Startup ecosystem loses its pillar in Irwan Serigar
By Karamjit Singh May 17, 2018
- No senior civil servant has given as much support or commitment as Irwan
- Unfair slander against 3 ecosystem builders a result of direct tenders
THE nation may have been hit by a political tsunami on May 9, but the startup ecosystem was hit by a second tsunami on May 14 with the news that its biggest supporter and promoter, Irwan Serigar Abdullah, had been removed from his post as Secretary General of the Ministry of Finance (MoF) and had his one year extension contract shortened. The contract, which was supposed to end in March 2019 will now end on June 14 June, 2018. At 61, Irwan is already past the official retirement age for the civil service which stands at 58.
Irwan, has become one of a number of senior government officials paying the price for being closely associated with the 1MDB scandal in terms of seeming to have ignored clear evidence of wrongdoing.
Here, I have to also point out the obvious – no senior civil servant openly voiced concern over 1MDB. But Irwan, by virtue of being the Secretary General of the Ministry of Finance, ended up in the heart of the matter as chairman of 1MDB since May 31, 2016 to deal with the aftermath of the scandal.
Making matters worse for Irwan is the fact that he has never hidden his admiration for former Prime Minister Najib Razak, the central figure in 1MDB. And, with the new government intent on getting to the bottom of the scandal, Irwan has been tarred with the same brush of suspicion.
But say what you want about Irwan, in terms of his track record within the tech ecosystem, no civil servant in my 18 years of covering the tech scene has come close to matching his support, interest and passion in wanting to see Malaysian entrepreneurs succeed, especially our startups. DNA has done a number of stories on this over the years and I have written some of those articles.
He did not just support the startup ecosystem with funding but gave his time to attend events, even if just to deliver opening/closing addresses. He is especially associated with the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC) where he is chairman of the board and with the NGO, the Global Entrepreneurship Movement (GEM) where he is the founder and patron.
Displaying an open mind and daring to take risks, in 2014 he chose the then Silicon Valley-based Cheryl Yeoh as the first CEO of MaGIC, over one other very capable Malaysian-based option. History shows that it was a good decision.
All in, looking at his track record and service to the tech ecosystem in Malaysia, he has truly set a high bar for whoever his successor in the Ministry of Finance will be.
Even though his fall from grace has been swift, that is what he should be remembered for by those of us in the tech ecosystem, and especially the startup ecosystem. I know that is what I will remember him for.
Unfortunately, there is also a tendency to kick a man when he is down and there have been some complaints of how Irwan would give out contracts for running and managing various entrepreneur projects without any tenders and to those close to him. Sorry, now that he is no longer in a position of power, those close to him are now called “cronies”.
There is a distasteful video going around that makes slanderous and unsubstantiated accusations against three ecosystem leaders. Dhakshinamoorthy (Dash) Balakrishnan is one of the three and the creator of the video claims Dash received a contract worth US$20.7 million (RM82 million) to run a Global Startup Youth “idea accelerator” in Kuala Lumpur. DNA covered that event which ran in 2013 and 2015.
Having known Dash since 2007 and writing about his various entrepreneurial pursuits, I spoke to him about the video which he has also seen. He tells me that the amount he got to run the GSY was a fraction of the claimed US$20.7 million. That is good enough for me. I believe him.
[Disclosure: DNA was a media partner for GSY in 2013 & 2015 with commercial terms and this was a direct deal with Dash. Does this make me his crony now?]
The other accusation against Dash is distasteful to the extreme and I won’t mention it but it does lead me to disbelieve the accusations made against the other two ecosystem leaders, Ashran Ghazi, CEO of MaGIC and Low Ngai Yuen, executive director of GEM.
I do not believe they are cronies. They have been involved in the startup ecosystem for a long time and they will continue to be involved in it because they are driven by their passion to make a difference. Irwan being there or not will not matter to them.
Root cause of hateful content
The root cause of such hateful content being created lies in the culture of the past government in giving direct contracts without open tenders. But with the winds of change blowing through Malaysia and transparency demanded by Malaysians, I hope the fertile ground that helped spew such hate and jealousy from those not in the favoured circle of decision-makers, will dry up and wither away, leaving the best bids for each job to win on merit.
And that is what the new government has promised with open tenders to become the new normal for government procurement. I am sure the entire ecosystem looks forward to that and will hold them to it.
Moving forward, let there be no more talk or whispers of cronies etc. Let us all just focus on building on the solid startup ecosystem foundation we have, that Irwan helped create, and grow it to become among the best ecosystems in the world. In the reborn Malaysia, that should be our responsibility.
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