Thought Leadership

Econ 4.0: Tips to get tech right


Here’s a nifty NFT (non-fungible token) narrative. An artist asked the art gallery owner if there had been any interest in his paintings on display at the gallery. “I have good news and bad news,” the owner replied. “The good news is that an art connoisseur enquired about your work and wanted to convert them to NFTs. He wondered whether your NFT artworks would appreciate after your death. I told him I saw huge potential. He bought all your artworks.”

“Wow, that’s wonderful news, bro!” the artist beamed. “I can’t figure out what the bad news could be.” The art gallery owner took the artist aside and whispered, “That art connoisseur was your doctor.”

If that story made you chuckle, this prediction should make you buckle: Government agencies and companies may have spent a whopping US$543 billion (RM2.34 trillion) on digital transformation (DX) technologies and services in Asia-Pacific ex-Japan in 2022, up 18% from 2021, according to International Data Corp (IDC) estimates. So far, so good.

But as the new year unfolds, pause and ask: Are companies leveraging tech to gain an advantage or just spending more on tech? Is tech helping boost worker productivity and corporate efficacy? What are some top tech tips in seven areas of focus in 2023? Here’s my listing in alphabetical order, with input from industry experts:

Artificial intelligence (AI)

Is AI overhyped? Most businesses don’t think so. For instance, Asia-Pacific ex-Japan is on track to invest US$32 billion in AI software, solutions and services by 2025, up from US$17.6 billion in 2022, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.2%, says IDC. The banking and financial services industry (BFSI) will continue to invest the most in AI solutions, primarily to mitigate risk and monitor fraud analyses. So, how can businesses best leverage AI?

“There are four tips that companies can take,” says Lee Joon Seong, applied intelligence lead for Southeast Asia at Accenture. “First, plan a clear AI strategy and roadmap to enable value creation and business growth. This will help secure sponsorship and sustain investment from the C-suite. Second, marry the art of business with the science of data. Build multidisciplinary teams comprising AI engineers, data scientists, and AI-literate business and functional experts. Third, set up partnerships with third parties to close the skills gap in your business. And finally, institutionalise an innovative culture to encourage teams to experiment and collaborate, as well as learn and adapt from failures.”

Business agility

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of Malaysia’s economy. They account for 97.2% of all businesses, generate 38.2% of GDP and employ more than 7.3 million people. Therefore, any discussion about business agility must include SMEs. Just as well. In October 2022, SME Malaysia launched the SME Business Facilitation Hub to equip businesses with the latest solutions for digital transformation. SMEs can use the platform to organise hybrid events and showcase their offerings in both the physical and virtual worlds. It also offers an avenue for networking and engagement, including AI-enabled business matching, pitching, webinars and conferences. The solutions come from Fusionex. Hub members can also connect with Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation’s (Matrade) Digital Trade Platform to leverage export opportunities.

“The platform’s infused AI and big data analytics enable users to monitor, measure and manage sales transactions, online interactions and trend analysis. It can guide their business decisions through data-driven approaches,” says Fusionex group CEO Datuk Seri Ivan Teh. “SMEs could leverage the hub as a catalyst to speed up digital transformation, meet market demands, expand business reach and boost revenue opportunities.”


Businesses across Southeast Asia plan to invest US$6 billion in cybersecurity solutions by 2026, up from US$3.2 billion in 2021, says IDC. The concern? Gartner predicts that by 2025, cyberattackers will have weaponised operational technology (OT) environments to harm or kill humans. “Attacks on OT — hardware and software that monitors or controls equipment, assets and processes — have become more common,” says Gartner. “They have also evolved from immediate process disruption, such as shutting down a plant and compromising the integrity of industrial environments with intent to create physical harm.”

Huang Shao Fei, group chief information security officer at Singapore’s SMRT Corp, says any ransomware attack would have some impact. “Enterprises can adopt several measures to minimise this impact. One, have a robust data backup and recovery plan, especially for critical data. Two, implement and regularly test incident response playbooks, particularly for ransomware incidents. Three, extend cybersecurity awareness programmes to suppliers and contractors. Four, incorporate contractual requirements to encourage contractors and suppliers to take cybersecurity hygiene or issues seriously.”

Digital trust

The push to digitalise and innovate has created challenges for companies that must consider privacy, security and data-control issues. That’s why digital trust is gaining momentum. Digital trust is the confidence participants need to have in the digital ecosystem to interact securely in a transparent, accountable and frictionless manner, as per a white paper published by SGTech, a leading trade association for Singapore’s tech industry. But then, how to go about building digital trust?

