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Malaysia on right track to be winner in Digital Economy

  • Strong interest in CS & IT over past five years also raises demand for lecturers
  • Malaysia ranked 11th in IMD’s World Digital Competitiveness for Training & Education

Malaysia on right track to be winner in Digital Economy

Prof Dr Lee Sze Wei, President of Tunku Abdul Rahman University College (TARUC) has a problem. And it’s one that Prof Dr Ahmad Rafi, President of Multimedia University (MMU) in Cyberjaya can relate to. Due to the strong demand for their respective Computer Science (CS) and IT programs over the past four to five years, with a near doubling of students, recruiting faculty to cater to the demand has been challenging.

So much so, that Lee notes, “my hiring of faculty for my CS and IT departments is a constant year round exercise. It never stops.”

The Malaysian Qualifications Agency, a statutory agency that accredits academic programs provided by educational institutions has a mandatory 15:1 ratio of students to faculty.

Looking at it pragmatically, Lee notes that it is a good problem to have instead of a lack of demand. “The more successful our CS & IT programs are the more we have become victims of our success.” The strong demand and high mobility of digital talent has made it difficult for TARUC to match industry packages and attract some of its grads to pursue post-graduate options, some of which can lead the students to then join academia. It is also tougher to attract seasoned industry executives to pursue academic careers.

MMU’s Rafi can totally relate to Lee’s position, having experienced strong demand in the CS & IT programmes MMU offers in its Cyberjaya and Melaka campuses since at least 2015. Rafi has resorted to bringing in industry practitioners to teach some classes to help his faculty cope. TARUC has done the same.

Both presidents also share that the strong interest in CA & IT has expanded to Data Science and Cybersecurity programs as well. With both reporting near 100% graduate employability. Meanwhile the CEO of Asia Pacific University (APU), Dr Parmjit Singh, tells DNA that he currently has 600 students majoring in Cyber Security.

The strong interest in digital programs does not surprise the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), the principal driver of the Digital Economy in Malaysia. Keenly aware of the strong demand that the digital economy will create for digital savvy talent, the agency has, since 2015, been working with secondary school counsellors and students to promote digital careers. (chart below)

Malaysia on right track to be winner in Digital Economy

As Sumitra Nair, MDEC’s Vice President of Talent Development and Digital Entrepreneurship, tells it, MDEC subsequently kicked its talent drive into overdrive by creating a premier level of education institutions that produce higher quality digital talent. “This is our Premier Digital Tech Institutions or PDTI that we introduced in 2017 with 13 members. In 2019 this was expanded to 16 members,” she explains.

To be sure, the PDTI is not a gimmicky marketing label. The institutions, which include both universities and polytechnic schools, have to meet a set of criteria that lead to a conducive learning ecosystem. The PDTI are chosen not just by bureaucrats but with industry players as well. The criteria looked at include – employability of students, industry experience of the teaching staff, student mentoring, how strong the final year projects are, research linkages with industry and career placement services for students.

Next comes the upgrading of the CS and IT-related programmes of these institutions to be more industry relevant for students to graduate with needed skills. Both TARUC and MMU are PDTIs as is APU.

All these action points lead to the strengthening of the digital talent pool and pipeline and is crucial to MDEC’s goal of establishing Malaysia as the Heart of Digital ASEAN.

As Rafi notes, “we are preparing our students for careers in fast growing and fast changing digital sectors, we cannot let our programs fall behind as otherwise what our students learn will be obsolete by the time they graduate.” (Chart below for PDTI impact over the first two years of 2017-2018. Note that 2019 data can only be validated by Q1 2020)

As a result MMU keeps very close tabs on industry needs and priorities, “not the companies”, stresses Rafi as addressing company needs will leave students with too narrow a skill set.

Malaysia on right track to be winner in Digital Economy

On the pace of change, Lee believes that no job today is “guaranteed to survive for the rest of your career with the world changing so fast.” Even teaching is not safe. “The job of lecturing may not exist in its current form anymore in the future,” he ventures.

To him, the most important thing is for people to equip themselves with the competency they need for the career they want to pursue in the near future. But with the caveat that a major part of this competency be digital competency.

Speed matters as well. “Most importantly make yourself able to learn throughout your life and learn fast. You need skills for the immediate job but with change happening so fast, you also need to unlearn and learn new things.”

If that’s asking a lot of today’s talent, the only consolation is that this is not a challenge unique to Malaysia. Coping with the pace of change and equipping oneself with digital competency is a global challenge.

It is a challenge that has to be met if Malaysia is to be a winner in the digital economy. And some global reports suggest that Malaysia is on the right track.

The most recent being IMD’s World Digital Competitiveness 2019 Ranking which studies 51 criteria across 63 countries. Malaysia’s progress as a digital economy saw it ranked 26. Even more impressive, among countries with over 20 million population, Malaysia ranked 11th.

Looking at the details further, Knowledge was ranked as one of the three key groups looked at and described as “Know-how necessary to discover, understand and build new technologies”. Talent, Training & Education Scientific Concentration were three sub-sectors here. Malaysia ranked 22 for Talent and 11 for Training and Education.

Malaysia on right track to be winner in Digital Economy

To be sure, with there being a global race among leading nations to be winners in the digital economy, Malaysia cannot rest on its laurels, content with being among the top 30 digitally competitive nations in the world. After all, Malaysia was ranked 21st in the inaugural 2015 rankings.

The point being, while we have progressed, so to have others, quicker. And this is a message MDEC has taken to heart as it works to not just develop top digital talent in the education system but also among the larger pool of those already in the workforce to equip them with the right skills needed for the digital economy. As TARUC President, Lee says, talent today needs to be able to unlearn and learn new things fast. “It requires a different mindset,” he says.

Already the mindset among students and parents on the viability of careers in technology has seen a big turnaround. At a recent education fair, TARUC staff were fielding lots of inquiries from parents and students about Data Science and CS. “I am very happy to see that, especially in the context of a fast developing country like Malaysia, where we will miss the boat for the 4th Industrial Revolution to transform the economy, if we do not produce enough relevant manpower.”

In the next article, we will dive into some initiatives for the existing workforce and their impact.

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