(DNA Top 10 in 2014) MaGIC, the Malay language, and that ‘bumi thing’: Page 2 of 2

Language barriers

(DNA Top 10 in 2014) MaGIC, the Malay language, and that ‘bumi thing’: Page 2 of 2

Entrepreneurship is increasingly being recognised the world over as one way of boosting the economy and lifting communities out of poverty. After all, entrepreneurs create businesses that generate wealth that can be channelled into education, healthcare and infrastructure.

The Malaysian Government is certainly aware of this, and has been rolling all sorts of programmes to create and encourage entrepreneurship, not just with startups but with small and medium enterprises too.
 
But business requires market access, and whether we like to acknowledge it or not, English is the language of business when you look beyond your own borders.
 
There have been complaints mounting against MaGIC that its programmes, carried out in English and with many Silicon Valley types involved (even if some of them are Malaysian), made it difficult for Malay entrepreneurs who were not adept in English.
 
In the wake of our two stories on MaGIC earlier this week, there was, as there inevitably is, some chatter on Facebook and Twitter.
 
On one side, there were those who felt that MaGIC’s attempts to engage the bumiputera community was merely pandering to the ugly side of Malaysian politics; on the other, some kudos for it for widening its horizons.
 
A third side were those bumiputera achievers who felt insulted over the idea that they needed special treatment to succeed, or even that their ability to speak English was being made fun of.
 
But there is the fact: Many Malay youth today do not speak English well and/ or are not confident in expressing themselves in that language. They feel left out, and understandably so.
 
But why make fun of them? They’re a product of the system. English is a required subject in schools. They’ve had 12 years of learning it in the public school system, and yet they’ve managed to pass their exams and make it into university (many of them) despite not being able to communicate in the language?
 
There’s something very, very wrong with that picture! But that’s the reality.
 
Sure, one can argue that they should’ve been self-motivated enough to have driven themselves to learn the language properly – but that’s easier said than done if you come from a community that only speaks Malay (or Bahasa Malaysia, as the national language is known), and when your teachers themselves don’t speak English properly.
 
This is the Malaysian education system right here: The objective is to churn out as many teachers and graduates as possible, with no care as to whether they’re really capable. Teachers and students can pass qualifying exams in English without being able to speak the language.
 
There are no two ways about it: This one’s on the Government. It’s a fundamental, institutional issue which MaGIC can do nothing about! It’s the same issue faced by other government agencies that look into technology and business issues.
 
If after 12 years of a public school education in which English is compulsory, you can have youth who do not speak the language, all you can do is to work around it and fill in the gaps. That’s what MaGIC is now attempting to do.
 
MaGIC ≠ Silicon Valley
 
In essence, what we have happening right now is MaGIC backtracking to its whole raison d'etre. When the agency was first proposed at the Fourth Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Kuala Lumpur in 2013, the idea was for a centre that catered to all sorts of entrepreneurs, not just those in the tech field.
 
“The Centre will be a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs – with everything from getting financing from banks or venture capital to incubators for developing startups; from intellectual property registration to facilities for training, coaching and mentoring,” Prime Minister Najib Razak said in his GES keynote address.
 
Dr Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah, Secretary-General of the Ministry of Finance and now also MaGIC chairman, told DNA then that MaGIC would “be an independent body that will act as a one-stop centre for all kinds of entrepreneurs – not necessarily just high-tech and those related to ICT, but also entrepreneurs dedicated to the services sector, agro-based products, logistics and so on.”
 
The idea was that even those in cottage industries would find something at MaGIC. There may have been a tech element to it – for instance, your handicraft maker looking to expand his or her market by getting online – but it was not supposed to be an agency looking after the tech startup ecosystem alone.
 
Somewhere along the way, that original idea got sidetracked. Now MaGIC is finding that it will have to go back to basics: How to help all entrepreneurs, whatever their field of business.
 
And whatever their markets are: Because it’s been so heavily influenced by Silicon Valley and Valley-speak, there is this idea that to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be able to compete globally, fail fast, be lean, yadda-yadda.
 
What if your business is a family one, and its market is very domestic, and you have no desire to get on the global stage because you really don’t care to be a hamster running the Series A-B-C-D funding wheel – because that’s not what it’s all about?
 
And yours is a very localised solution tackling a very specific Malaysian problem – because all you care about is helping your community?
 
Why does this make you any less of an entrepreneur, and therefore beneath MaGIC’s concern, just because yours is not a sexy tech startup?
 
All the colours of MaGIC

(DNA Top 10 in 2014) MaGIC, the Malay language, and that ‘bumi thing’: Page 2 of 2

I’m guessing that MaGIC and its chief executive officer Cheryl Yeoh (pic above) have been getting a bit of a wake-up call in the last few months, and have had to face the political realities of Malaysia.
 
But it’s just not about politics. There are entrepreneurs who need help, not because they’re short of wonderful ideas, but because they have not had the kind of exposure or education others have had.
 
We had already been hearing about some of these realities setting in when I spoke to Yeoh in September and asked her about the reported pressure on her to do something special for the bumiputera community.
 
She said then, “I actually believe that diversity is very important to any company, and I think the bumiputera element is important. They are the majority in our country, so it is important to have that diversity.
 
“We want MaGIC to be a place where anyone in Malaysia can learn new skills to build successful companies.
 
“Entrepreneurship is not geared towards any specific race – if anything, entrepreneurship unites us all, because it doesn’t recognise race, age, religion, background. … It is for all, truly.”
 
I agree. As I’ve said, I am against any form of racial discrimination, but I’d like to think that I am wise enough (I’m certainly old enough!) to pepper my principles with pragmatism.
 
I find it easier to accept MaGIC’s redirected focus because I think of it this way: It is now seeking to better engage disadvantaged entrepreneurs, and since a large number of such disadvantaged entrepreneurs are bumiputera, it will be skewed towards them.
 
I only hope that it will learn from the failures of the NEP and do a better job, and in the near future will expand this focus to include all disadvantaged entrepreneurs, whatever their race, age, religion or background.
 
Related Stories:
 
Disrupt: No joyride for bumiputera firms either
 
Malaysia’s racial policy rears its head in ICT sector

The MaGIC CEO and the crucible of fire
 
Budget wish list: Pikom urges English for maths, science
      
 
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