“There are five methods that enterprises could adopt,” says Wong Wai Meng, chair of SGTech. “One, advocate enterprise-wide guidelines on good and trusted data practices. Two, use tech to comply with regulations such as the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) in Malaysia and Singapore, and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe. Three, embrace certifications such as Singapore’s Data Protection Trust Mark and APEC’s Cross-Border Privacy Rules that foster good data hygiene. Four, set up a ‘digital trust workforce’ in your company to monitor and safeguard data across the enterprise. And five, consider setting up a chief digital trust officer (CDTO) position that will help the enterprise address data, digital trust and protection holistically.”

Employee education

The share of Asean’s digital economy is only 7% of its GDP, compared to 16% in China, 27% in the top five EU countries and 35% in the US. A report by Kearney predicts that Asean has the potential to enter the top five digital economies by 2025. The only way to do that is by closing the skills gap. Take Singapore, where about 19,000 tech roles remain unfilled in areas like software engineering, AI, cybersecurity, cloud migration and data analytics. What more can be done?

“There are three initiatives that could help,” says Sam Liew, president of the Singapore Computer Society (SCS), which has about 54,000 members. “One, provide subsidies for citizens to continuously upgrade their skills. Two, offer mentoring schemes for youths and mid-career professionals. And three, help individuals build a portfolio of credentials. SCS plans to launch a ‘digital credentialing’ initiative for individuals to build their professional portfolios by including work experience, training, professional activities and skill sets obtained from industry-authorised entities that can be verified and authenticated. Employers can leverage an individual’s digital credentials to identify the right talent to fill vacancies.”

Female empowerment

Globally, only 18% of senior leadership positions are held by women, according to a study by IBM Business Value (IBV). Across Asean, the proportion of women in corporate or government leadership positions is far lower. Pikom, Malaysia’s apex tech industry association, recently set up the WIT (Women in IT) chapter with Catherine Lian, managing director and tech leader of IBM Malaysia, as its first chairwoman. What steps can companies take to increase female participation and close the gender gap?

“I can list at least six,” says Lian. “One, make the advancement of women to decision-making positions a top business priority. Two, establish targeted career re-entry programmes, skills training and flexible scheduling to reduce barriers for women who want to return to work. Three, identify and mitigate biases that slow the progress of women. Four, move from informal mentoring of women to active, accountable sponsorship. Five, embrace flexible work arrangements, which enable female employees to have sufficient rest and personal time while still meeting work goals. And six, encourage more girls to take up STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) at pre-university and university levels.”

Gross value-add

Malaysia’s information and communications technology (ICT) industry was worth RM359.3 billion in 2021, up 12% year on year, with the ICT sector contributing 23.2% to Malaysia’s GDP, according to Department of Statistics Malaysia figures. By 2025, the country’s digital economy, which is a subset of the ICT industry, could be worth US$35 billion (RM156.1 billion), says Ruma Balasubramaniam, managing director of Google Cloud Southeast Asia. “Malaysia sits within a very robust Southeast Asian ecosystem, which is expected to reach a value of US$1 trillion by 2030,” she points out. “Digital transformation, if fully leveraged, could create up to US$61.3 billion in annual economic value for Malaysia by 2030.”

What should Malaysia’s ICT industry focus on in 2023? Pikom chair Ong Chin Seong says the body will conduct an industry-wide survey to poll its members’ expectations and aspirations for the next three years. “We will also focus on ESG (environmental, sustainability and governance) and how digital tech can impact industries. We plan to further collaborate with World Innovation, Technology and Services Alliance (Witsa) and Asian-Oceanian Computing Industry Organization (Asocio) to help Malaysian ICT companies push their solutions and services overseas.”

The bottom line: Boost ICT skills among the youth. “With nearly 70% of youth accessing training from private providers with higher fees than public-funded training programmes, governments in Asean need to explore possibilities to safeguard and guarantee inclusive access for youth that have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic,” notes a blog post from the Asian Development Bank. “This will help increase the youth labour force to be deployed in the digital economy market once the regional economy bounces back.”

Since we started this column with a doctor’s quip, let’s end it with one from a medical intern. Many decades ago, when my friend was a medical student, he and his colleagues were invited to go on rounds with an orthopaedic surgeon. The surgeon stopped at a bedside where a patient was in a leg cast. “As you can see, this patient is limping because his left femur bone has a fracture,” the surgeon explained as he showed the patient’s X-ray to the interns. “What would you do in a case like this?” he quizzed my friend. Caught unawares and unprepared, my nervous friend replied, “Err, sir, I suppose I’d be limping too.”



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