Bendera Malaysia

Malaysia is making significant strides towards its developmental goals of becoming a high-income, developed nation by 2020, but there remain challenges along the way that might prevent her from reaching her full potential. Though recent economic data shows that we have remained resilient compared to our regional peers, we cannot yet afford to take our foot off the pedal.

It is very likely that Malaysia has benefited from the current economic imbalance these past couple of years, which has seen greater investors seek safer Asian shores. As the argument goes, the current volatility in major markets such as China, the eurozone and United States have sent investors seeking safe harbour farther afield, with many landing in Malaysia.

Presumably, these economies will eventually get their act together, thus levelling the global economy once again. Investor focus will no longer be concentrated on a handful of countries, and we will return to the status quo.

There is no doubt that Malaysia has done well on its own merits; nonetheless, I believe that we are all in general agreement that more can be done to transform Malaysia into a more attractive destination that pulls investors rather than just have them pushed here. Three areas stand out in particular: talent, leadership and corporate culture.

However, it should be important to note that these are not problems unique to Malaysia. Rather, they are issues that all of Asia is presently grappling with but it is here that we have a significant advantage over our regional peers: we know that these areas are indeed problems for our country.

In my experience, I have often found that a problem acknowledged is a problem half-solved. While many of our Asian peers are content with the status quo for whatever reason, Malaysia has shown considerable moxy in spelling out its problems and undertaking an ambitious, holistic plan the transformation programmes under Pemandu to provide fixes.

Malaysia is showing considerable leadership over its peers in this regard, and though its efforts have been laudable so far, I believe that further tweaks can be made to the overall programme. As an international organisation specialising in leadership issues, my work at Iclif puts me in regular contact with multinational corporations from around the world, many of whom are looking to establish a South-East Asian presence.

When the possibility of Malaysia arises, the question of talent invariably pops up: What kind of people do you have there? Do they have the ability we need to run an international organisation? Are your local universities producing top people?

The answer to these questions is, if we are honest, yes but not in sufficient quantity. Through agencies such asTalent Corp and other government programmes, Malaysia is making a commendable effort to fix the paucity of issues but more needs to be done.

In the short-term, we have no choice but to depend on the import of foreign talent and the country must make the right accommodation to expedite the hiring of expatriates. They are important resources that will not only fill the needs of incoming organisations, but can also bring valuable experience and knowledge for greater local development.

At the same time, we need to grow our own world-class talent, but this will take time and resources that we may not have at present. This leads me to my second point: the cultivation and establishment of world-class universities in Malaysia.

Though Malaysia is now home to numerous foreign universities boasting foreign syllabus, few of them hold the credentials of an A-grade world-class university. Access to tertiary education is no doubt important, but access is no substitute for quality.

Without world-class institutions, Malaysia cannot produce that important class of domestic talent who combine vital local knowledge with best-in-class practices. These resources become vital hires for international companies who need employees with a thorough grounding of the local industry while retaining broad, regional vision.

And it’s not only a question of talent; the quality and quantity of leaders in Malaysia also needs to significantly improve. While there is no doubt some examples of good, strong leaders here, there are, unfortunately, not many. Malaysia needs leaders, not bosses: we need a generation of inspiring, target- and performance-oriented chiefs who have a clear idea of the macro picture who yet retain the ability to motivate their followers to do the same.

Which brings me to the third point: corporate culture in Malaysia and Asia generally needs to significantly improve. The power-distance relationship between leaders and followers has fomented two negative attributes: a sense of entitlement amongst leaders and a disenfranchised following.

Unlike the practices of more developed markets where leaders take significant effort to close the distance with their followers, the Asian culture in general seems further cleave those at the top from those at the bottom. This creates a company culture that ostensibly does not have a shared goal or vision, which can translate lost opportunities and an unfocused workforce.

The power-distance has the potential destroys innovation and creates an insular environment where only the yes-men are given a voice. Relationships break-down and crystallises a boss/worker dichotomy, which is not helpful to anyone. I have put the problem down elsewhere in another way: we need leaders, not bosses.

Whatever the reasons behind this power distance, the issue is one of the fundamental questions of leadership: recognising the value of a plurality of views while maintaining the ability to pursue the singular objective of the company. While it may sound easy enough encapsulated in a sentence, putting it into motion is an entirely different story.

Let me summarise what I’ve been trying to say here: Malaysia has the potential to be one of the leading countries, if not the leading country, in the region and continent, but there is a steep road ahead in getting there. The Malaysian government has to be lauded for its decision to enact initiatives to address weaknesses in the economy because that is the very first, and most important, step in arriving at a solution.

I am also in agreement that for Malaysia to change, it will need the co-operation of all involved, from politicians to leaders to workers, and even to the ordinary man on the street. I am so far impressed by the changes being wrought here and I look forward to seeing more of the same in the coming years.


Photo credit: Flickr user mohdrais

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