All quiet on the innovation front

It was horrendous morning traffic congestion; the incessant car horns, whizzing two-wheelers between idle cars, and radio deejays going on senselessly about “what was the worst pick-up lines you have heard” made it the perfect moment to ponder over some of my unresolved mysteries.

“Why was iPad and Facebook not conceptualised by a Malaysian?”

“Why are we still producing Hantu Kak Limah Balik Rumah and Jangan Pandang Belakang when the world was mesmerised by the animations of Avatar and the astounding cinematography of Inception?”

“Why does my Malaysian-made car still can’t keep out the engine and external resonances?”

Yes, the last query has always been a bane for me. As my wife and I were privileged to be able to enjoy new cars recently, this became even more apparent. While Azura’s Japanese-made car allowed her to enjoy the crisp sound of the music played over the radio, my Malaysian-made ride presented me with the chance to feel like I was in a wind tunnel testing a F1 car.

With Malaysia being amongst the largest rubber producers in the world, I cannot fathom why was it that local car manufacturers cannot afford to use better quality rubber seals for the windows and doors to keep the noise out. Perhaps, they knew that car owners needed a way to drown out those meaningless chatters by radio deejays!

Later that day over lunch, Kevin – a business coach specialising in intellectual property for start-ups and SMEs – became the victim for my lingering questions. He matter-of-factly responded: “It’s all about having a national culture of innovation and creativity. And it’s not merely about the individuals, it is the missing overall support from all levels for local entrepreneurship.”

“Which Malaysian bank is willing to take the risk to fork out multi millions of dollars (it was reported the iPad chip alone cost Apple about US$1 billion) to fund a start-up to develop a new technology with unsure revenue returns?” remarked Kevin.

He added, “How many investors would back a college-going entrepreneur for the next three years doing nothing but develop a social networking site that would potentially change the way 600 million users around the world communicates?”

The figures published by Intellectual Property Corporation of Malaysia seem to support Kevin’s argument that there are indeed local innovators amongst us judging from the increasing number of patent applications over the last three years (2008 = 5,403; 2009 = 5,737; 2010 = 6,464). Although the approvals of these patents have declined last year (2008 = 2,242; 2009 = 3,468; 2010 = 2,177), this still reflected the growing innovation culture.

After some swift taps on Steve Job’s revolutionary iPad, I discovered to my surprise that Malaysia was second only to the USA for patent applications and the leading nation when it comes to trademark applications ahead of USA, Japan and China in 2011.

“Sounds great, but where’s the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerbergs of Malaysia?” the questioned remained in my head.

After being reminded that last year was tagged ‘the year of creativity and innovation’, Kevin questioned: “Can you recall any significant creativity and innovation that came out last year on a national level?”

I answered no, but swiftly iterated that creativity and innovation was very loosely defined and that in term of technological breakthrough, perhaps this includes being able to watch the football World Cup live telecast in 3D over our local subscription television channel.

Personally, I found the way the 10th Malaysia Plan and Government Transformation Programme were unveiled to the public via the laboratory-concept to disseminate information and to gather public feedback was rather creative.

With lunch coming to a close, we agreed that the risk-taking culture would have to escalate very quickly if the country’s businesses are to remain sustainable – forget competitive for now – amid the growing global forces. As we progressively shift away from agriculture as well as low-cost manufacturing, and our initial labour cost advantage fast losing out to China, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand, we need to position ourselves as the world’s innovators and industry creators.

At least the government has recognised this when Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Tan Sri Nor Mohamed Yakcop recently said that they are reviewing the funding structure for the creative industries in the country. He said that to ensure that “anyone with a good idea and potential is not left behind just because of the lack of funds and contacts”, the government would be looking into the whole funding structure to enable these entrepreneurs to get funding easily and that “the whole world should conspire to help you to be successful.”

In all honesty, while I reserve my enthusiasm on the minister’s claim “on the whole world’s support”, for now I only hope that the local rubber and automobile industry would conspire to make my Malaysian-made car a wee bit quieter.



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