Seeing ourselves as creators, not merely consumers

  • Malaysia is digitally savvy but startups often find it difficult to thrive
  • Economy Ministry launches innovation hackathon open to all Malaysians

Minister of Economy and Pandan MP - Rafizi Ramli.

Our mobile and internet penetration, online shopping pervasiveness, digital payments maturity and social media usage are one of the highest in the world. We are even considered “digital life leaders” and not merely followers.

On the other hand, we rank low on innovation and creativity.

Our Global Innovation Index score has declined steeply and consistently over the past decade, from 46.9 in 2013 to 38.7 in 2022.

According to the World Bank, only 10.5 percent of Malaysian firms engage in research and development and a smaller 3.5 percent have introduced new products in the last three years.

Our patent applications, a marker of innovation, lag behind our peers and our rate of commercialisation of research and development had stagnated for a long time.

What does this mean? It means that as a nation, we are ever ready to try out new products and technology that come to the market, but we rarely see ourselves as creators of these products.

Part of the reason is that well-meaning innovators and start-ups often find it hard to thrive in an environment that is unconducive to succeed.

While pockets of funding, infrastructure and networking exist, they are neither holistic nor sustained. I could empathise with Malaysian start-up founders who now share pessimism for government-led initiatives.

My time as a start-up founder during my sabbatical from public life gave me first-hand experience in the start-up ecosystem, and it has convinced me that we still have a way to go in fully harnessing our start-ups to their full potential.

The few shining examples of Malaysian start-ups that made it big are exceptions to the norm.

Years of operating in an environment stifling innovation had convinced many disappointed Malaysians to roll back on creativity and no longer see themselves as part of the solution.

This, in turn, creates a vicious cycle of further shrinking the pool of innovators that perpetuates a risk-averse and passive culture.

Basic questions spur innovation

Another reason is a more common fear of the unknown. Whenever we mention the word “innovation”, many will think of complex, hard-to-obtain skills such as robotics, cloud computing, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and the like.

While these are essential skills for us to grasp, the first step of innovation is simply looking at a day-to-day problem and asking, “How can I make this better?”

All the best inventions in the world start with that simple question. Wheels were invented because someone asked, “How could we transport large amounts of agricultural produce over a long distance faster?”

Online search engines were invented because someone asked if there was an easier way of finding the most popular answer to any question in the world.

Vaccines were invented because someone asked if there was a way we could build immunity against any future deadly virus once and for all.

To do this, we need to start being comfortable with trying new ways of doing things, and trying again when we do not succeed the first time.

A culture of innovation cannot be formed if we don’t have a tolerance for failures.

All technology products succeed not on a single genius or eureka moment, but through multiple rounds of iteration — create, test, revise and repeat.

Sometimes that may mean we are humbled by missing the mark altogether.

Behind Apple’s iPhone are the internet service, MobileMe, and the personal digital assistant, The Newton, that didn’t take off.

Behind Amazon Web Service is the uncompetitive Amazon Fire Phone. Behind Google Ads is Google Glass which failed to gain traction.

But in each of these supposed failures, the discipline of experimenting teaches you something that could be applied to future designs and features. Nothing is lost in the process of experimentation.

Of course, as a government, we will be actively involved in not only building the ecosystem but also creating a gateway for creative Malaysians to solve important problems.

Seeing ourselves as creators, not merely consumersThis week, the Economy Ministry will launch a nationwide ‘innovathon’ (innovation hackathon) that is open to every Malaysian who is ready to offer their good ideas.

To drive widespread interest, we will also televise these innovathons and invite renowned judges to evaluate the ideas presented.

Through this, we hope to enlarge the pool of innovators to spread the problem-solving spirit beyond their circles.

This will also enable the audience to see themselves as creators, innovators and inventors — as part of the solution.

This is the first of many upcoming initiatives to drive the culture of innovation at every level of the digital pyramid.

History’s biggest leaps of innovation, including the birth and rise of Silicon Valley, have been led by governments.

Through the largesse of planning, funding and coordination, governments can decide where the economy needs to go.

But it would need a healthy interplay with the public to make innovation sustainable, something that can be commercialised and mainstream.

We do not subscribe to the view that Malaysians are inherently unsuitable for innovation. In fact, our adaptiveness and creativity — the essential ingredients for innovation — have been our hallmarks to the world.

The good thing about the paradox mentioned at the start is that once we resolve the innovation gap, succeeding in a digitally connected country will not be that far out of reach.

The first step starts with looking at a problem and asking ourselves - “How can I make this better?”


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