Thanks to Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s vision, Malaysia took an early lead in IT with the Malaysian Institute of Microelectronic Systems or Mimos, the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), Cyberjaya and other initiatives.
Tech giants from around the world including Bill Gates were invited to help us make the leap to a technology-based economy.
We had some early successes but Mahathir’s vision has yet to come anywhere near its potential. Even the promise of e-government has not fully been achieved.
Visit a government department today and chances are you will encounter a “system down” sign together with a notice asking you to try again another day.
Try to sign up to pay your income tax online and you may be asked to visit the nearest IRD office.
And amazingly, we carry on deluding ourselves that “Malaysia continues to lead the way in developing the digital economy,” as one government website boasted.
Inspired by Mahathir
When Mahathir visited China in 1985, Jack Ma was still struggling to get through university; 33 years later, Mahathir is visiting Jack Ma, a tech giant in his own right, at his headquarters in Hangzhou.
His company, Alibaba, has a market capitalisation of US$54 billion, making it one of the top 10 biggest and most valuable companies in the world.
It has operations in 200 countries, is the world’s largest retailer, one of the largest internet and AI companies, one of the biggest venture capital firms and one of the biggest investment corporations in the world.
During his visit to Malaysia a few months ago (to open Alibaba’s corporate office here), Jack Ma spoke about how he was inspired by Mahathir’s vision of a high-tech economy. He said he read about the MSC in a newspaper 20 years ago and found the idea inspiring.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is a genius idea. If Malaysia can do this, why can’t China? Why can’t I do this myself?’”
And he concluded by saying, “Malaysia inspired me to create Alibaba.”
The question we should be asking ourselves is how come no Malaysian technopreneur was similarly inspired to do the same, to take advantage of the full potential of Mahathir’s vision and all that the country had to offer.
Were we too preoccupied making Ali Baba deals to think about creating an Alibaba of our own?
All too often, we establish an institute or technical body with an impressive sounding name and we think that we have arrived at our destination. And so we end up with loads and loads of impressive sounding institutions that offer little return on investment.
Durians to China
The stark reality of how far we have fallen behind vis-à-vis China hit home as I watched Mahathir on television last month witnessing the signing of an agreement to sell frozen durians to China.
Sure, the main focus of his visit was to negotiate a resolution of the vexing megaprojects issue, but durians? And then to see our newspapers highlighting it as if it was some kind of breakthrough was embarrassing to say the least.
Thirty-three years and China is selling high-speed trains and weapons systems to the world and here we are excited about selling durians to China!
Of course, we must maximise market opportunities for our agricultural sector but it is disconcerting that we haven’t moved beyond palm oil and durians while others have surged ahead.
I may be reading too much into it but I thought there was a look of sadness on Mahathir’s face that we had come to this after all those years.
And then to be placed in the uncomfortable position of a debtor to the very country that he once came to woo couldn’t have been easy for him to stomach. Such was our fall from the pinnacle of hope and expectation that defined our nation 33 years ago.
The climb back up is undoubtedly going to be a long and arduous one. We have taken the first steps by putting in place a more responsible and accountable government.
Now comes the most difficult task of all: confronting our own weaknesses and making the hard choices necessary to regain our place in the world.
This is the fourth article in a series on Malaysia-China ties.
Next: The Proton saga
Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.