Category Archives: Malaysia

The Truth – The New Competitive Advantage

Man Thinking

 

“The boss is always right,” said the guy sitting behind me in my Project Management MBA class. He was some senior executive in a listed company that made a whole lot more money than I did.

“You shouldn’t question your boss too much and you should just go ahead and get the work done, even if you feel that the job is going to be an utter waste of time. Know who signs your cheques.” he continued.

I looked at him and thought to myself that the statement was one of the most idiotic statements I’ve ever heard in a long long time. I then just shook my head because I realised that his statement, while stupid, was a fact of life in many organizations around the world. Malaysian organizations tend to have this culture of “respecting” the boss embedded in their corporate culture under the guise of “Asian Values“. You will note that I added quotation marks around the two key phrases in the previous sentences. The reason is simple – it’s utter bollocks.

Empowering Employees

The reality is that many Malaysian organizations create an environment of fear that permeates around a boss that is seen as almighty. I find that rather stupid, not because I’m a pretentious 27 year old manager who thinks I know better, but because people should be evaluated on their ideas not their statuses.

Ideas are like raindrops.  Too little, and you get a drought. Too much, and you get flooding. Traditional managers tend to treat this flooding as problematic and a threat to their positions. Ideas are a fountain of wealth. You just need to know how to control it and manipulate it – just like how the Three Gorges Dam taps the strength of the raindrops flowing into the Yangtze River and manipulates it into hydro-electric power.

For the average manager, the “Three Gorges Dam” equivalent to idea damming is to create an environment where people can openly challenge your ideas. This is not easy. If somebody comes up to me and tells me that my ideas are weak, it does hit my ego. Saying that it does not hurt would be lying. But what I’ve come to learn over the years, is that a hit on an idea is not equivalent as a hit on an individual. Attacking ideas is necessary in order to make it stronger. It will also enable management teams to evaluate the potential weaknesses of the concept and prepare a plan that looks at both the strength and the weaknesses of it.

The Practical Ideas To Facilitate Truth Telling

Technically, everybody who was attacking my ideas, was a powerful ally to have around. It meant that they cared. It means that they were truthful enough to stand up and defend status quo because they had a genuine concern that changing it would mean disaster. Because more debates are happening and people are telling the truth rather than sucking up to the boss, the business as a whole benefits because better decisions can be made. The question that I get asked when I’m on my mentoring circles is usually what I have done to facilitate truth telling by employees. The few things that I have done is as follows:

  1. I’ve created an environment where my leadership teams have a vested interest to take care of their people. Because every general is as good as his soldiers, ensuring that my team leaders must look out for their people in order to look out for themselves is an important component of this program. When employees start realising that their leadership teams have a vested interest to take care of their needs, then they will tend to be more open.
  2. I’ve created staff focus networks, with volunteers who feel that they are vocal enough to voice things out to me. They get feedback from the staff and come back to me with the plain truth. The staff are protected and focus networks know that they are only the messengers. What’s interesting about these networks is that they are also a very important tool to for me to test my new ideas or initiatives. If I have an idea or a problem I need help with, I go to the staff networks and ask them for thoughts. I’ve been impressed more than once with their suggestions.
  3. I make it okay for people to disagree with me as long as they have the facts to back themselves up AND I do not hold grudges over business disputes. What happens in the meeting room or work is what happens in the meeting room or work. It’s irrelevant to the external context as far as I’m concerned. I am also not adverse to saying that my ideas are not working when they fail, and adopt a fast start, fast fail policy. It might bruise the ego a little bit, but it helps keep everybody happy and the business running.
  4. I have made monthly 1-2-1s with staff mandatory. Yes, all managers must build a relationship with their immediate direct reports and must give their employees unfettered access to them if they need to talk about anything. I’m quite surprised how in many organizations people don’t tend to have this relationships with their employees. This works because not only does it build relationships between people in the organization, it also helps create an environment where people get “access” to their leaders. For example in my organization, any employee, no matter how new/low to/in the organization gets to have a 1-2-1 with their line managers and will be able to pull me aside to ask me anything at any time. It’s personally helped me understand my people a whole lot better and helped my team managers get a better feel of the pulse on the ground.

Your the boss, start telling the truth

But does telling the truth just stop with employees? Many management teams fail to tell their people the truth. Telling the truth is a two way process. If employers want employees to be open, management teams have to be open and honest themselves.

