Three ways Malaysia’s public sector can pursue innovation

By Rachel Teng

From harnessing citizen data to creating an innovation playground for public servants, leaders from MyDIGITAL, MDEC, MCMC, and MRANTI shared their visions for public sector innovation at GovInsider Live – Malaysia.

Speaker at GovInsider Live – Malaysia 2023's plenary panel, 'How the public sector can inspire innovation'. From left to right: Mr Shamsul Izhan Abdul Majid (MCMC), Mr Mohd Safuan Mohd Zairi (MRANTI), Mr Raymond Siva (MDEC), Ms Nor Haily Maizura Binti Hussein (MyDIGITAL), and Mr Allen Chin (VMware). 

“Malaysia is undergoing a very interesting shift in the way we look at our economy. We will make an expected digital economy contribution of at least 25.5 per cent by 2025, meaning a quarter of our GDP will come from the digital sector. I project that we could possibly reach that mark even earlier,” said Minister for Communications and Digital YB Fahmi Fadzil during his keynote address at GovInsider Live - Malaysia


At GovInsider’s recent conference, YB Fahmi spoke of how the Malaysian government can usher in a “golden digital decade” to strengthen the country’s economy in the coming years. 


As part of this digital drive, the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) introduced Malaysia Digital in 2022, a nationwide strategic initiative aimed at driving digital adoption through policy, talent building, and infrastructure development. 


Programmes like the DE Rantau and Digital Trade have been introduced as Malaysia Digital Catalytic Programmes (PEMANGKIN) in order to establish Malaysia as a digital nomad hub, as well as facilitate trade through regulation and standardisation respectively. 


“There is no longer such a thing as a traditional economy versus a digital economy. Right now, digital is the economy. Malaysians can’t just be good at digital adoption, but we also need to be creators of the digital economy,” said Mr Raymond Siva, Senior Vice President of Digital Investment, MDEC, during the conference’s plenary session, “How the public sector can inspire innovation”, held in conjunction with cloud solutions provider VMware. 


Here are three ways the public sector can pursue innovation across the government, economy, and society, as shared by leaders from MDEC, MyDIGITAL, MRANTI, and MCMC.


Data: A national treasure 


One key overarching sentiment amongst speakers at the conference was that data is of utmost importance, and central to most, if not all, digitalisation efforts. 


YB Fahmi questioned the idea of data sovereignty in today’s data and age. “Data is a national treasure. But that doesn’t mean that it is meant to be kept in a vault [like conventional treasure]. Can we instead look at the ways in which citizen data can be anonymised and still used meaningfully?” 


To illustrate this, Mr Shamsul Izhan Abdul Majid, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer at the Malaysia Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), encouraged participants  to imagine if the Government of Malaysia were operating the satellite navigation app, Waze. 


“Imagine the power that is bestowed onto us, and our responsibility to respond and tap on these insights if millions of people fed us their information at least twice a day,” he said. In other words, governments should not only strive to collect citizen data at the scale at which private tech giants like Waze do, but also feel the responsibility to make full use of the data collected to enhance public service delivery. 


Shamsul added that while MCMC is the central government agency responsible for telecommunications, all government agencies should strive to attain quality data from every kind of citizen possible. When these channels of communications are opened up, governments can then be more aware of the challenges citizens face every day, and take steps to increase citizen satisfaction. 


A 2021 survey conducted by VMware found that 45 per cent of respondents indicated that they are happy to interact digitally with the Malaysian government. Almost 3 in 5 (58 per cent) of those surveyed even indicated that they are comfortable sharing completely accurate data about their daily lives for the government to improve public service delivery. 


This puts Malaysia ahead of its other Southeast Asian counterparts, including Singapore (42 per cent), Philippines (48 per cent), Indonesia (57 per cent), and Thailand (48 per cent). 


“Citizen data will come to us in many forms, whether it’s structured or unstructured, real-time or offline, static or dynamic. But the question here is whether we are ready to harness this data when it reaches us,” said Shamsul. 


Safe spaces and systems to foster innovation 


Public officers commonly face many hindrances to innovation, pointed out Mr Mohd Safuan Mohd Zairi, Chief Ecosystem Development Officer, at the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology & Innovation (MRANTI). 


“It is sometimes hard to embrace, understand, or collaborate on the topic of innovation. We sometimes also operate in a system where innovative ideas get questioned [before they have a chance to develop],” said Safuan. 


This is why MRANTI has designated a Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) in each of the 26 Malaysian ministries. Together, these CIOs form a Chief Innovation Network, acting as an “innovation focal point” within each of their ministries, and will share their ideas with each other through the network. 


“In 2020, we had initially called for public servants to send in their problem statements, and we only received 13. After we appointed our CIOs, we received more than 180 problem statements across the government, and that allowed us to match these statements with some of the solutions that we already had,” said Safuan. 


In addition to this, MRANTI also has dedicated living labs for public servants to use as test sites for their innovative ideas and solutions. 


“How do we realise ideas that end up impacting ministries, agencies, and most importantly, citizens? It can be difficult when public servants bring these ideas to our bosses, but they can’t envision it because these ideas have yet to be more than words,” said Safuan. 


MRANTI’s living labs hence exist as an “innovation playground” for public servants, rife with dedicated labs for 5G technology, autonomous vehicles, and bioscience labs for the healthcare and agritech sectors. Most recently, MRANTI Park has also launched an Integrated Healthcare Cluster to beta test emerging healthcare technologies at five selected hospitals.


“We are all adults, but I think we need to have a little fun of our own to spark innovation. I encourage all government officials in Malaysia to use MRANTI as your sandbox and play area to test your technologies, and we will have programmes and guidelines to help your R&D solutions scale up,” Safuan said. 


Digital capacity building: All inclusive, no exceptions 

While digital transformation will bring about many socio-economic benefits to the nation, Ms Nor Haily Maizura Binti Hussein, Senior Director at MyDIGITAL Corporation, highlighted the need to bear vulnerable demographics in mind. The B40 – the bottom 40 per cent of Malaysian households that earn less than RM4,850 (USD$1,093) – have been pushed further into income and employment loss due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she noted.

“We also need to talk about the final 3 per cent of unconnected Malaysians living in rural remote areas, and accessibility considerations for vulnerable groups such as hose that are visually impaired, who may possibly have more trouble with transactions once everything goes digital,” Haily added. 

The Ministry of Economy is leveraging technology and public-private partnerships to mitigate disparities between rural and urban development in Malaysia moving forward. 

For instance, MyDIGITAL Corporation – a subsidiary of the Ministry of Economy – is currently developing a proof of concept for a digital marketplace. This platform would link suppliers and buyers along the value chain to create sustainable local economic development in many parts of the country.


As for the 97 per cent of the population that is already connected, Raymond emphasised that digital literacy remains key to ensuring that Malaysia’s workforce stays competitive in an age of a digital talent crunch. 


The same VMware study, found that while Malaysians are more open than most to embracing digital transformation, almost half (48 per cent) of Malaysian respondents believe that it is the government’s responsibility to increase citizens’ personal digital literacy levels. 


“We can no longer wait four years for a digitally skilled graduate to come into the workforce, we have to look at just-in-time learning and micro-credentials to ensure that we have the right skill sets to move along our digital transformation journey. This is something we must do for ourselves, as well as our children,” he said. 

This article was sponsored by VMware