Sarawak has been called Asia’s best kept secret. The East Malaysian state is home to a rich array of nature and wildlife – and its natural resources have steered the economy towards oil and gas production.

But the tides are shifting. Sarawak has plans to enhance its digitalisation efforts and double its GDP to 8 per cent by 2030, says Sudarnoto Osman, Chief Executive Officer of the Sarawak Digital Economy Corporation (SDEC).

Digitalisation will be an “anchor to fast track the growth of our economy”, he adds. Osman shares the organisation’s plans to train tech talents and digitalise small businesses.

Creating tech talent

SDEC has created “digital community centres” to teach introductory courses on the use of Microsoft Excel and Word, and social media, Osman says. His team plans to place a centre in every district of Sarawak – there are 20 as of today, he adds.

Digital innovation hubs provide more advanced training programs for “those who are really interested to move to the next step of digitalisation”, he says. There are 7 hubs in Sarawak. The hub in Sibu town, for instance, teaches the local community and startups skills like social media marketing and video editing.

SDEC then “identifies who has the potential to be moved upwards” to the Sarawak Digital Village, he says. The “cream of the crop” will be part of this knowledge-sharing community, which includes foreign talents. This ensures “whatever they produce is not just going to be used by the local ecosystem, but that application also has the potential to scale globally,” Osman adds.

The Digital Village is in the midst of construction, and will be launched early next year, he says. It will be the “missing puzzle to scale up the people who graduate from the Innovation Hub.”

SDEC is also thinking of setting up digital landing pads overseas to promote Sarawak as a place for high tech innovation, Osman says. But he adds that his team will focus on getting the digital village ecosystem up first before embarking on that plan.

Digitalising small businesses

SDEC also plans to help small businesses digitalise, Osman says. These businesses often face three challenges: cost, lack of talent, and lack of knowledge on how technology can be embedded in their processes.

The agency provides “digital consultancy services” to encourage businesses to digitalise, he says. SDEC helps them understand what types of technologies are viable for their business, and educate them “on how to maximise digital at a fraction of what they thought they need to spend on.”

SDEC also subsidises the cost of IT services and distributes research grants to small businesses, Osman says. The agency is planning to roll out SME Digitise packages to support the digitisation of SMEs up to two years on their entrepreneurial journey.

Testing emerging tech

Sarawak has also created multiple testbeds to test emerging technologies such as 5G and IoT at its Centre of Excellence. These platforms simulate how the application might be used, and enable SDEC to tweak the applications before it is rolled out commercially, Osman says. “You don’t want to implement something and two years down the road, it’s not going to be working anymore.”

Malaysia’s first 5G testbed in Sarawak went online in August. SDEC has also collaborated with Xperanti Solutions, a Malaysian tech provider, to set up the first IoT testbed in the state. University researchers, startups and solution providers can use the platform to explore, experiment and develop use cases.

Learning from other countries

SDEC is learning from different countries, Osman says. The government of Sarawak has made several study trips to Estonia, he adds. “One of the areas that we may want to look to is probably e-citizenship, as it will boost digital talents, which Sarawak is lacking.”

The agency is also looking at how Singapore develops digital entrepreneurship and disperses grants, Osman says. “We are trying to see what are the best practices in all these countries and see how we can implement it in Sarawak.”

Sarawak is keen to learn from others to step into a new future of digitalisation. A wealth of tech talent and innovative businesses will be key in its digital push.