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Exclusive: Coffee with Dato’ Yasmin Mahmood, CEO of MDeC

AvantiKumar | Oct. 3, 2014
A chance meeting with Malaysian ICT agency MDeC's new leader, industry veteran Dato' Yasmin Mahmood, turns into an opportunity to view IT's role in building a developed knowledge economy by 2020.

I am also a strong supporter of women empowerment, education, digital inclusion for rural folks, and with this appointment (as CEO of MDeC), I feel blessed that my passion is now my job! Furthermore, after so long being in the industry and experiencing the business side of the ecosystem, being on the government side now gives me such deep and enlightening new perspectives. I still have so many things to learn.
Over the years, Malaysia has embarked on a multi-path journey towards a stronger economy. These paths traverse vital areas such as a green economy, a bio economy.  These are obviously exciting areas, but I still see the ICT space as most exciting. In my mind, digital economy still leads. The quantum and pace of innovation, the new s- curves it produces, is still the most exciting. 

We still have so much room to deepen our presence in existing areas of focus areas that we are already have a strong foundation in, such as SSO, where we are among the top three in the world.  Our challenge is an exciting one, and along the way we also explore new areas that we can leverage on to be a global leader. 

We must discover more areas that we can be aggressive, and smart in, then make strategic moves to envelop them in our thriving ecosystem.

Game-changing developments
At the same time, we see new, exciting, and game-changing fields such as Big Data. During the visit to New York last week, my team and I met with a few Big Data Analytics (BDA) players that are doing innovative, high impact things with BDA.  On the domestic front, I know we have a few BDA players, both local and foreign companies that are also doing some great work. But the key in BDA play remain the people, or 'data scientists'. This is a key ingredient. There is a sense of urgency for us to 'land' BDA in the country in an aggressive, high impact, and sustainable way.

Of course, the picture is not complete without two key enablers: talent and technopreneurship development. On the latter, I know MDEC has done a lot in the past.  And with the forming of MaGIC [Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre], and especially Cheryl Yeoh at its helm as chief executive officer, I think we can create a new game changing impact to the tech startup scene.  MDeC will collaborate and support MaGIC, so the sum of the whole is incrementally greater than the sum of each.  Cheryl brings the youthful energy of Silcon Valley and I hope to bring the wisdom of a veteran.  I joke with Cheryl that two generations of women are driving this agenda!

Another exciting area, and one which is close to my heart, is the Digital Transformation Plan, or Digital Malaysia (DM) that MDEC has been given the mandate to drive, along with other ministries and stakeholders.  This part of what we do, which in some ways parallels what PEMANDU [Performance Management Delivery Unit, attached to the PM's Office] does, but am more specific towards driving digital economy.  This is an important transformation that will bring a multi-generational behavioural shift towards access, adoption and use of technology across sectors and communities. There is still not enough understanding of what DM is, I think.  So education would be another key area of focus.  But even more urgent is the fact that there must be a sense of urgency to 'land' the high impact and sustainable outcomes of DM for the country and people.
I have had lots to think about and feel blessed that I have many smart, talented and passionate people on my team. I have a very supportive government, and we already have an exciting set of successful people in the industry that are eager to contribute and offer their expertise and experience to help us take MSC and DM to the next level for the country.

I see my new role as being an opportunity to shepherd the ICT industry towards creating positive high impact for Malaysia. Not only that, but the growth through impact must be significant and must be sustainable for the next generation and generations to come. Do not be mistaken that I know everything. Everyone is learning all the time, and those who tell you otherwise are quite likely mistaken. But this opportunity has placed me in a perspective where I have the capacity to view things from multiple points of view. The new experiences gained thus far have been highly enriching for me personally and has further motivated me to look beyond traditional points of view. After all, if we do not, how are we to motivate those we expect to be innovators?

The last point, and probably the most important, is the subject of Talent.  But that requires another three cups of coffee, so let's save that for another time!

Q: With 2020 looming, are you confident that the IT sector will play an even more significant role in helping Malaysia's first world status aspirations? What are your ideas to promote the ICT agenda in Malaysia and also onto the world stage?

The ICT sector was foreseen to be one of the foundation pillars for Malaysia to move towards being a fully-fledged knowledge economy that's driven by innovation, and one that paves the way towards a high income economy. Since then, the industry has evolved in maturity. From providers of basic technology, Malaysia's ICT industry has surged forward and now is at the forefront of technology. Key global ICT industry themes - cloud, social, mobile, Big Data and the internet of things - now pass as easily on the lips of domestic ICT stalwarts as they do in ICT MNCs.

