A nation united in #DIGITALvsCOVID

  • Among the three lessons learnt is, sincerity breeds authenticity
  • MDEC went in search of auxiliary financing to help businesses

A snapshot of the key initiatives rolled out by MDEC during Malaysia's MCO period that began 18 March.

Fight or Flight.

Did you know that the widely uttered phrase was coined in the 1920s by an American physiologist, Walter B. Cannon, to theorise the response of vertebrates in their attempt to survive deadly threats and stress? A century later, the phrase is relevant to human behavioural studies and even in popular culture to distinguish the victor from the vanquished.

How does the phrase matter, you ask? Firstly, it brilliantly captures the essence of my preceding article on pivoting during the pandemic, where I commended agile Malaysians and entrepreneurs who are fighting against all odds by leveraging on technology and tweaking their game-plans to sustain their livelihoods and businesses.

Secondly, the phrase is relevant to this article denoting ‘choice’. As the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) rolled out one initiative after another from the onset of the Movement Control Order (MCO), scores of Malaysians made a conscious effort to utilise our digital offerings and adopt other online solutions. This act of making fundamental changes to the way we work and how we live our lives demand decisiveness and courage – an action that begins from within. Hence, this piece is dedicated to you… the man (or woman) in the mirror, who is keeping our country buoyant by harnessing the power of the digital economy.

[Para edited for accuracy.]

Mission: Offline to Online

Even before the terms ‘Covid-19’ and ‘pandemic’ became mainstream in Malaysia, MDEC’s Human Capital Division had been conscientiously issuing travel advisories and precautionary advisories to staff on the global spread of the novel Coronavirus or 2019-nCov. Alas, the contraction rate in the country spiked in March 2020, resulting in strict enforcement of the MCO to flatten the curve.

In retrospect, I dare say many did not have a clue on the looming economic crisis and the huge impact it would have on the people, businesses, and the nation. While many organizations applied a ‘wait and see approach’, MDEC instantly triggered its Business Continuity Plan (BCP) under the stewardship of our CEO, Surina Shukri, who professed the need to automate and digitize more than ever in the face of the impending economic slowdown. A day before the enforced MCO, we had our first senior leadership team meeting via video, where Surina drove home a pertinent point:

“I present to you a paradox: we live in exponential times yet subscribe to archaic practices. This is our opportunity to dispel the myth that physical proximity drives productivity. Remote offices and virtual interactions can capably ignite the synergies between the government, industry and society. Now is the time to go tech and generate a gust of tailwind for the digital economy to triumph over the pandemic!”

Through MDEC’s senior leadership team (SLT), the CEO’s zeal rapidly trickled to all levels of staff who effortlessly embraced our work-from-home arrangement and exuded the same level of enthusiasm by management. Like a well-oiled machine, MDEC remained open for business in abnormal times and our zero downtime was well-received by all stakeholders who were kept informed via the press, website, social media, EDMs, e-mail and the many webinars by our respective SLTs.

Prioritising communication to employees and ensuring staff wellness is akin to wearing your oxygen mask during a mid-air emergency before helping others. By starting on the right foot, MDEC was then able to instinctively switch to triage-mode to attend to the distress calls across all facets of the nation that were affected by the regressing economy.

In a jiffy, the #DIGITALvsCOVID campaign was launched and its foremost mission entailed marshalling local tech companies to render digital solutions and services on a pro-bono basis or through rock-bottom rates for affected businesses and consumers. Lo and behold, 80 local tech companies patriotically answered our first call to serve the nation, followed by more than a hundred more in the subsequent days. This led to the creation of a directory of digital resources on the MDEC website, with an extensive list of tech offerings for the people and businesses of all sizes.


#DIGITALvsCOVID – The Rakyat in Focus

As murmurs of lay-offs and loss of livelihoods began getting louder, there was a critical need to render reskilling and upskilling interventions to counter the rising cases of unemployment and loss of household incomes. MDEC’s Let’s Learn Digital programme strategically partnered with Coursera to avail free access to 3,800 online courses and professional certifications to unemployed Malaysians until Dec 2020.

Additionally, a plethora of e-Learning solutions offered by a range of organisations and training providers were published on our directory of digital resources to meet the offline-to-online demands of educational institutions and companies that were seeking to repurpose the expertise of their workforce in preparation for the new norm.

To put the pressing matter of unemployment in perspective, according to the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM), 610,500 people were without jobs as of March 2020 – a surge of 17.1% from March 2019! Apart from reskilling, employment opportunities had to be created. MDEC expeditiously revitalised its eRezeki, Go-eCommerce and GLOW portals – all of which are existing income-generation opportunities for the lower-income groups through the undertaking of digital micro-tasks and enhancement of entrepreneurial skills.

During one of our virtual town hall meetings, Surina mooted the idea of an online fundraiser for our selfless medical front-liners who were braving all risks to combat the spread of Covid-19 in the country. I vividly recall the idea being greeted with an encouraging response by our MDEC family that flooded the video-call text chat to express undivided support. A grand total of RM387,037 (and counting!) has been raised thus far through several channels – donation by MDEC staff, institutional donations received from MSC-status companies, as well as through crowdfunding operators - Global Sadaqah, PitchIN and Simply Giving.

