This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on August 21, 2023 - August 27, 2023
Once, Malaysia stood as a shining example in East Asia with its groundbreaking endeavours: The Multimedia Super Corridor, satellites and building an automotive industry were our hallmarks. Innovation was a mark of national pride.
But no longer.
Despite clinching the top spot in the rankings for drone tech ecosystem readiness in Southeast Asia in 2022, our recent accomplishments have been few and far between. Our ethos has evolved into one marked by stagnation and an ever-widening gap compared to global counterparts.
How did we slip from being leaders in the field to playing catch-up?
Having spent years as CEO of various innovation agencies and working in the administrations of five prime ministers, the following are my insights to revive our innovative spirit.
It calls for the entire nation to rally around a unified focus on innovation, regardless of shifting political landscapes. A narrative with a clear focus, resolute and bipartisan, strategically led and well-resourced will be what it takes to take us forward.
In the past 25 years, our focus on innovation has shifted from electronics and electrical to shared services, creative content, start-ups, deep technology and several others in between. Notwithstanding the huge economic opportunities each of these present, our stakes in some of these “trends” lacked deep conviction, which led to fledgling results. We pursued multiple blueprints and strategic road maps — which made a good showcase — but spread ourselves too thin in terms of attention and resources.
We need to define our direction, and win big at these. Once a core theme is set, agencies and corporations can better align, allocate resources, streamline efforts in talent development, secure funding from foreign investors and provide the necessary structural support for an entire ecosystem to be shaped. Penang’s micro-electronics and semiconductor sector is one clear example of resolution and alignment.
For decades, gross domestic product stood as the measure of a country’s success. However, the United Nations asserts that innovation and creativity are the true wealth of nations in the 21st century.
No surprise then, that in many successful economies, innovation councils are chaired by the country’s leaders, underscoring its importance to its economic progress.
As such, the agenda here also needs to be driven from the highest echelons of leadership. The “I” of Malaysia Madani, signifying Ihsan, perhaps should also represent innovation (daya cipta), representing the government’s unwavering commitment to advance Malaysia for the betterment of its people’s lives and livelihoods aligning with the focus of Ihsan.
There must be vision, and resolution to see the innovation agenda through — as it will be one of the key levers for Malaysia to regain its footing. Countries with technology and innovation prowess are also a magnet for bright talent — and continue to take the cream of the crop. The innovation agenda, therefore, must have the eyes and ears of our leaders. Representation from the highest level at steering committees on innovation is needed, as we need its intention and outcomes to be orchestrated across all ministries.
Innovation is far from a quick win; it demands staying power. The value chain from research to development to commercialisation and scalability is filled with trials. This is why investment in innovation must be a multi-year effort. However, we have been challenged by the oscillating changes with each new government, rendering past efforts futile. Mastery is not gained overnight nor in a single administrative term.
Our innovation mandate, therefore, must be bipartisan and the agenda must survive change in administration, change which is expected in any democracy.
The government’s efforts to streamline operations and consolidate agencies, as exemplified by the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology & Innovation’s (MRANTI) success, are promising steps forward. Yet, these need to be complemented by unwavering budgets to achieve lasting results. Annual budget cycles fall short in nurturing the enduring impact of innovation.
Policies and budgets must complement each other. Budgets for innovation, therefore, cannot be cyclical. It cannot operate based on reviews where agencies need to request an annual budget — but needs to be across five- or 10-year terms. Research, prototyping, improvement — all take time. A pharmaceutical company committing to finding a cure for a disease understands that it needs five to 10 years before it is safe to market.
In Indonesia, the minister of Education, Culture, Research and Technology started making clever headway four years ago — collecting data through various programmes and touchpoints — and feeding that data back to school teachers who can now better plan for lesson outcomes, school management for improved administration and others.
In doing this, all key stakeholders are involved in co-creating the country’s success — from curriculum development to school management and a high school student’s industry attachment — and better policies can be developed, which will transform a generation of young talent to tackle the demands of future work. This is a shining example of data-driven strategic innovation and forward thinking.
At MRANTI, the mandate to create the National Sandbox for Technology and Innovation is something the government must continue to build on. Local innovators who stress-tested their prototypes have yielded tangible results, and we have mined data that allow us to close the gaps, sidestep pitfalls and spot areas of opportunity. We see potential for scalable solutions in healthcare, drone tech, agriculture, artificial intelligence and deep technology. A strategic project like this must be seen through from the highest office and not relegated to the ministry alone.
Such intelligence will help us step away from the incremental approaches in leaping ahead.
While our position on global innovation rankings like the Global Innovation Index (GII) holds significance, becoming solely fixated on these metrics is short-sighted.
In almost every media interview, I have been asked about Malaysia’s ranking on the GII and whether we will hit our target of being in the top 20 by 2030.
The short answer is that it is possible, but difficult.
We have been, perhaps with a sense of false certainty, hovering in the 30s of the ranking in the past 10 years. To be clear, the ranking in GII, or whatever assessment, itself should not be the single pursuit. Rather, what it unfolds — more economic opportunity, jobs and delivering value back to the rakyat. The top-ranked countries in the GII are also among the healthiest and wealthiest. So moving up the ladder means better quality of life and livelihood, job creation, wealth, ease of getting by each day in an urbanised life that is getting stressful by day and increasingly affecting mental health.
Democratising innovation is about enriching the lives of the rakyat by allowing them to feel the real impact of innovation.
In so saying, the GII’s custodian is not a one-person or ministry effort. For example, within several months of taking office, we launched the MRANTI Park Master Plan — an integrated and comprehensive approach to develop a 4IR hub from prime real estate. The master plan aims to achieve a gross development value of RM20 billion, RM2.8 billion in land lease, as well as create 8,000 jobs by 2027. To date, MRANTI Park has secured RM1.12 billion in land lease value and a total of 132.56 acres for new land sublease, an increase of 250% and 112% respectively.
The point is this: socioeconomic benefits from MRANTI’s full-fledged 4IR Park are huge and offer opportunities for further leverage — for 5G applications, used in the agriculture sector and much, much, more. We need more inventors, developers, collaborators to continue plugging in!
I cannot deny the complexity of the challenges ahead, nor profess to have all the answers with simplistic solutions. This article is merely an attempt to shed light on some issues that could be holding us back. It requires long deliberation, and digging deep to pivot from this bird’s eye view.
However, focus, determination, and an unyielding commitment to innovation can pave the way to progress. The torch of innovation must pass on from one to the next.
Malaysia’s resurgence can be profound. We can usher in a new era with innovation that propels our nation to the next level. We must act, with discipline, now.
Dzuleira Abu Bakar is CEO of the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation (MRANTI)