It boggles me when I read about how management teams in many cultures prefer to hide problems rather than deal with it head on with their staff. They use the guise of standardization and business continuity in the name of stability. They don’t treat their people as people and hope that the business will prosper. People.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting down in a mentoring session and a the person I was mentoring asked me a key question.

Would you tell people the truth if it hurt your organization and you knew you were going to impacted by it personally because your goals won’t be met?” .

Without hesitation, I answered “Yes”.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no saint. But I am a very logical person. Whenever people ask me questions on how I would deal with a particular people issue, the first thing I do is put myself in the position of people who are going to be impacted by the question. When I do that, I then start to see a different perspective. After that I try to think what the person who will be impacted by this would want to know. On the assumption that everybody would want an answer that is logical, I do what I think is right. It’s harder to do what’s right and tell the truth than to take the easy way out and hide under the mask of business continuity. 

“Yes Suresh, don’t take the high ground. How are you going to respond with the problems that are created after that? Your people would love you but your bosses will kill you and you’ll probably lose all credibility among senior managers.”

What he said made me smile. 

“What did you say in the last 5 seconds that made any mention at all about the people who were going to be impacted?”

I gave him that “aha” moment, and the mentoring session ended. 

So what’s in it for the boss?

Why should bosses tell the truth. Simple, because it builds credibility, empowers your people and is just a whole lot less work. Really, just blatently telling people the truth works and people like it when their boss is honest. In today’s world where the competition for talent is getting even more intense, that’s a competitive advantage that is HUGE!

Secondly, it crushes the validity of rumour networks. Rumours are rumours because people have no authoritative source to go to for information. When management teams start becoming the authoritative source, the rumour networks start losing credibility and you can spend time doing other things. That’s another great benefit.

And really, bosses should start being more real. Let’s all just get off our asses and treat people like people. That’s the ultimate management differentiator. 

 

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A New Journey

Saturday, 21st June 2008, was an extremely cool night. I was standing there in front of the stage in my company’s appreciation night and I gave what I would personally classify as one of my best speeches ever. The crowd rallied, my spirits were up and we had a great after party that followed. It was a speech for my people. The people who had worked so hard for me and who I truly honestly think is the most amazing team I’ve worked with in a good while. The party, was my way of ensuring that these guys were celebrated.

Life on top

Life on top is not all that breezy. Social relationships and constructs of the employer-employee relationships guarantee that things will change no matter how you separate the work life barrier. People listen to me when they don’t have to because I’m their boss. That freaks me out. I’ve framed my life around the fact that the man and the actions or ideas is separate. Hence, outside of work, I’m an ordinary person, not a boss. It’s a concept that not many people can grasp.

But more importantly, when I was sitting by the pool that night during the after party, I looked at the people who were around me. They were all my people. My friends. My staff. They were all imperfect. Heck, I was imperfect. Yet, in my drunken haziness, an epiphany struck me. These were the people, who, no matter how imperfect they were, were perfect as an organizational unit.

The people in the organization I work with are nothing short of impressive. I don’t say it enough, but I truly believe it. I paid a visit to another site office the other day and there were some people talking about the service they were getting from my unit. Sure, it was a small service, but they were saying how professional the people were and were raving about it. I listened, smiled to myself, and got off in the next floor. I never saw them again.

Many Malaysian companies fail to realise that the average Malaysian organization has an advantage that most European and American organizations never have – sheer diversity. It’s an advantage that Malaysians tend to forget simply because we’ve been conditioned to differentiating ourselves and not exploiting the diversity in every aspect of our working life. In reality, the more “campur” (mixed) an organization is, the better it’s chances of surviving in the real world. I really like my team because I see this diversity in the organizational unit and it’s something that I treasure greatly.  But I digress…

The Last Hurrah

Monday, 30th June 2008, will be my last day with Shell IT International. I fondly remember the first day I joined the group. On that day in December 2005, I had signed up for a job which I had no clue about – a Helpdesk Analyst. I had been working in Malacca for two years and missed the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur. Fast forward to 2008, I currently lead a team with 91 people. It’s an organization that has thought me a lot and an organization that I will forever cherish as the place where I truly grew up. So there is a little bit of sadness due to nostalgia in me as I leave this place.

Yet, behind the glassy eyes and the fear at the back of my head, is the excitement of heading to new and unknown territories. I will be joining the Electronic Data Systems Corporation or more popularly known around the world as EDS. Change is always a difficult thing for people. It’s difficult because, you never know what you’re going to get.

