for it? How are we prepared to take which end of the stick? When there is disruption, there is a disruptee and a disruptor, and what end of the stick are we going to be? That’s why MDEC has a huge responsibility, because we have to help the nation when the majority of people are not only not aware of the coming winds of change but are actively dismissing it.
Against this background, we have made a few bets as a nation. As well as developing talent, which I talked about earlier, Malaysia is focusing on strengtening its bid as a Big Data Analytics (BDA) hub and on the building of a national startup ecosystem. Using a Digital Hubs approach – essentially spaces where ecosystems co-exist – Malaysia’s goal is to help to enrich the ecosystems in these areas.
Over recent years, many components have been put into place to ensure a vibrant startup ecosystem in Malaysia. First we need to continue to bring the community together, and also attract venture capital (VC) funding.
Why startups? Because they will be the job creators of the future. If you think about the innovation that I talked about just now, do you think that the large companies will be the people who will capitalise on those? In fact, I would dare say that it is the large companies that are the most prone to be disrupted. That is what will disrupt everything: It is the startups run by people with the passion, with the purpose, and with nothing to lose. Therefore, they will just go out there and push the envelope to drive you out with innovation.
For a digital economy to really be sustainable, we need to encourage local champions; and for it to be really significant for the country, we have got to make sure that we have our own version of tech goliaths. This is what we are doing right now; it is a very concerted effort, it is something that we started only three years ago when I came on board, to make sure that we have this fix. Malaysia has a small consumer base of 30 million, which points to our selecting companies, which have the vision to adopt cutting-edge technologies and regional or global growth vision.
There are a lot of local companies who are just very content with just sticking to the local market – but in our world right now, you cannot become big if you are not global. There are currently 100 companies under out care, and our vision is to make a company that makes RM1 billion in revenue.
The main thing that I am wary of is that people don’t see what’s coming; they tend to be in denial mode. They say: ‘OK, you know this is innovation, it’s very far away, and it’s not going to affect us.’ I worry about that, because it means that we are not even going to the first step of future-proofing ourselves, which is realising that we have to do something.
Putting aside the ecosystem, if you are a mother or father, and your kids want to get into the startup world, I think that it is something that we will have to live with. Because these are the people that are driven and with a purpose.
Fostering an entrepreneurial spirit in Malaysia includes staying on top of trends. From our conversations with various stakeholders and our counterparts in other parts of the world, this is becoming more of an issue for many countries. We have to continue to share experiences of initiatives that help to future-proof growth and innovation in an increasingly interconnected digital world.
Now, Malaysia – and even Asia as a whole – have to learn to view and accept an unpleasant truth: that entrepreneurs need the space to fail. Entrepreneurship is not something that sits very comfortably, in the Malaysian or even in the Asian context – because the possibility of failure is always there in the background. Failure should really be celebrated as another step in path to success – but this is not something that we can accept yet as a society. Having an entrepreneurial spirit also means that it is important to stay on top of innovative trends – because in most countries where there is a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, those are the very countries that will have the highest propensity to be able to be future-proof in the world of innovation.
Policy World talks to Datuk Yasmin Mahmood, CEO, Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC)
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