Nazrin Hassan: The shining light of the Malaysian entrepreneur ecosystem
By Dr. Sivapalan Vivekarajah June 20, 2018
- He saw the gaps in the ecosystem and came up with policy suggestions to fill them
- As much as he loved entrepreneurship, his greatest love was his family
ON FRIDAY, June 15, the first day of Hari Raya Aidil Fitri, I said a final farewell to my best friend Nazrin Hassan. As I bowed to kiss his cloth-shrouded forehead, I whispered, “Farewell my friend, take care of yourself, wherever you are”. I wanted to say more, but I choked as I was overcome with emotion. My best friend of almost 20 years had tragically passed away at the young age of 45. He held so much promise in this new Malaysia but before he could fulfil this promise he was gone, taken away from us, without warning.
I first met Nazrin in 2001 when he pitched his business idea at the first ever business plan competition in Malaysia, the MSC-McKinsey business plan competition. He was articulate, passionate and smart and presented his case well. However, he didn’t win and came in third. But in that instant, I saw a bright young man of 27 who held much promise. We became fast friends and I inducted him into the Technopreneurs Association of Malaysia (TeAM), which I had then just formed to give Technopreneurs a voice in the formulation of government policy that impacted them.
He chose the funding and finance portfolio as he felt his investment banking background (his first job was with CIMB) would help him. He put his heart and soul into TeAM especially funding and was instrumental in developing a proposal for the government to provide grants to startups to give them a start in building their business ventures. In the early 2000s this was the biggest problem startups had. Venture capitalists were a rare breed and they didn’t fund the startup stage anyway and there were no business angels then either. Without startup funding entrepreneurship will never get off the ground and business cannot flourish.
TeAM and Nazrin especially, pitched the idea of providing grant funding all the way up to the then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed in May 2003, and the Minister of Science and Technology at that time, Jamaluddin Jarjis agreed to fund this idea. That was the birth of Cradle. This was the biggest policy win for the ecosystem and to date Cradle has funded hundreds of startups and given many their first funding rounds. Many entrepreneurs will tell you that when no one believed in them, Cradle did and that gave them the boost they needed to build a successful startup. We often talk about Grab (then MyTeksi) receiving their first funding round from Cradle, but so did many others and many of these entrepreneurs were at the funeral to pay their respects to the one person who made such a difference to them – Nazrin Hassan.
Nazrin was actively engaged in the ecosystem and just about everyone knew him. A humble and honest man, he was never one to seek the limelight or brag about his achievements. He went about quietly doing great things for entrepreneurs. He was approachable and was probably the only government agency CEO that would meet any entrepreneur who wanted to speak to him. He had no airs about him and he gained the respect of his colleagues and the ecosystem, a respect that no one else in the ecosystem has or ever will have.
Nazrin was also the most honest and straightforward man I knew. Integrity was a word always mentioned in association with Nazrin. If ever there were a base measure on human integrity and honesty, Nazrin would be the person you would measure against. He never did anything to benefit himself. He was passionate about helping entrepreneurs and everything he did was with their interest at heart, not his.
Not many people will know that Nazrin was the first CEO of Cradle when it was set up. That was one of the conditions the government gave. As Nazrin was the one who proposed Cradle he had to get it set up. So, he left his own business venture to set up Cradle. About three years later when Cradle was running smoothly, he left to go back to entrepreneurship. Cradle then floundered and for a few years it was sinking. The call went out to him again in 2007 to return to rescue Cradle. Reluctantly, he came back and today Cradle is a successful agency that is one of the few performing agencies within the government. This was his national service. “If your country needs you, you must respond to its call”, was what he told me when he returned to Cradle.
Nazrin was also a brilliant individual. He was as smart as he was articulate. He also was that rare breed of entrepreneur who has a policy mind. While most entrepreneurs could only think of business, Nazrin was brilliant with policy. He could see the gaps in the ecosystem and came up with policy suggestions to fill those gaps.
One of his most recent policy moves was the Angel Tax Incentive (ATI) for business angels to invest in startups. Not wanting the government to continue supporting entrepreneurs indefinitely with grants, Nazrin felt the private sector needed to play a bigger role in providing early-stage funding for entrepreneurs. He proposed the ATI and after several years of lobbying, the government finally agreed. Today we have this incentive and are beginning to see more angel funding in the ecosystem.
If there was one weakness in him, it was that Nazrin was a stubborn person. He always gave you space to state your opinions but when he made up his mind, it was almost impossible to change it. His Cradle colleagues would sometimes ask me to talk to him because they often said that the only person he would listen to was me. Many a time I spent talking to him at his favourite joint, The Apartment at The Curve and many a time he convinced me that he was right instead. He was brilliant that way. But I too managed to work my magic with him occasionally. I treasure those conversations we had.