But unlike my other big changes in life, this time I have a leverage that I never had before. I have people working for me which I must commit to taking care off. Skilled knowledge workers that are the heartbeat of my organization and that play an extremely important part in my life right now. I have decided that my leadership team will continue to invest in the people that work for me. And it’s an investment that I believe will have big payoffs in time to come. These returns will only be possible if an organization unit makes a concise effort to attract, train and preserve a culture that rewards people for their commitment. My dream is to make an organizational unit where everybody challenges everybody to constantly improve themselves. For me personally, this means making sure I put in the time to make my extended leadership team members better than me. Only then will I have to continuously push the bar higher for myself and reach for the stars.

Which brings me back to the topic at hand. The journey over the next few months is going to be an interesting one. It’s a journey where I will have to deal with the challenges of change and the excitement of new opportunities. I am scared, excited, worried, happy, nervous and exilarated all at the same time. And I know that this only means that I will have to prepare myself for tougher challenges up ahead – which is really cool, because it means that there are plenty of opportunities to learn and provide new learning opportunities.

The 4 Minute Mile

Somebody asked me the other day if I was a mad person for leaving the Oil and Gas industry. After all, with oil prices at USD$143 per barrel, I would be leaving a cushy lifestyle for an extremely competitive environment.

I told that person, that I had this exact same discussion with another individual when I left academia for Shell. I’ve come to realise that the only way you’re going to shine is if you continuously push yourself to do the impossible. What many fail to realise is that if you have the support of your people, even the most impossible tasks, become achievable. For example, when Roger Bannister was the first person to run 1 mile in under 4 minutes in 1954, he had the help of two of his friends Chris Brasher and Chris Chataway, both who acted as pacemakers for Bannister. Mind you, at that point in time, everybody said it was impossible to do a four minute mile. 

Unlike my previous leap from academia to the oil and gas industry, this time, I will have the force of a whole team to back me up in the pursuit of greatness. The reality is that I won’t have all the answers and I don’t know all the questions that I will have to face over the next few months. But my imperfections disappear because I have a perfect team. The sum of my team’s imperfection is an elegant perfection. Elegant perfection.

And although Malaysians continue to doubt ourselves and our abilities to deliver world class services, I’m convinced that I will be able to do it with my team. We’ll kick ass and show the world that Malaysia Boleh, is not a term that is used for stupid records but also a term that is used when we truly put in effort to become the best.  And greatness I will achieve with them.

Onward to EDS!

Are you driving the bus?

Are you riding in the bus or driving it?

Benjamin Franklin was wrong when he said that the only things certain in life are death and taxes. Here’s why.

One of the scariest things that one can undergo is involuntary changes that require you to get out of your comfort zone. Comfort zones are great things to have. You know exactly how everything is operating. You have a sense of direction and a sense of what is both right and wrong. Conditions are stable. In many case, the predictability of things makes you perform at your utmost best and you will be able to shine in your own stated objectives. Such is the oddity of human nature and their comfort zones that it is not unheard of to hear prisoners on life terms (which in some countries equates to 20 years in jail) struggling to adapt to the realities of the real world, when released. In an ideal world, everybody would be in their comfort zones. The reality is that this is not an ideal world and comfort zones are a scarce commodity.

“How do you deal with change Suresh?”, “Why are you so calm?”, “Why aren’t your worried about the same things as I am?”

I am not a super human. Change scares me as much as it does anybody else, but I’ve learnt to respond to it quite differently. I have in the past talked about how my job is constantly under threat from individuals in cost advantaged regions. Ironically, I’m an individual that’s currently living in a cost advantaged region. Shouldn’t this be the least of my concerns? The answer is no. Because I’m driving the bus.

 

Best Offshoring Locations

Source : The Economist

The table above ranks the most attractive offshoring locations in the world. I know that emerging players in the services offshoring / outsourcing industry (in the red box I’ve highlighted above), will slowly start climbing the ranks of today’s cost advantaged region. That means Malaysia will be under threat in couple of years. But it also means that there is an opportunity to use the lessons learnt in the present industry state to move up the value chain. One comment I usually get from my views is that Europeans and Americans don’t share my sentiments because Asia is a growing region for IT and theirs is not. This is a view I disagree with.

Enter Glocalization.

The ability to think globally and act locally is a paradigm that is now becoming more apparent. Sure, work might be moving away from Western Europe but that doesn’t mean India and Malaysia are the right destinations. We’ve all heard of the Bangalore horror stories and seen how they’ve failed when they tried to pretend to be who they are not. Glocalization applies to both the customer being served as well as the server.

