Digital Malaysia: Whither now, wither now?
KUALA LUMPUR, July 18 ― It’s been two weeks since the latest transformation programme was announced, and we’ve been inundated with news and updates on the Digital Malaysia initiative that will transform the nation into “a fully developed digital economy that connects and empowers government, businesses and citizens by 2020.”
Say what? You have not even heard about it? What was that? It is the third “TP” after the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) and the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP)?
You may have some vague recollection here about Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announcing his intention to, erm, announce the Digital Malaysia Masterplan, at the inaugural meeting of the Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council in New York in May last year.
Sure, we all had our doubts about this. After all, it’s been umpteen years since the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) project was announced at Stanford University in California amidst much fanfare, and what was this going to be but an “updated” version of that, an MSC 2.0?
Or MSC 3.0 actually, after Najib’s predecessor, then prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, decided that the original was too much the brainchild of his predecessor, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and that he needed to put his mark on it and make it his own.
Thus the MSC was renamed MSC Malaysia, the name of the lead agency changed from MDC to MDeC (while still remaining the Multimedia Development Corporation), and somebody somewhere made some money reprinting all the collaterals and stationery.
But in the months since Najib’s pre-announcement, the tech media had been getting some information ― either through our sources, or from hints and implications from the people involved in formulating the masterplan.
And my initial scepticism was slowly put at ease ― Digital Malaysia is a much more comprehensive, cohesive and holistic plan than the MSC ever was, if only because its scope is much wider.
The MSC ― the original 15x50km corridor which played by different rules with its tax incentives and Bill of Guarantees ― was envisioned as a testbed for new technologies and ideas that would later infect and influence the rest of the nation and the economy as a whole.
With Digital Malaysia, the entire nation and the economy that it is built upon is the testbed.
There are so many more moving parts that you just know some thrusts will fail, no matter how well conceived and constructed they are. It’s just the nature of the beast.
It is also bolder and promises to be more impactful, even if only parts of it go well.
Too bad it got off to such a bad start then. Not only was the Digital Malaysia plan delayed, when the details were finally announced, it was at a low-key, media-only affair at a downtown KL hotel. The Prime Minister deigned to announce it ― instead, it was left to the Deputy Minister of Science, Technology & Innovation, Datuk Haji Fadillah Haji Yusof.
Yup, even the full minister himself could not make it.
The problem with this is simple: For many aspects of Digital Malaysia to take root, we will need the political will to back it. The MDeC executives at the launch were cognisant of that. They knew that the schooling system needs retooling, teacher training needs redesigning, whole mind-sets and cultures need a kick up the you-know-what.
Yet, some aspects of Digital Malaysia still yield to the “same old, same old” ― 17 per cent contribution to the GNI (gross national income)! 160,000 high-value jobs to be created! Three strategic thrusts! Eight projects! All of which came from a series of Digital Malaysia labs!
Straight out of the Pemandu playbook, but without its budget or authority.
Perhaps it is not a bad thing that the politicians are pussyfooting around when it comes to accountability for this. It negates the cult of personality behind so many national initiatives ― when Dr Mahathir retired, the MSC didn’t get much support because Abdullah wanted to do his own thing, which was to create economic corridors all over the country. Najib got off the “corridor” love affair and instead wanted his TPs.
Since Digital Malaysia is pretty much a political orphan, it means Najib’s successor need not rebrand it to make it his own ― just take responsibility for it, assuming he (or she!) believes in the vision.
However, until that happens, MDeC is straitjacketed ― it has been given the mandate to oversee and implement an initiative that promises to be as transformative as the other TPs were supposed to be, but without the teeth to do so.
There are some good minds in MDeC. They know there will be all sorts of challenges, the biggest being the political reality. Perhaps it is time to uncouple MDeC from the Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation.
Perhaps it is time to unleash them and let them do their job.