Datuk Yasmin Mahmood, Chief Executive Officer, Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation

By Apala Bhattacharya

Women in GovTech 2018 Special Report.

How do you use technology/policy to improve citizens’ lives? Tell us about your role or organisation.

My team and I are working hard for all segments and communities of the country to be participants of the digital economy to fulfil their aspirations. Among the challenges we face, the one perhaps closest to my heart - and the hearts of all parents - is preparing our children for the world that lies ahead. I have cited that World Economic Forum quote many times - that 65% of our children in schools today will be coming out to jobs that don’t even exist today - but it never gets too old.

MDEC has participated in many nation-building projects such as the Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ) to encourage the Malaysian small-medium enterprise (SME) community to embrace eCommerce. It has brought in foreign direct investments (FDIs) into Malaysia; nurtured the Malaysian technology ecosystem, including startups and local companies to world-class levels; empowered the future generation with the necessary skills and knowledge (via MyDigitalMaker); and encouraged inclusivity amongst the citizens through initiatives such as eRezeki and eUsahawan so that the rakyat could earn additional income from the Digital Economy.

What has been the most exciting thing that you worked on in 2018?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will be very much driven by AI in combination with other emerging technologies that are happening, such as in the fields of Nanotech or Neurotech and, of course, all that involves the building of a big data analytics system. This year we have been at the forefront of some key AI-linked initiatives, which we envision will drive larger waves across the ecosystem such as Smartcity Brain.

However, MDEC is in the centre of many different sectors. Even though I have served more than four years as CEO of MDEC, I am still as enthused as ever by the talent in Malaysia - particularly in the creative content and games industry. Over the last year, kids as well as startups have continued to forge new roads in the global market - solidifying our claim as a hub for games!

Despite a demanding year, I was delighted that our digital economy's contribution to the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is on an upwards trajectory.

According to the Department of Statistics Malaysia, the digital economy has contributed some 18.3% of GDP in 2017, outpacing the national GDP growth of 9.9% This includes strong YoY (year on year) growth by our eCommerce sector, which recorded an increase of 14.3% This means our digital economy is on track to surpass the 20% target in 2020. 

On a personal note, I was delighted to be recognised as among the world’s 100 most influential people in digital government by Apolitical, an independent UK-based global network for government which focuses on helping public servants find solutions to issues, and have flown the Malaysian flag high at important international events such as the World Economic Forum.

If you were to share one piece of advice that you learned in 2018, what would it be?

For me personally, it has been an absolute honour to steer the MDEC ship over more than four years as we served the nation to the best of our experience and abilities. I believe that the inculcation of the work ethics and spirit of the private sector - especially from my 30 years of multinational company experience helming companies such as Microsoft, Dell and HP - into MDEC sums up the one piece of advice I would offer: high performance culture.

When I met up with my wonderful MDEC team on 8 December 2018 to talk about why I was moving on to a new chapter in my career, I highlighted that it was imperative that they continue with the “High Performance Culture” in the best interest of Malaysia in their service to the nation. I told them that the best way to honour all our achievements over the past few years is by maintaining and enhancing the culture we have built up as a team. Our high performance culture is the root of the tree while its branches are the different initiatives that drive and grow the nation’s Digital Economy.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2019?

There are so many: among these is AI, which I prefer to view as "Augmented Intelligence" or even "Assisted Intelligence", rather than "Artificial Intelligence."
With the Fourth Industrial Revolution now in full-swing, companies can no longer second guess themselves as newer innovations continue to show up and consistently shake-up the existing state of affairs. Industrial trends like big data analytics, machine learning, internet of things, virtual and augmented reality, mobility, artificial intelligence and eCommerce have already broken the proverbial glass ceiling as they move to digitise the world.

As I have said before many times, the internet serves as a market access enabler and industry needs to work even more closely with academia and the government to ensure that we maintain momentum as a nation forging our space in the digital world.

What are your priorities for 2019?

For Malaysia, I will continue to support, and inspire all those who approach me to contribute to the nation's preparation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While I maintain that we must speed up the development of talent and up-skilling ourselves, we must remember humans are at the centre of every step forward in digitalisation.

The fundamental aim for the nation is to continue on a course to galvanise an ecosystem to nurture the adoption of digital throughout different sectors. Our communities can then access local and global opportunities regardless of time or place to help grow the nation's Gross National Income, as well as enhanced productivity and improved standards of living.

On a personal level, I am at heart an entrepreneur and an industry spirit! My decision to leave MDEC at this time stems from the fact that it is time for me to do so. It is a ‘natural close’ for us all, as I told my wonderful MDEC team. There are fantastic opportunities for startups in these times, and I will be joining a tech startup in Jakarta in the coming year.

What is one skill that has helped you the most throughout the course of your career?

There are many factors I feel that have helped me forge my career: such as passion, dedication, being open to and saying yes to the right opportunities, and never giving up.

Perhaps one forgotten skill is to remember that the devil is in the details, as they say, and a successful career person has to be able and willing to take care of the little things as well – no matter how menial or how unglamorous it may seem.

What advancements do you predict will happen in your field in the next ten years?

What I find truly inspiring is that the digital era is opening up new avenues for all parts of our society. Regardless of location or gender, the right connectivity, training and support is allowing women to engage and benefit from opportunities - not only for themselves but for the nation's progression.

Coffee, yoga, music… what powers you through your day?

While I keep to a ‘never say die!’ attitude to work, I believe it is just as important to find the right work-life balance! To relax, I exercise – yoga, cardio, swimming – go to the movies and play golf.