Week in Review: Is Malaysia’s GEM relevant?

  • NGO is in danger of becoming a vehicle of its patron, Mohd Irwan Serigar
  • High powered GEM leadership should really look at how it can add value, or..

A ROBUST entrepreneurial ecosystem gives everyone and all ideas a chance but after some time, and 18-months sounds reasonable, natural selection should kick in and it should filter out poor ideas that show no traction or offer no value.

And I have been wondering if the Global Entrepreneurship Movement (GEM) is a poor idea. Last Friday night (March 9) I briefly attended its one year anniversary celebration. I stayed long enough to hear the key speeches from GEM president, Dhakshinamoorthy 'Dash ' Balakrishnan and its patron Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah, and left with sense of disquiet that is still with me as I write this.

To me, GEM, an NGO, has not made itself relevant to the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Malaysia, much less the region. Organising one talk session a month, with Dash using his considerable community cache to get attendance is no game changer by any means.

Even its mission of “connecting, networking whilst fostering collaborations to internationalise Malaysia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem”, sounds fluffy. I have never, in my 18 years of covering the tech ecosystem, had an entrepreneur complain to me that they couldn’t expand to another country. I mean, according to WTO (World Trade Organization) data, Malaysia is among the top 25 trading nations in the world. Is that not “internationalised” enough for you?

You can also internationalise internally which means there is a healthy mix of entrepreneurs from around the world who choose Malaysia as the base to launch their dreams. While Malaysia is welcoming, its big disadvantage has been that government funding has always been reserved for companies with Malaysian majority ownership.

That’s fair policy. Except when you have a talent starved but cash rich neighbour that offers its entrepreneur grants and fundings to all and sundry, with the only requirement being that the entrepreneurs set up their HQ in the country. Naturally, it has attracted entrepreneurs from around the world, despite being one of the most expensive cities in the world. I’m talking about Singapore of course.

Surely, I am not the only one who thinks GEM has not made itself relevant yet. And when Dash talks about entrepreneurship being a community effort now, others are already working on it and I say that the community is already forming here. Look at what MDEC says about the new Digital Hubs it is creating – “ The Digital Hubs are tuned to giving assistance to startups to enable them to flourish in a supportive community.”

But because GEM is Irwan’s ‘baby’, and Irwan also happens to be the secretary-general of the Ministry of Finance and happens to be truly passionate about promoting and supporting entrepreneurship, no one in the ecosystem will say it out aloud.

Now Irwan has just been immense to the development of Malaysia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, as DNA readers will be familiar with. He is even a DNA Digerati50. And, you will be hard pressed to find a top civil servant as chill and approachable as him – but it doesn’t mean all his ideas are great.

And GEM, whether he realizes it or not, seems to be increasingly about him. For instance, one motivation for GEM seems to be his desire to create an entrepreneur movement that spreads globally that was not birthed in the United States and he mentioned so in his remarks that night.

Another motivation seems bred from his frustration with the corporate titans of Malaysia, many of whom have done little to create a ripple effect of follow-on entrepreneurs.

And even two of the three new GEM programmes announced, CollosusINNO2017 and the 10xClub are his ideas with the 10xClub thought up the night before the anniversary event while the name for CollosusINNO2017 came to him at 2am, he shared.

Why then have someone of Dash’s caliber to lead the organization, and why assemble a top notch council and committee, when the ideas and even drive seem to be coming from one person?

I think the GEM leadership really needs to sit down and ask themselves what value can GEM truly add to strengthen Malaysia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. Because if it can’t, then GEM is a waste of everyone’s time. And time is the one asset a man in a hurry, like Irwan, cannot afford to waste.

Patrick Gove of Catcha Group used to sign off his email’s with “Go Big or Go Home”. I think GEM has to figure out how to be truly relevant and if it can’t, then face up to reality and shut down. It won’t be the end of the world.

Leaving you to mull that over, I wish you a restful weekend and a productive week ahead.

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