In fact, the expansion of the European Union and the pervasiveness of cut price budget airlines like Ryan Air, provides an amazing opportunity for work to move to Eastern Europe. I believe this definitely makes more sense, since the cultural gap among the two worlds (Eastern and Western Europe) is certainly less than moving work to Asia. Bulgaria, who joined the EU club in January, is moving up the ranks to fill this niche market. This means IT workers will have tonnes of opportunities just a stones throw away, in a single European nation. As for the US, Mexico is certainly an option that is thriving, and hence also opens up opportunities for both parties to flourish.

A bus is a very interesting analogy to use in the outsourcing / off-shoring debate. For many workers in companies that are partaking in an outsourcing initiative, there really is nothing much you can do to change the direction of the company. This is particularly so if the company is a large multinational corporation, where decision are usually made by individuals in far off lands. To use a parallel analogy, a bus, like a company, usually has predefined route. The route is generally unchangeable, and like the company, is usually determined by its economic feasibility. In general, people usually say that you have two options :

  1. Ride on the current bus, or
  2. Use another alternative means of transportations – like the LRT (or metro).

But I believe in a whole new dimension. I choose to drive the bus.

Take control. Seize the moment. Embrace the uncertainty.

Empowerment

Empowerment is a huge first step towards this sense of independence. This can only come with the realization the days of lifelong employment and fat retirement cheques are now over. It’s everybody for himself, both from the perspective of organizations and individuals. In the past, employees could rely on employers to protect their employment status. Similarly, employers in the past didn’t have to deal with attrition as much employees today have to. The trick to managing this is two folds:

From an employee’s perspective

As an employee, one must realise that organizations generally are loyal to their shareholders, and I must state that there is nothing wrong with this. After all, who can deny the importance of a return on investment or for a company to continue to be profitable. Nobody is obliged to be charitable and one has to acknowledge that the carrot for enterprises to risk their investments and expand relies on good profitability. If you can accept this statement, then you also must realise that the people are the lifeline of any organization. Many IT workers forget that as you move up the value chain, there is only so many things that can be automated. Hence, as an individual, one must be prepared to constantly upgrade themselves to ensure that you continue to add the requisite value points to your individual scorecard. While many people prefer to bandy about the phrase Employee Value Proposition (EVP), I personally believe that individuals are just as responsible to ensure they bring value to the organization.

From an employer’s perspective

Employers must realise that they must continue to empower their workers to make choices. Firstly, because it’s good for business as the best talents usually want to work for a good employer. But more importantly, it also ensures that the organization gets the best value of it’s money. Attrition, which is the scourge of many companies is usually why organizations in Asia generally refuse to train people. But my perspective is vastly different.

Firstly, I believe that by empowering people, the business gets better decisions made and operates with even greater efficiency and effectiveness. If you have the best people, you should, theoretically, make more profits. And I’ll admit, I’m not the first to realise this. Google, has for many years attracted the top talent, and allowed them to nuture their skills by providing programs like the do-what-you-want-1-day-a-week-program. Talent and talent exploitation will be key assets to every organization.

But the dimensions to this take a second twist. I believe that by empowering people, we create a realm of “good attrition”. Historical definitions of attrition generally takes a negative twist. The need and the cost associated with attrition generally has painted attrition as a negative element. There will always be cost associated with attrition but I believe that the attrition dimension takes a different spin when dealing with knowledge workers. Here’s why.

Assuming you have a worker called Anthony. Anthony is a top performer and an invaluable asset to the company. As a modern employer, I would ensure that I adequately develop and train Anthony although I know that he might take away my training and potentially someday even set up his own venture. But why? What’s in it for me as an employer? The answer to this is that if Anthony leaves, 5 other people from other companies or organizations who know Anthony either directly or indirectly will say – “that’s a great place to work, look what happened to Anthony!”. What’s more, the 5 people then tell another 5 people who go on to tell another 5 people. In marketing, nothing beats advertising like hard core advocates and fan-boys. I couldn’t agree more. Letting Anthony or any other typical worker drive the bus, ensures that all parties benefit.

Steps to empowerment

One of the questions I commonly get from the many people I work with is how I maintain my positive outlook in these tumulus and uncertain times. It’s split into a couple of dimensions.