MDEC has been working closely with the Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia Response & Relief Team (IMARET) to support the production, procurement, and delivery of personal protective equipment for medical practitioners and front-liners throughout the country.


#DIGITALvsCOVID – Business Relief

Barely a few days into the MCO, all news networks inundated the nation with stories on the struggles of daily wage-earners, the plight of micro-entrepreneurs and countless SMEs that were grappling with the sudden impasse of activity due to the pandemic placing sustenance and the economy in jeopardy.

MDEC was among the many organisations that surveyed the sentiments of the Malaysian business community, and the responses were unsurprisingly staggering. Our pool of respondents represented close to a hundred local tech companies of varying growth stages. Key findings include 86% reporting moderate to severe business impact, 60% indicated the need to downsize their workforce and 57% were contemplating of relocating their office - half citing cost as the reason. Evidently, cash flow was the primary concern.

Over and above the stimulus package offered by the government, MDEC relentlessly went in search of auxiliary financing avenues for businesses that were struggling to stay afloat and startups that were seeking capital injection amid the current economic slowdown. In less than two months, MDEC rolled out five innovative funding initiatives involving reputable industry partners:

i. Alternative Funding: partnership with 7 ECF + P2P platforms

ii. Virtual VC/Investor Matching: partnership with KK Fund to match local startups with global investors

iii. Startup Tech Relief Fund: collaboration with MDV to facilitate RM100 million to address cashflow issues through the provision of revolving cash line via the Tech Startup Funding Relief Facility

iv. M&A Programme: teamed with Corum Group for M&A experts to share with entrepreneurs current market climate, opportunities and M&A procedures

v. Hybrid Funding: A pitching competition organised by Gobi Partners, MDEC, Sunway and Mavcap for Malaysian startups

In addition to funding facilitation, MDEC embarked on an ambitious endeavour to inspire micro, small and medium-sized entrepreneurs (MSMEs) to move their businesses online. Dubbed e-Dagang Expo (eDX), the virtual event held from 4-8 May drew over 5,000 registrants who learnt how to set up an online store using easy everyday tools, listing their products on eMarketplaces and growing their sales nationwide and globally. Free webinars featured panellists from e-Commerce leaders such as Shopee, Lazada, Carousell, Alibaba, BliBli and eBay. The five-day event generated massive awareness via a social media reach of 1.2 million users, with 97.7% of participants claiming eDX has brought a positive impact to their business.

Lastly, the SLTs at MDEC have been involved in scores of digital thought leadership engagements via online speaking events, as well as through interviews by the print, online and broadcast media. To date, MDEC has hosted 79 webinars with an extraordinary reach of 500,000, involving a wide range of audiences ranging from all verticals in the tech industry to local and global ecosystem partners.


Key Learnings

As this article cannot feature all MDEC’s #DIGITALvsCOVID initiatives, the appended visual presents a snapshot of our undertakings in the last 2.5 months that saw more than 40 carefully curated online initiatives. Apart from enthusiastically serving our people and entrepreneurs, MDEC has also been actively engaging the government in various capacities. I am pleased to briefly share three significant lessons learned that may inspire readers, particularly entrepreneurs, to think on their feet and act responsively:

1. Spotlight on ‘needs’

Fulfilling a vital requirement or an urgent necessity is a requisite to attaining success in business. When you genuinely seek to address a gap in the market through a plausible solution, your consumers will be drawn to your effort and offerings. In the opening of this article, I refer to the man (or woman) in the mirror - citizens and dwellers of this beautiful country who accepted change by embracing digital over conventional solutions to tide the perils of Covid-19.

2. Pace over perfection

I reiterate this point that was originally shared in the first instalment of #GopiSpeaks. Speed is an indication of an organisation’s ability to adapt to change and its capability to be in charge. This is specific to the context of our #DIGITALvsCOVID initiatives, where we prioritised rapidity of deployment, as opposed to mulling over the excellence of our initiatives that can easily be achieved through continuous improvisation, or pivoting, as I spoke about in my second thought piece.

3. Sincerity breeds authenticity

While businesses are driven by commercial interests, I believe your communication to consumers should not exude a tinge of mercantile intent. Strive to present the facts ‘as is’ and not be fixated on mollifying your stakeholders, especially during trying times. In the context of our #DIGITALvsCOVID campaign, every attempt was made by MDEC to realistically depict our present economic condition and its repercussion on businesses that do not pivot or embrace digital solutions. Every spokesperson at MDEC is trained to not ‘mince their words’ and to truthfully communicate the aim and specifics of all initiatives that we roll out. The epitome of satisfaction is seeing our stakeholders gravitate towards us naturally.


What’s next?

In the subsequent instalment of #GopiSpeaks, I will delve into business recovery post-Covid19 and pragmatic steps on gearing-up their readiness to operate in the new norm. Simply put, how do we restart? While there is no one-size-fits-all method, the insights that I will be sharing will be based on best practices by some of our prolific tech companies and my personal experience. Watch this space!

Gopi Ganesalingam, vice president, Global Growth Acceleration, MDEC, is a qualified finance professional with over 30 years of professional experience in Finance, Commercial and Business Development.

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