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Malaysia's battle plan for digital disruption: part 1 of an exclusive with MDEC’s Dato' Yasmin

AvantiKumar | May 3, 2017
''All sectors of business and civilian life in Malaysia must act on the challenge to either - disrupt or be disrupted,' MDEC CEO Dato' Yasmin Mahmood told Computerworld Malaysia.

She also gave the examples of the solar roof tiles developed by Tesla Inc., as well as about new research into creating more resilient and self-sustaining trees. "I don't even know what is happening in the area of quantum physics. If you couple together all of that, the world is becoming so disruptive! So, I think the one that closest to us right now is the combination of BDA, IoT - well, it's all about data, right? It's all about the power of data."

"The ways in which data is transforming from being prescriptive to being predictive is changing lives at an amazing rate - and that Malaysia needed to take advantage of this," Yasmin said. "Malaysians are great digital consumers - but our talents need groomed towards being digital creators. You have got to liberate their minds; creators need to have their minds liberated."

 Government as catalyst

 When asked to comment on whether the introduction of more and more technology carries the risk of making talent obsolete, Yasmin reiterated that such fears did not consider how adaptable people could be. "It's all about the people - but it's about the people having the right talent and the right mind-sets. It's about future-proofing your business: how do you 'future-proof' Uber for example? How do you future-proof the finance industry? And from a government perspective, how do you future-proof a whole nation?"

She said that from the perspective of what can be done and what platforms can be built, governments can achieve a lot. "Maybe I can paint it in a bigger stroke, because I am representing the government. I am a firm believer that government should be a catalyst for the private sector - but there are a few things that only government can do.

Yasmin also offered examples of Bank Negara Governor Datuk Muhammad Ibrahim's call for fintech to be "as disruptive as you possibly can in the sandbox", as well as how the Land Public Transport Commission (SPAD) was currently dealing with the consequences of new ride-sharing apps with respect to regulatory framework and infrastructure.

 The talent conundrum

 The most important factor in influencing the success of the Digital Economy was talent, she said. "Two-and-a-half years ago when I first joined MDEC, people asked me what keeps me awake at night, and I would say: 'Talent!' Nowadays, it's not the last thing that I think about at night anymore - because adoption is another thing that keeps me awake now. Adoption, especially amongst our local corporates, our SMEs is something that really concerns me."

Yasmin said that the current and future waves of disruption would have an important impact on talent with regards to work. "Jobs will be disrupted; jobs will be eliminated. There is a statistic made available recently that talks about the fact that if you are a child who has just entered the school and education system right now, it is said that there is a 65% chance of them getting into a job that doesn't even exist right now, when they come out to work."

Rather than look at this in a negative way, she focuses on exciting future opportunities. "Jobs will be eliminated for sure - but there will be new jobs that will be created. These are jobs that really sound exciting! Drone traffic controller; drone traffic optimiser; digital data privacy consultant - somebody who needs to look at the privacy of your digital assets! And there many different such jobs. In fact, I think we need to look at this website that Microsoft and LinkedIn just co-created, that talks about if you are passionate about technology and your passion is into fashion, you can become a material design consultant/economist."

 Producing thinkers

 She said that these new kinds of jobs meant that proper implementation of new and inclusive education policies were needed. "How do we prepare our kids to deal with these new jobs? We are talking about immediate talent here."

"We've looked into these things. Last year in 2016, we had an experiment which encompasses us taking SPM graduates and SPM school leavers and got them into a room - about 600 of them, the top ones," said Yasmin. "Before that, we asked them: 'How many of you are thinking into getting into a computer science or computer-related course?' Shockingly, less than 20 percent said that they were considering such an option."

This result prompted MDEC to take charge in this area. "We created a boot camp for these students over a weekend, and we got the industry players to come in, too. We educated them about what's out there in the startup ecosystem - that it's not just about being a programmer in a bank, which they still think is the only option. I am happy to say that it was a success: at the end of that boot camp, when we asked the same question again, the results were 85 percent interest," she said.