Think World Class

Firstly, I’ve come to accept that nobody owes me anything. Not my present employer, not my future employer. And this has a lot to do with the fact that I grew up in a country with a slightly twisted, but necessary at that time, affirmative action policy. But this fact has nothing to do with what I am. For many years, I’ve always believed that the only way to succeed is to strive for world class quality. In my debating career for example, I moved from being a nobody in 1999 when I attended my first Asian Debate Championship to becoming the Best Speaker in Asia in 2002. When I moved into coaching, I developed and set the foundations for the team that nobody knew had the chance to become world beaters. I took a slightly challenged team, moulded them, inspired them and set the foundations right for them to grow. When I left the team to explore new options in my life, I had already ensured that they were among the top 4 teams in Asia. All of this in a span of just 1 year.

I continue to push myself even today when I believe that everything I do, must be world class. I will continue to benchmark myself against ordinary people who become world beaters like Tony Fernandes, of AirAsia fame, and JK Rowling, of the Harry Potter fame. Remember, do, then apologise if you have to. Think world class means acting world class and that means taking risks.

Acquire Knowledge

Secondly, never stop enriching yourself with knowledge. Last year, I signed up for an MBA. It’s a tough thing to do. After all, it seems to me like every time I have to complete an assignment, my friends are going out on a party. It seems to me like every time I have to complete an assignment, there’s something on television that I really like. Every time I have to complete an assignment, another more fun thing pops up. It’s really hard. Sometimes I don’t really know how I juggle it. And then I remember, I need to drive the bus. I smile and then move on. Still, having fun is more fun and when you’re my age, and it’s not too good for the dating life either. 😉

But do I have to sign up for a course?

It’s one of the ways, yes, but not the only way. Enrichment can also come in the form of knowledge acquisition. Whether it’s reading my favourite magazine the Economist, or using Google news alert to get a summary of the latest summary of what’s happening, KNOWLEDGE IS POWER! Do what works for you.

Accept Feedback

Lastly, always welcome constructive feedback. I’m young, hard headed and many a times an idiot when it comes to handling people because I’m inexperienced. I also have a male ego. Let’s face it, at 26, there’s only so much of the world I’ve seen. But this is where I really began to realise the importance of accepting feedback. There’s a wealth of information out there and because of societal pressure or the need to be politically correct, people refrain from giving feedback. As an individual, one is responsible for ensuring that there is an adequate environment for feedback to occur. Never piss on somebody because they are providing negative feedback directly to you. These people are invaluable assets that you must nurture. After all, if you’re driving the bus, the the alignment does run every now and then. The trick is to take it to the shop when somebody tells you about it and thank him greatly.

Have you ripped your ticket?

Benjamin Franklin would have been right if he said that the only things certain is death, taxes and change. I’m driving the bus. Are you?

People – our most important asset

Baby eyes

Pak Lah’s acknowledgment that human capital was an engine of growth for the country was a breath of fresh air.

“Our people are our most precious asset. They are the key to the building of a more prosperous nation,” he said in his keynote address titled “Deepening co-operation towards a true community” at the start of the two-day 13th Nikkei International Conference on the Future of Asia here.

“We are aware that we cannot continue doing the same things and expect the same results. We know that we have to raise our game by more than a few notches. We have, in fact, to break new ground.”

The prime minister, who is on a five-day working visit to Japan, also said Malaysians would have to respond more effectively to the forces of globalisation, market liberalisation and increased competition.

He added, however, that the government did not see greater protection and protectionism as the solution to globalisation.

For people unfamiliar with my train of thought, I’ve commented in the past that the Malaysian government needs to ensure that they continue to address how the world is currently changing and apply it to the Malaysian scenario. The demand for human talent and capital and the proliferation of the talent wars require that we change how we operate and think. A key item in the talent wars is ensuring that Malaysian students are empowered to think, be creative and push themselves. Malaysia needs to be brave. And acknowledgment that protectionism and protectionist policies are not the solution to globalisation is a huge push forward on this front.

Of outsourcing, offshoring and the IT Industry

Call Center Girl

It’s interesting to read Thomas Friedman’s the world is flat and realise that I’m not the only one recognizing that competition is inherently a good thing. I work in the IT industry and my current job scope involves managing transition to support activities for projects which will transition into operations. My job is and will continue to be a threat from people who can do it cheaper, faster and more efficiently from all around the world. The trick of it all is to ensure that you fully recognize this threat and deal with it.

Outsourcing and off-shoring are terms that are often used wrongly. Outsourcing refers to the delegation of non-core from internal production to an external entity specializing in the management of that operation. An example of this would be companies that outsource their call centres to external organizations. TMNutNet for example used to outsource all their first line support for their Streamyx service to VADS. TMNet has since purchased VADS. Off-shoring on the other hand, describes the relocation of business processes from one country to another. An example of this would be when Intel moves their manufacturing operations from the United States to Penang, and now to China. The manufacturing operations are still owned and run by Intel, but relocated to another country to usually take advantage of the lower operating expenses.

