Moving Digital Malaysia forward, together
By Aaron Sarma February 21, 2021
- Adopt aggressive, rolling 18 month plans to achieve big wins
- Govt does not have to do this alone anymore, there is talent
On Friday, 19th of February the Malaysian Digital Economy Blueprint or MyDigital was unveiled as the foundation for Malaysia’s transformation into a “regional digital pulse” by 2030. To much fanfare, Mustapa Mohamed, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Economy) made opening remarks about the urgency and broad strokes of the plan. This was followed by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s speech to officially launch MyDigital.
The plan was a comprehensive 104 page document that covered many aspects of the digital economy with a sprinkling of budget items and programs. At its core is a National Digital Economy and 4IR Council chaired by the Prime Minister. The council alone would be a reason to celebrate. A sure sign that the highest levels in government understood that the digital economy is critical to the success of the nation.
I would agree.
As we emerge from this pandemic we are faced with a myriad of challenges. People who need basic connectivity. Students who are trying to get access to education. Businesses who are trying to digitise. And startups who are trying to build the future. People need to get back to work and technology is the key. In the context of the economic roadmap ahead of us, digital is destiny.
And yet, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed by the announcement. The plans, while comprehensive, seemed to lack a certain punch. My immediate take was that MyDigital as presented didn't feel aggressive enough and almost gives the impression that there's going to be more bureaucracy now. I fear that this blueprint doesn’t really help us become the pulse of the region but instead we will only continue chugging on at our current pace. I feel like the plan fails to meet the moment at a critical juncture for Malaysia - specifically as it pertains to the digital economy.
Here I would like to share three thoughts about the MyDigital Blueprint and how we can make it better together. To the crafters of the plan, this is not the clenched fist of critique, but an outstretched arm of partnership.
The fierce urgency of now
As I read the blueprint, a nagging feeling started creeping up on me. None more worrying than a fear that the goals and initiatives are not bold enough for a 10 year plan.
How can we claim that the goal of the blueprint is to only grow the digital economy’s contribution to the economy to 22.6% by 2025? Especially when in 2019 it was already 19.1% of the overall GDP and when we are living in the era of the most rapid digitisation in history.
How is it that the blueprint states that it will take 5 years to have 100% household internet connectivity when we are already at 90.1% today?
How can it take 5 years to have a 30% uplift in productivity when AI, automation and software already claim to have transformative powers?
We can certainly – and must do better. We can aim for the sky. In fact, we can’t afford not to. Why can’t we target for 100% household internet connectivity by end of next year? Why can’t we see a 30% uplift in productivity by end 2022 as well and why can’t the digital economy contribute 22.6% of GDP by the end of this year? Can we get all students access to online learning by the end of this year as well?
Timing is also important. Ten years is a long time. It’s probably the case that most of the people in the National Digital Economy and 4IR council won’t be sitting in those roles in the next decade. As a Malaysian who has seen the non-event that was Vision 2020 I am weary of long lofty plans that may never truly see the light of day. We need to move beyond platitudes, campaigns, slogans and hashtags to action and results.
Furthermore the digital needs of the country will evolve rapidly over the next decade. Moore’s law states that technology changes every 18 months. Many of the technologies that are buzzwords today like AI, Blockchain, Drone Tech will not be at the bleeding edge in 2030.
The Tip of the Spear
I wish there was more of a sense of focus. In the blueprint there is an emphasis on 6 sectors namely digital talent, digital infrastructure, new technologies, halal economy, society, and government. It's encouraging that the government is attempting to have an approach across the board. However, my concern is that this potpourri of programs may dilute our impact. We need to make hard choices and decide where Malaysia can truly excel and win.
Perhaps there should have been a focus on 4IR as a concerted effort in very specific industries like agriculture or SME digitisation. The focus on the halal economy makes sense for Malaysia as a Muslim majority nation but perhaps we should double down on our digital content industry that has had meaningful success over the last few years.
A focus on two or three industries where we have the opportunity to be leaders and to make a real difference to society and the economy will reap bigger returns than trying to win on many fronts but eventually being mediocre in everything. As the old adage goes, there is no point being a jack of all trades and a master of none.
And yes, this approach means that most sectors will not receive the special support of the two or three chosen ones. That’s necessary if government wants to really see some clear winners, on both regional and global levels. I truly believe that we will only emerge as a regional force if we pick our battles wisely.
Be Lean and Mean
A key component of MyDigital is the council itself. Admittedly this was the part I was most excited about. An initiative to grow the digital economy not merely championed by an agency but driven by the Economic Planning Unit with the Prime Minister as its helm. This is a big deal. I'm excited that the leader of the nation is leading the direction of the digital economy. It underscores how important this agenda is for the nation and how the digital economy is not just a part of the economy today but is the future of our economy.
However, just looking at the monolithic box in the blueprint document gives me the chills. The structure that has been released seems like a red tape extravaganza with a lot of entrenched interests. While the chairperson is indeed the Prime Minister, each cluster consists of multiple agencies and ministries providing input.
The role of the private sector almost seems passive. The private sector should be equal partners in championing this initiative and their input should drive the agenda, not the other way around.
The bottom line is that execution is important. In fact, execution is everything. I’m concerned that the governance structure is too fat. This is not the face of a national digital transformation. It’s a monument to bureaucracy. There needs to be an agile, leaner (but empowered) structure to ensure impact.
Farther and faster together
So where does that leave us. Am I saying that we should scrap the MyDigital Blueprint and start over? Hardly. I know first hand the complexity of moving government machinery towards a goal. And generally speaking the programs aren’t inherently poorly conceived.
However, if the name of the game is to have impact, and if we are to be the pulse of the region, we need to make big things happen now. To achieve this I propose a targeted roll out over a shorter period. One where we pick specific goals and race to make it happen. An aggressive 18 month plan to achieve some big wins.
For example, instead of targeting 5,000 startups by 2025 - can we create 1,500 by end 2022? Maybe we can help 200,000 SMEs digitise in this period. Perhaps we can list the top 20 tech companies in Malaysia and back one unicorn in the next 18 months. How can we get every student in the country online by the end of this year? By narrowing the timeframe and moderating the targets accordingly we will be able to drive transformation at a meaningful rate.
Accountability to inspire buy-in
Then, add accountability to the plan. Have the secretariat of the council release a report to the public every 3 months about how each initiative is progressing. Perhaps build a live dashboard to measure metrics and progress on each agenda item. The more the rakyat knows the more we can contribute and support the MyDigital agenda and the more we will feel a part of it.
Finally, collaborate with the private sector more. It’s not merely enough to have passive participation at the council level. Involve the private sector in the execution of the agenda. We aren’t in 1996 anymore where the government was literally developing the digital economy from scratch in an oil palm plantation in Sepang, Selangor (the location of Cyberjaya).
Through the efforts of governments past and present we now have successful entrepreneurs and businesses in the digital economy. There are ecosystem builders. There is talent in the market. The government does not have to do this alone anymore. In the next 18 months, the public sector, in partnership with the private sector and academia can make a huge impact.
This is a critical moment in the digital development of the country. In a time where we are seeing our regional neighbours pulling ahead of us, we have a unique opportunity to turn the tide. People need solutions today. Businesses need access to digital solutions now. Children need access to online education immediately. Innovators need empowerment to make a difference for tomorrow. The next 18 months could be the birth of a new digital era for Malaysia.
Let’s go build, together!
Aaron Sarma is a serial entrepreneur who successfully exited his startup in 2019. He has also spent time as a consultant at Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation working on several strategic papers. He is an early stage investor primarily through Scaleup Malaysia where he serves as General Partner. He can be reached at [email protected]