Malaysia has its strengths, and it is clear from this state of things that not only do we have the capacity to learn, but that we can eventually lead. We have been consumers of technology, but now it is time for us to move past that and show the world that Malaysia not only uses technology, but leads the way in unique and motivational methods while producing innovation for the world.

A good example as we know is our Shared Services and Outsourcing (SSO) industry, which is ranked third worldwide (after China and India). SSO today is no longer merely providing outsourcing, but due to business concerns, business entities are now demanding more results-oriented solutions, and that is exactly what we've grown to provide them. Beyond that we should also look at going deeper into other areas, because at the end of the day, it's all about establishing positive and sustainable high impact for Malaysia. As they say, keeping us one step above the rest.

We should always challenge ourselves to go deeper and to do things more effectively and efficiently. We should not only look to benchmark ourselves regionally and globally, but aim to lead the region or world in whatever we are doing. At this point of time I cannot disclose at this stage some of these areas are, but we definitely are looking at strategic areas from a global perspective.

And in addition, we must not only nurture the ICT stalwarts, but must look towards the development of the entire ecosystem for Malaysian innovation to continue flourishing. This is not only about looking at one company that does something, but also to look at its entire supporting structure, including supply chain, both fiscal and financial.

Research and collaboration is vital to create high impact, be it in such areas such as fostering domestic innovation, transforming education, enabling jobs and opportunities and attracting FDI into Malaysia. To achieve this, we must continue to not only retain the best brains in Malaysia but to create such an environment as to extract the best of foreign talent. That's why public-private partnerships are a vital component of the structure. The public sector can create a much more business friendly environment, which in turn will attract the best of the best.

Whilst we are doing that, it is only natural that domestically we focus closely on skill enhancement. The ICT industry is extremely skills-driven and high knowledge workers will serve to take anything we do to the next level. Highly skilled domestic talent will not only create an attractive business environment, but has a much higher chance of strongly encouraging quality domestic investment. Major technological areas of the ICT industry such as Cloud and Big Data serve a strong vertical of other industries, and this presents strategic opportunities for Malaysia.

On the industrial front, ICT cuts across all the major sectors and serves as catalyst for them to fulfil their greatest potential. Domestic SMEs of which Malaysia has a strong number need to start investing smartly in technology and stop seeing it as cost towards the bottom-line. ICT is a business enabler that paves the way for greater productivity and operational efficiencies if used effectively. Today it is even more affordable as many ICT organizations innovate towards the result-driven approach. The question of capital expenditure no longer has as significant impact as it has in the past.

For larger corporates, new technologies such as Cloud Services and Big Data must be taken with a view of actually reducing cost and expanding the profit model rather than an additional expense. The impending launch of the Big Data Framework will have positive impact not only major interest areas such as business and finance, but other critical nation-building fields such as medicine. As you know, the government is in the process of rolling out various pilot projects in the public sector such as for crime prevention and price watch. We need to continue attracting the world's best data scientists into Malaysia in order to catalyse the ongoing development of local talent.

We have also witnessed the successes from the ETP [Economic Transformation Programme] and GTP (Government Transformation Programme). Now is the time to both dovetail and lead with the DTP (Digital Transformation Programme), which is what we're currently working on.

Q: Do you believe women are now well represented across the Malaysian IT industry? In what ways do you think Malaysia is at the forefront of giving women opportunities to achieve leadership positions in your experience?

I have always been a firm believer in diversity and that includes gender. Female empowerment is a topic very close to my heart. And ICT provides opportunities for women to contribute economically not only on an individual level but also towards national development.

As I see it, right now a key issue in female empowerment is not in terms of skills, but in terms of a better channel to work-life balance. The internet serves as a market access enabler, and there is no reason corporates should not leverage on this in order to tap into the female work force, when traditional methods may instead isolate them.

My hope is for MDeC to be known as an agency that catalyses and opens the eyes of the industry in the country, spurring them to consider flexible and agile solutions, instead of sticking with tried and true. As they say, if there is no change, there is an illusion of safety, when in reality the whole world is sprinting past you. My hope is also all segments and communities of the country will be participants of the digital economy to fulfil their aspirations.  To quote Johan Mahmood of Talent Corp "Our Nation deserves great ambitions".  I fully subscribe to it, and intend to contribute towards those ambitions.  God Willing.


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