The key term often applicable to the IT industry is outsourcing. Companies all around the world are looking at India, China, the Philippines and Malaysia as global hubs to outsource their current IT Operations. After all, if your key competency is selling cars, why should you want to bother about maintaining and developing complex computer systems? Email is email is email and whether it’s managed by the IT department of Ford Motors or WiPro is irrelevant. Detractors of outsourcing often argue that IT is business critical and hence should never leave the control of core business. But so is electricity, the postal system and telecommunications. The reality is simple. Companies will specialize in niche areas that will churn a good profit. These special skills can then be purchased by other companies so that they can concentrate and specialize in whatever niche areas they specialize in.

Outsourcing blogging
We really don’t have to go too far to see how outsourcing has benefited the ordinary man. In the world of blogging for example, millions of people around the world have outsourced their blogging needs to companies like Blogger, WordPress.com, SixApart and Xanga so that they can concentrate on creating content and not have to bother about the technology behind blogging. For example, in the good old days, I used to install my own blogging software, maintain it by ensuring that it’s always updated and keeping it constantly under scrutiny to ensure that it doesn’t get abused. Enter WordPress.com and today, I don’t have to worry about how the software works. I frankly got tired of keeping up and WordPress.com enables me forget about the hassles. For RM 38 a year, I get the hosting I need and not have to worry about maintenance.

Jobs will be lost
Will jobs be lost? Of course jobs will be lost. In many cases a lot of people talk about job loss in a vacumm. It’s easier to say that it’s okay for jobs to be lost until it’s actually your job on the line. The worry about job loss usually stems from the fact that you cannot innovate and change yourself to fit into new conditions. This is false, wrong, and must be discarded. Policies and people must learn to change in order to fit new developments.

But how can this be done? Let’s flip this question a little bit. Friedman talks about how 3 % of the American population now provide for the food needs of 97% of the population. This used to be reverse just a few hundred years before the industrialization age. Let’s not look far. The development of the Internet created millions of jobs that couldn’t otherwise have been created. Just look at the thousands of traders on Ebay. Ebay sellers who were people who recognized that there was a changing world out there and took full advantage of it. They changed their habits. They persevered.

Governments usually respond to change in two ways. The first is to embrace the change and the second is to erect barriers to that change. China is a great example where the government realised that it was time to embrace a changing wave and embraced it. A hub for offshoring, China is using its phenomenal army of people as base to leverage the economies of scale for the manufacturing business. India is where it is today because Manmohan Singh was instrumental in opening up their economy in the 90s.

The Malaysian government on the other hand is building even more barriers. The New Economic Policy has a lot to do with this. Malaysia tries to market itself as a progressive, modern Islamic state who welcomes companies bringing in business to the country. The Multimedia Super Corridor project was heralded as one of the few projects that was supposed to thrust Malaysia into the 21st Century. On paper, all seems nice. But beneath the surface of things, a few problems begin to emerge because the Malaysian government has erected barriers to resist the change. Major government linked corporations like Telekom Malaysia (who owns TM Net) control and monopolise key IT infrastructure in the country. The perceived xenophobic behaviour of many UMNO leaders during the last UMNO general assembly not only threatened non-Malays in the country but also scared off a lot of foreign investors. The government must realise that political stability is the one factor that Malaysia has over India, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. If the perception that that stability is no longer there proliferates, the Malaysian economy is in for a massive beating. In reality, Malaysia must start to realise that protectionist policies such as preferential treatment of bumiputera companies and individuals will only continue to hurt it. The move to recognize this and promote opportunities for international investors in the Iskandar Development Region, is certainly welcomed. While just 10 years ago Malaysia was probably the prefered investment destination, today India and China are taking away our jobs at a much faster rate.

But is it really all doom and gloom for the Malaysian IT professional?

The light at the end of the tunnel
Hardly! The IT industry in this country is booming at a rate never before seen in the past. Companies are setting up back offices in Cyberjaya in a massive scale and IT jobs are aplenty. The massive unemployment rate that we’ve seen with IT graduates in this country is not because of the lack of jobs, but because of the lack of quality education in this country. Our IT workforce is one of the least prepared after tertiary education and our children are unwilling to think out of the box. The age of the knowledge worker has caught on to rote learning in our education system and something needs to be done to change all of it before we will see more improvement.