He considered me his mentor because I brought him into TeAM and opened up the fantastic possibilities of the ecosystem to this passionate young man. When everyone thought he was just another young entrepreneur wanna-be, I believed in him. He then did the same for hundreds of entrepreneurs. When no one believed in them, he did and he gave them a helping hand without asking for anything. And he got their respect and love in return.
Taking entrepreneurship to the next level in Malaysia
We also spoke about advising the new government on policies to take entrepreneurship to the next level in Malaysia. He was worried that if the right people didn’t advise the new government and if the wrong people did they will do all the wrong things. This would do a great disservice to the ecosystem. We were just discussing who to get into this advisory group the week before his death. Now we have lost the most passionate advocate for policy change, I’m not sure I have the energy to do this on my own.
On a darker note, these last few weeks he was very disturbed with what has been happening in the ecosystem. He discovered that all was not well with the many programmes that were done in the ecosystem. There were misappropriations of funds, projects done supposedly for entrepreneurs but with kickbacks to higher ups and people in trusted positions breaching that trust, including some of his friends, people whom he trusted. This broke his heart and led to his utter disappointment with many leaders in the ecosystem. He even “unfriended” many of these friends on Facebook and for someone who loved Facebook this was indeed a big thing.
Although many people knew about these things, no one would or could speak up because there was a culture of fear under the old regime. Anyone that spoke up was dealt with fast and furious and their positions and contracts could be terminated in an instant. Before his death he wanted to do something to bring this wrongdoing to light.
He was also disappointed with the media (including DNA) for not properly investigating these matters and for making heroes out of villains. In one of our Whatsapp exchanges he said, “I hope one day, the other side of the story comes out. While the whole country cleans-up, our ecosystem still treats sacked villains who have sold out and robbed our country like heroes. I have never been so ashamed to be part of this ecosystem.”
These things kept him awake at night. I tried to help him the best I could and we agreed that we would talk to other media who were prepared to do some in-depth investigation. This was just a few days before his untimely death.
As much as he loved entrepreneurship, his greatest love was his family whom he adored. Despite a couple of failed marriages, he finally found true happiness with his five boys and wife Samirah Muzaffar. I will take some credit for matching them. Some years ago, I set up TeAM Policy Institute and invited both of them to be in the Committee. Little did I know that love would blossom and they finally got married. He was finally happy in his personal life.
His love for his football team Arsenal was also legendary. We will all miss his crystal ball football predictions on Facebook. He was biased of course and in all his predictions Arsenal will only win or draw, never lose. This was the only bias Nazrin ever had. It’s sad that he will not see his beloved team’s performance under a new manager.
In Nazrin’s untimely death, I have lost my dearest friend, but the ecosystem has lost its darling son. The nation will no longer benefit from his wisdom, courage, honesty and passion. His love for entrepreneurship and his desire to create a better environment for entrepreneurship was second to none. While many seek benefits for themselves, Nazrin desired nothing for himself. He gave the last 15 years of his life to entrepreneurship and his beloved Cradle. We have lost a good man. And we are that much poorer for this.
Yes, we will mourn his loss, but more importantly we must celebrate his life. He did more than most men ever will. The best measure of a man is what he does for his fellow men and he did plenty. He helped hundreds of entrepreneurs to achieve their dreams, to build successful companies that contribute back to the nation and provide employment to many. He gave unselfishly of himself, so that others could have a better life. He never did anything for himself; he did everything he could for entrepreneurs, the nation and his family. So, don’t just mourn his loss, but celebrate a life well spent in the pursuit of greatness not for himself but for humankind. In that Nazrin was a giant. He can stand tall on judgement day that he acquitted himself well on earth. He will get his rewards, of that I am absolutely sure.
His death has however, made me question why a God that is merciful and kind would take the life of such a wonderful person. Why leave this void in our hearts? The only explanation that I can accept is my wife Lily’s. She said that God probably needs more Angels and only good people can be Angels. That’s why good people die young. I find some comfort in this even if this may seem ridiculous. Yes, if God needs Angels, he has found the best in Nazrin.
As I end this tribute to Nazrin, I go back to what I wanted to say to him when I said my farewell to him on Friday. I wanted to say, “Farewell my dear friend, take care of yourself wherever you are. One day we will meet again and we will take another journey of discovery in the afterlife. I will miss you dear Nazrin. I will miss you terribly. Now go on your next journey I am sure He has bigger plans for you.”