Yasmin emphasised that MDEC was looking into making sure that the best students out there choose the right courses, regardless of whether they were from public schools or private schools. "We are going to have change this trend where they don't see the relevance of being tech savvy - and we are going to have to do a lot of things. Our No. 1 priority right now is to make sure that the kids who are good with maths and who have a good passion for technology go into the top schools."

"What we are doing right now is to create what we call 10 Premier Digital Technology Universities - these will be the universities that we have identified, that have got highly relevant and very good courses for computer science and IT-related subjects, and we are mapping the good kids with these good universities right now," she said.

Yasmin said that what was now widely unanimous throughout the whole education ecosystem was that imparting skills was not enough. "We have to teach them how to think. And if you look at it, I came from one of the industries where I was one of the most sceptical critics of the education system - both in and out of the country. But now that I have come into a position where I can do something about it instead of just complaining about it - now I can say: 'Let's just get something done!'."

She said the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 allows for the transformations that are needed to bring about the new digital world to happen. "It is more of the execution - and that is why what we did here in Malaysia is something that I think that we should be very proud of; certainly, we at MDEC and the Ministry of Education certainly are proud of it. We are one of the first countries in the region that has embedded computer science and computational thinking into our formal school curriculum."

"I am not sure how many of you are aware of that, but our kids now in the Primary Schools are learning algorithms and sequencing, even as they are learning their core subjects," Yasmin added. "When they go into the Secondary Schools, they are learning things like PHP, and Java, and even R or Python programming."

 What about the work culture challenge?

  One of the biggest challenges facing companies now was making sure that the newly-nurtured talent could be fully integrated into the existing work structures as seamlessly as possible, she said. "For me, it just seems to be resistance to change - and that is quite normal. We spoke about investing a skill set - but breaking through the work culture is perhaps one of the biggest steps that a company has to cross."

Yasmin said that there was often a bit of a tension because people in the management level were not necessarily fully aware of just how much change is needed. "They do understand; they do hear about what needs to be done - but they have not really internalised it. They have not really embraced the pace - and the extent with which they have to change."

This is in stark contrast to the new workers. "The younger ones are ready to embrace change, and they are the ones who are ready to disrupt - but they are coming in at the entry level. Their voices are not necessarily heard - therefore, they realise that they are being very ineffective. And with the young generation, with the millennials and the Gen Y, when they are not feeling relevant, then they will just move," she said. "The melding and coming together of the two cultures is going to happen across the board, in companies, in universities, in schools, and even in societies. It needs to happen."

 The silver lining: Innovation

  Moving on, Yasmin said "more and more corporates are actually embracing change and disruption, which will lead to innovation. They are doing it, embracing the different models - it is really to capitalise on the startups. Innovation pushes the envelope - and this can be done by a group of small people who have passion and who have a dream."

She warned, though, that if new people are merely brought in to an organisation that is already set in their ways and are unwilling to embrace change, it will prove to be an ineffective strategy. "What I see now are a lot of corporations investing into how to work with startups. In the past, they would just throw money at the problem - but the scalability of it was not as fast."

"And once you find something, then how do you embed it into company? How do you then bring it in, and make it sustainable in your existing culture? These are some of the things that we are trying to help organisations come to grips with," said Yasmin. "The first thing that needs to be done is to get them to realise one thing: 'I want to do it!' But once they have realised that, then how are they going to go about doing it? That is what we have to do - and that is a point on talent."

Yasmin added that it was vital for local SMEs to start realising IT's role as 'business enabler' to their existing business models.

"Regardless of circumstances, my advice to companies and individuals is a saying that I learnt in my younger years, and that has helped me through the test of time, and that is:
'Good, better, best
Never let it rest,
Until good becomes better,
And better becomes best!"

[The second part of the feature (4 May 2017) looks into why entrepreneurship is being prioritised and how the recently launched Digital Hub will really work for the Digital Economy. You may also b einterested in a Deep Dive interview with Dato'Yasmin on the Digital Economy in part 1 and here is part 2.]

The latest edition of this article lives at Computerworld Malaysia.


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