The trick to keeping up with India and China is to continue to re-invent ourselves. This must be done not only by the leaders who chart the future of a country but also by individuals who want to stay relevant. There must be recognition that outsourcing, like automation, will not hinder or stiffle us, but will create more opportunities for us to grow and move up the value chain. The rest they say, is up to you.

Why Malaysia needs creative thinkers

Michael Backman’s latest column – Malaysia bites back and industriously trades the insults – has a few very interesting observations from which I will quote and comment on in this article.

Education is the obvious answer. But not on school buildings, for it matters less in what children are educated than how. And how children are educated in Malaysia is a national disaster.

Learning is largely by rote. In an email to me last week, one Malaysian recalled her schooling as being in a system all about spoon-feeding, memory work and regurgitation.

Students are not encouraged to think for themselves and they become adults who swallow everything they’re told.

Even the existing system fails many. It has just emerged that in Sabah state, only 46 per cent of the students who had sat the UPSR — the exam that students sit before going to secondary school — had passed. One small school actually had a 100 per cent failure rate.

But does the Malaysian Government want creative, critical thinkers? Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said to the ruling party’s recent general assembly Malaysia needed to make students creative. But that means they must be questioning and thus critical; what hope is there of that when one of Abdullah’s own ministers tells Malaysians that they cannot say the things that I can and hundreds of them write to me to complain because they don’t feel that they can complain to their own Government?

The subject of creative students is something that I hold very closely to my heart. The reason for this is that I’ve seen this from two perspectives – both as somewhat a “rebel” student and as a “rebel” academician.

 

One of the biggest problems I used to face as a Malaysian student, was the fact that the Malaysian education system just didn’t fit my inquisitive nature. I didn’t want to just know the facts, I wanted to know why and how. I clearly remember a biology teacher who thought me in form five. The name escapes me, but I clearly remember she coming in one day and telling the whole class that just because we were boys, she would skip a whole biology chapter on the human reproductive system. She said, and I’m paraphrasing here, but “You are boys, you should know. And if you don’t, just memorize it”. Then there were the many History teachers who said that the only way to get a good grade in History is the memorize the whole damn book. The whole rot learning didn’t really stop once I left the secondary school system. In University there were some lecturers who refused to see that it was their responsibility to not only make their subjects interesting but also relevant to modern times. I was dying and craving for a lecturer to push me to the limits but not telling me everything. I wanted them to open the window of the world to me, and let me explore the rest.

 

I think what surprised some students was the fact that I was willing to make mistakes. For one, I was extremely involved in the debating society. There were semesters where I used to spend more time debating than actually studying. But I always made it a point to attend all lectures where the lecturer was good, and where I knew I was deriving value from. The risk from concentrating on debates was the fact that if I wasn’t getting value out of it I would never hear the end of the “I-told-you-that-you-should-have-concentrated-on-your-studies” comments. While this to a certain extent worried my parents, I must say, the moment that summarised it all was when my dad told me that he was glad I did the whole debate thing once I started working. And it must be said, that I will always be thankful to the coach Praba Ganesan for the tireless afternoons and evenings he used to spend with us.

 

As a rebel academician, I used to find creative ways to push my kids. I used to derive great satisfaction from the fact that I used to have classes packed with students although I was the only lecturer teaching that subject with an 8 a.m. class. My reviews were great because I always believed in

  • Making my classes real and relevant, often with real world examples that the kids could relate to
  • Encouraging kids to question and challenge me
  • Rewarding enthuthiasm

One class that I had hoped would teach the students not to follow whatever I thought blindly was to go into a class and teach the kids the wrong thing. I wanted to see how many students would pick up that I was going down the right path and that my reasoning, while sounding correct, would make no mathematical sense if you thought about it. I was a little disappointed that nobody pointed out immediately, but followed it through by scolding the class for not responding. What was interesting was that one kid came up to me later and said she knew I was wrong, but didn’t have the nerve to tell me so because the teacher is always right. And this is where Malaysian society must change. We must change because we must learn to question. The teacher is not always right.

 

Which is why I value the debate that hardliner Mohd Elfie Niesham Juferi a.k.a MENJ creates when he questions some of my previous writings. Mohd Elfie asks non-muslims to keep views to themselves, quoting that religion must be left to the experts and nobody else may question religion. Enter Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin. Dr Mohd Asri, the new Perlis mufti, argues that religious leaders can be challenged and that they must allow free debate to occur. Said Dr Mohd Asri

“The Quran often says ‘Bring forth your arguments if you are indeed truthful,’ and ‘summon your witnesses other than Allah if you are indeed truthful’,” said Asri.

