Comparing Malaysia with Singapore is not apple to apples, but …
Key difference is ‘good enough’ or ‘not good enough’ as a driver
SINCE I moved to Singapore four months ago, I’ve consistently been asked this question: How do Malaysia and Singapore compare?
My standard go-to line for those queries probably betrays the fact that I do indeed hail from ‘up North’: “Well, shit just works here.”
One friend from the startup scene back in Kuala Lumpur was more blunt: “How many years behind are we?”
I struggled with an answer to that one, mainly because it genuinely isn’t a case of comparing apples to apples, but if only to stave off the more determined of inquisitors, I’m going to say, “At least five years.”
That’s right Regis, you can lock that in. And no, I don’t want to call a friend.
I don’t get many queries about Malaysia, to be honest. I get the impression that people here in Singapore are busy looking at other hubs like Hong Kong, New York, London, and Shanghai.
I do keep getting asked about Malaysia’s crime rate though. (No, you will not get robbed the moment you cross the causeway into Johor, relax.)
The temptation to compare the two nations is a strong one for many Malaysians, given the deep ties, shared history, and close geographical proximity.
It can make for some tragic comedy at times. Like when the former Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) chairman Mohamed Sharil Tarmizi shared his frustration about consistently getting asked when Malaysia would get 1Gbps fibre broadband for less than S$50.
You can get 2Gbps for SG$89.95 now, by the way.
Then there’s the on-going exodus of Malaysian-born startups relocating down south, following successful funding rounds from one of the many venture and private equity firms stationed here.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to correct people when they tell me GrabTaxi is a Singaporean startup ....
Oh, and there’s the ‘good’ problem that Singapore’s startups have, shared with me by the head of Infocomm Investments Alex Lin, where companies are getting quickly and quietly acquired after hitting the US$20-million market capitalisation mark.
I believe that the sense of envy or discontent from the Malaysian end of the spectrum stems from the fact that in quite a few instances, we started it first but Singapore just did a better job later.
For example, back in 1999, the Multimedia Development Corporation (then MDC not MDeC) had the vision and mission to create a Hollywood-meets-Disneyland hub in Malaysia.
“There will be studios and sets for movie-makers, theme parks and resorts for tourists, and digital animation labs and film schools for students,” said then senior manager of the Creative Multimedia Cluster, Charmaine Augustin.
The grand vision that was the Entertainment Village or E-Village was ultimately scuttled while five years later, Singapore convinced Lucasfilm Animation to set up operations on the island to tap into the diverse global talent pool, with the launch of Lucasfilm Animation Singapore (LAS) in 2004.
In November 2007, LAS launched the Jedi Masters Programme, a paid apprenticeship providing talented young artists with mentorship opportunities from industry professionals at Industrial Light & Magic, LucasArts and Lucasfilm Animation. (LAS even has its own Wikipedia page.)
Fast forward to 2015, and the dream of Malaysia having its own globally renowned creative multimedia hub is still alive, driven by dedicated industry players with the Iskandar Johor development hub playing a pivotal role.
Let’s face it. Singapore is an island nation with five million people, and as many have wryly pointed out, its size and acute existential awareness as a country with limited natural resources makes it much, much easier to get things done here.
To be honest, within the context of technology and entrepreneurship, there are things Singapore is known for and is good at, and there are things Malaysia is known for and is good at (yes, really!).
If there needs to be any juxtaposing of the two nations, I would point you to the Digital Malaysia and Singapore’s Smart Nation initiatives.
The core focus of the Digital Malaysia plan unveiled in 2012 is the digitally driven empowerment of its citizenry and the further maturing of the local ICT ecosystem, building on the original Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC Malaysia) vision, which was focused on nurturing the ICT scene.
Malaysia wants all its citizens to have access to affordable broadband, participate as producers not consumers in the digital economy, and to use technology as the tool to drive upward mobility.
The e-Bantuan Banjir (Flood Aid) or eBB platform launched by MDeC last week is but one manifestation of this broad intent.
The Smart Nation mission, on the other hand, is focused on leveraging technology to enable sustainable economic development and a high quality of life.
Singapore doesn’t need to worry about getting its citizens connected and savvy like Malaysia because the majority of them already are.
I had a ‘tourist moment’ when I first encountered the country’s electronic service delivery network AXS, only for my local friends to shrug it off as something that’s “been around forever.”
But the nation is worried about the upcoming issues of a rapidly aging population and increasing urban density, that technology is increasingly touted to be able to alleviate if not solve.
The core question is on efficiency gains to be had by doing things better with finite resources – from autonomous driving car pilots to real-time remote diagnostics for health problems.
No country is perfect, but to appease that inherent habit of comparison, Malaysia could look to the moves Singapore is making as a way to do better by “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as the saying goes.
If there is one thing I’ve learnt in my time here so far is that when I was living in Kuala Lumpur, the prevailing emotional driver seemed to be this need to do something that’s “good enough.”
Here, the prevailing driver is this sense that everything is “not good enough.”
Some food for thought there.
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