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.

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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!