Can TMJ seize the moment and be the dynamic leader Johor’s digital ambitions need?

  • Launch of Digital Johor Masterplan 2030 and leadership of TMJ as incoming Sultan
  • No-nonsense, results oriented leadership style could make the difference

The successful launch of the Johor Darul Ta’zim FC's JDT Fan Token illustrates the TMJ's willingness to embrace technology for business.

There is a digital reboot going on in Johor, the southern Malaysian state that is a short causeway ride away from Singapore, which many observers on both sides of the causeway, believe, can do a lot more to tap the synergies between land constrained but economically vibrant Singapore and land blessed Johor that enjoys top class infrastructure. The just announced Singapore-Johor Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is expected to be one such promising development though actual plans for it have yet to be fleshed out.

The timing of the digital reboot, which the state government plans to officially introduce soon as the Digital Johor Masterplan 2030 also happens to coincide with when the 39 year old Tengku Ismail Ibni Sultan Ibrahim, the eldest son of the state’s ruler, Sultan Ibrahim Almarhum Sultan Iskandar, takes over from his father as the Sultan of Johor as Sultan Ibrahim is going to be appointed the Agung (King) of Malaysia for a five year term and has to delegate his state duties during the period he serves as King.

Observers consider the timing to be significant as Tengku Ismail (pic), who goes by the moniker TMJ (Tengku Mahkota Johor or, Crown Prince of Johor) is known to be tech savvy and willing to try new things. No surprise that just last month, the football club that TMJ owns, Johor Darul Ta’zim FC, became the first Malaysian club to allow fans to purchase a digital asset called, JDT Fan Tokens. With benefits that allows fans to experience closer engagement with the club, the digital asset sold out within 24-hours, generating a reported over US$213,000 (RM1 million) for the club.

Can TMJ seize the moment and be the dynamic leader Johor’s digital ambitions need?But it is not just his youth and openness to technology that has observers excited and intrigued at the impact he can possibly have on the state’s digital ambitions over the next five years. It is also his no-nonsense and results oriented leadership style that could make the difference. “He is not someone who likes excuses or delays once he sets his mind on something,” said one KL-based corporate. 

That impatientness will do the state good as its digital reboot efforts, led by Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) Malaysia, comes on the back of an earlier effort that has failed to achieve the desired impact. In 2017, a state owned company, Kumpulan Prasarana Rakyat Johor Sdn Bhd (KPRJ) launched Digital Johor Sdn Bhd to spearhead the state’s ambition to be a more digitally savvy state and destination for tech-based FDI.

That initiative is largely seen to have failed in its efforts with industry observers pointing to a critical structural flaw. “It was seen by the state bureaucracy as a private entity that was encroaching into their turf and with no clear responsibilities mapped out,” said a former senior manager of a federal government agency familiar with Digital Johor.

Undeterred by that failure the digital reboot has applied the lessons from Digital Johor, with the new initiative to be fully led by the state government machinery.

While TMJ has to direct and day to day role in the running of the state government machinery, as the Johor Civil Service is directly employed by the state government, with the Chief Minister as its head, the ultimate authority in the state government is the Sultan and observers expect TMJ to be a keen and engaged party in the progress of the State’s attempt to recharge its digital ambitions.


Seriousness of approach impresses CREST CEO

Having attended a recent meeting organized by the state government’s investment, trade and industry development agencies, Jaffri Ibrahim, the CEO of Centre for Research in Engineering, Science and Technology (CREST), Jaffri was impressed by the enormity and seriousness of it.

“It was the first time I was invited to such an event and everyone was quite switched on in terms of what they wanted to do and needed to do in order to upgrade the state’s development and the role they hoped the Federal government could play through the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).”

Additionally, Jaffri, whose CREST was recently taken on as an agency under MITI shared that CREST was invited to advise Johor Corp to help it create an E&E cluster in a newly developed city called Ibrahim Technopolis (IBTEC).

The ambitious goal is to find a niche for Johor to work with the E&E cluster in Penang, where CREST is based, and Singapore and other parts of the region. “We will open up doors for them to talk to the right people and get the right advice,” said Jaffri.


‘Don’t allow excuses to get in the way’

The impending launch of the Digital Johor Masterplan 2030 and leadership of TMJ as the Sultan has Manoj Menon, founder of Singapore based research firm, Twimbit Pte Ltd excited over what he calls the “immense opportunity” that can be unlocked between Johor and Singapore. But he notes that policy makers and business groups have been calling for closer integration between Johor and Singapore for a long time.   

“This has been the dream for the past three decades.  Maybe a dynamic, tech savvy leader like TMJ can be a catalyst for this to finally happen. Don’t allow excuses to get in the way. The technology is there. Is the leadership will there?” Manoj poses.

A former global partner at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, Manoj spent over 10 years in Kuala Lumpur and oversaw a global centre Frost set-up in Johor in 2012 and knows well the potential and frustrations of running a high skills based business in Johor and he believes technology can help minimise many of the frustrations.

Referring to the recent news that Singapore’s Changi Airport will allow travellers to leave the country with a biometric based solution that does not need travellers to show their passports, Manoj says, “Imagine if Johor can implement a biometric based system that allows for frictionless travel between Johor and Singapore and vice-versa. Immense opportunities for Malaysia and Singapore will be enjoyed if this can be pulled off,” he enthuses.

Manoj identifies three proximity based clear opportunities that will benefit from near frictionless travel between Singapore and Johor. Singapore’s world leading port needs talent and supply chain support; its ageing society need aged care that can be provided in Johor and with Johor becoming a hot data centre location, many Singapore based data centres looking to expand would naturally prefer Johor with its location, lower power costs, ample land and talent.

“Johor has already been long providing a lot of blue collar, especially, labour to Singapore that travels by the tens of thousands every day. And it's time we upgraded this workforce to support the digital skill requirements of Singapore in a sort of Singapore Plus Plus partnership,” he says.

“So yeah, I think the opportunity is huge. Johor just needs a strong leadership who can take charge,” he says hinting that this is the chance for TMJ to take Johor to the next level.

The stage seems to be set. Can TMJ be the leader that Johor needs now?

Next: Can Johor Meet The Talent Challenge For Its Ambitions?

To be sure, even with the right leader and policies, the key success factor to execute this synergistic and mainly digital based relationship between Johor and Singapore is going to be over how quickly Johor can train and reskill its talent to be digitally aligned. It is a challenge that Manoj has faced before and one which Johorean academic and founder Dr Yeong Che Fai, of leading Malaysian robotics company DF Automation, is willing to step up to help Johor realise its robotics hub ambitions.



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