He contrasted this with the strong, often angry, responses of Muslims towards any questioning of their religion.

“They are always reacting and asking, ‘What actions are we taking? This is deviant! This has gone astray!’ and so on… Whatever view does not concur with theirs, they go amok instead of presenting arguments, reasons and evidence and answering intellectually,” said Asri.

The ability to respond appropriately and effectively to the challenges the ummah (Muslim community) is faced with, ideological or otherwise, is itself the biggest challenge, said Asri.

“The biggest problem is the state of the ummah’s present sense of self,” he said.

An idea, once introduced, may be only temporarily silenced by force, but it cannot be killed off except by an idea more powerful than the first, Asri said.

“That idea will live on in the minds and thoughts of people. If we want to do away with an idea or understanding, it is not by the use of force. It is by bringing in more powerful arguments,” he added.

The phrase “It is by bringing in more powerful arguments” keeps ringing in my ears. Which is why initiatives that aim to silence groups like the Article 11 coalition through mob justice will never work. To a certain extent Dr Asri is among the few leaders who are slowly begining to realise that you cannot tell people to accept something just because you are old, sport a long beard and because you demand it. And Malaysia must learn to accept that just because Mohd Elfie’s view is different that he is not any lesser. He’s a valuable player in the Malaysian space for greater freedom of speech and debate.

 

But why do we need creative thinkers?

 

Simple, because in a flat, globalised world like ours today, if we do not empower our people we’re going to lose out to countries like India and China who are willing to do so. And even if they are not, with a population of one billion people, even a tiny fraction of 1 % will result in more smart and creative people than the population of urban Malaysia.

 

For that we must empower our kids with English, and we must make sure that these kids are trained from young that they must be inquisitive and creative. Learning, not studying, must be emphasied with everybody. We can close an eye on our declining education standards and keep churning out degrees, but the open markets will correct itself. Companies will not hire idiots who come waltzing in with degrees. A degree today is worth no more than an SPM certificate, unless you make it worth it.

 

Corporations are coming up with new and creative ways to attract talent. The talent wars are on. The only way our graduates can take advantage of they recognise that they cannot rest on their laurels anymore. Learning is no longer an option anymore. The subjects that don’t matter to immature kids like Compiler Design or Mathematics, matter because they help you build foundations that you will use when designing other more complex architectures. Sure, a computer can differentiate and you never really might need to build a new C++ compiler, but understanding how things work is critical to ensuring that you offer that little bit extra to corporations. The world is self correcting, and the lack of quality will come and bite you in the back.

 

And if the government thinks that it can kid itself by talking about creative students and in the same breath ban students from politics, they are in for a big surprise. It’s not really about jobs anymore. Frustrated young unemployed youths, will vote with their feet and join opposition politics because they would not want the same fate to hit their children, and their children’s children. Just like the youth of Kelantan overwhelmingly voted in Barisan National in the last elections because of frustrations, the same could very well happen the government. Everybody has a breaking point and no matter how tight a lid the authorities put on students in universities, it wouldn’t matter anymore. The world is self correcting. I personally hope we reach a breaking point soon.

 

The effect will be mind blowing. I remember the day I first went to the polls. I voted in the opposition parties standing in my area for two reasons:

  1. I was frustrated with the cheating that was going on and wanted to register a protest vote. Since spoilt votes mean nothing to Malaysians, I opted for voting the opposition.
  2. I wanted the authorities to know that a young Indian guy will vote for PAS to make sure that we will have an opposition voice even if I believe that PAS politics are discriminatory. Even hardline Islamic parties need a voice in Parliament.

How could a perfectly rational individual like myself vote for an opposition party that effectively was striving to curtail my rights as an ordinary citizen? Simple, I saw a bigger end game. If I could force the national front to realise that this was a gamble I was willing to take, that it was possible for other people to do the same as well. I was using the fact that the government knew, through the serial number of voting ballots, that I was a non-malay, to push my agenda that we need freer elections.

 

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the fact that excellence is something we cannot compromise on. If we do, we’ll continue to see monkey politicians jumping up and down and labeling “foreigners” like Michael Backman everytime they are critised. Like any eco-system it is those who adapt fastest who will succeed. We bloody hell better adapt because China, India and Vietnam are sure as hell doing it!