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Tragedy of M’sian engineering

 | July 5, 2012

The problem is that most of our technological corporation powerhouses aren't really manufacturers or producers, rather, they are actually service providers.

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Why do we love Tony Fernandes?

Is it because he is a young and successful entrepreneur and that his daring spirit of challenging the status quo truly embodies the Malaysian spirit? Or is it because he makes us proud by owning an English premier league club? Do we love his flamboyant purchases such as a F1 team and, at the same time, brazenly challenge Richard Branson?

While some of us might, I suspect the main reason why many Malaysians love this man is the simple fact that he enables us to travel by air affordably. Before this, we would have to adhere to the pompous, expensive no-discount ticket prices of MAS, which made flying seem exclusive for senior government bureaucrats or old rich people with titles in the business class.

Now everyone can fly, and it is as simple as boarding an express bus. We love him for his business innovation which changed our lives for the better.

Now it would be great if we had more people like him and indeed more Malaysians like him are emerging in music, films, arts, banking, literature and even politics – innovative people with brilliant ideas, introducing new ways and new thinking.

Yet ironically for a country that produces a large percentage of technical graduates from its universities, somehow we don’t get the innovation and creativity that one would expect to emerge from the technical industry. Wonder why?

I am no seasoned engineer and my limited industrial experience (five years) might be a drawback in questioning the state of engineering in our country, yet I suspect this perception isn’t exclusive to me and it’s not really hard to notice that we really lack innovation in the field of technology and engineering.

We have large capital-rich corporations that deal with technology, yet we somehow do not produce significant technological products or breakthroughs.

Let’s not compare ourselves with the United States, Japan or Germany but let’s look around Southeast Asia where our multinational corporations rule the block. Still there seems to be a lack of technological innovation even when compared to countries that seem to be lagging in terms of infrastructure and industrial output.

Education to be blamed?

Now some seem to be pointing at our education system and the state of our universities, yet as a local graduate myself, although I do admit our students and universities are found lacking to a certain extent, I still met many brilliant innovative engineering peers who, I imagine, would be the next inventor of something or the coder to develop that social network thing.

We seem to have the ingredients to be great; our students had at one point liberal access to cheap pirated software and most of our graduates were able to comprehend English competently enough to churn new technical things that were primarily written in it, yet somehow magic doesn’t seem to happen.

So apart from the standard excuses that we often hear (education system, bad English, society, culture and of course Barisan Nasional) I might have a slightly different hypothesis on why this is happening.

Back in university, I notice this pattern that the smartest students, the mathematical whiz, the uber coder and the dean listers are almost always scholarship holders, whether they got it based on their good results in school or were offered after doing well in university for a couple of semesters.

The best scholarships usually come with a bond, a secured high paying job with great benefits and it usually comes from multinational corporations or GLCs like Petronas, Sime Darby, TM, Intel and so on.

Other than the great multinationals, our brightest students also congregate around government scholarships like the Public Service Department that offers both local and foreign tuition scholarships.

So basically our crème de la crème would mostly be bonded by either the government or great multinationals and, I suspect, this might be a major contributor to why we have yet to see the innovative explosions.

Let us take the multinationals where many of our brightest graduates tend to flock, companies like Petronas, TM (Telekom Malaysia), Celcom Axiata, Sime Darby, Maxis, UMW, DRB-Hicom and many more. Though these are big corporations with strong technological and engineering background, they are not really innovative bodies; their bread and butter isn’t really research or development.

I am not questioning the technical competency of the engineers currently working in these corporations; in fact, I am pretty sure they are brilliant people. It’s just that I don’t see much innovation coming out from these places.

Take TM, one of the main sponsors of scholarships. In order to ensure that the Unifi rollout be as efficient as possible, TM got its best and brightest scholar engineers to figure out what routers and switches to buy instead of having them actually design and make them, because buying is cheaper than to research and manufacture.

What about Petronas which holds a reservoir of the brilliant and brightest engineers in this country? It harnesses this talent pool mostly to ensure that oil be extracted in the most efficient and economical manner instead of having them research and figuring out new technologies that would replace oil as our main source of energy.

‘Malaysian made’ items

The problem is that most of our technological corporation powerhouses aren’t really manufacturers or producers; rather, they are actually service providers and even to some of the few manufacturing and product producing companies, it seems that they are more interested in importing products, rebadging them and reclassifying them as “Malaysian Made”. Just because they are assembled in Malaysia doesn’t mean they are Malaysian made.

With corporations, even the government-linked ones having profit as the main key performance index, it would be much more economical to simply buy the best system and products and resell it to Malaysian consumers instead of researching and developing.

Even foreign companies that invest heavily in Malaysia like Intel, Texas Instruments, Dell, Microsoft or IBM, which are renowned for their innovation and technological breakthrough, do not provide that innovative avenue as much as we hope for because most of them are here for the production output and services like consulting or tech support.

What more if we look at the list of 100 best employers in Malaysia. Most of the top technical companies are either in the business of offering service, manufacturing or extracting hydrocarbon from the ocean floor. Thus our best engineering graduates, instead of spending their time and energy figuring out new ways and methods of making our lives better, spending it on monthly meetings, PowerPoint presentations, figuring out the best combination of dress for success, climbing up the corporate ladder, getting that parking spot and impressing the ladies in clubs by mentioning the word “offshore” repeatedly.

Instead of dreaming and figuring out new inventions that would change the world, our best and brightest engineers dream of being an assistant general manager before they reach their 35th birthday.

Zaidel Baharuddin is Mr Right, Mr Right Wing that is, electronics engineer by day writer by night, Frank Sinatra fanboy all day long, catch me at WirawanWeb.com, lipassepi.blogspot.com or follow me on twitter via @Sinatra_Z. He is a FMT columnist.


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