POV from Silicon Valley: Malayan Trading History’s Influence on the Rise of the Malaysian Digital Economy

Today, as it has been for centuries past, the Straits of Melaka is one of the world’s most important trade routes. Malaysia’s prime location on the commercial artery that connects the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the major economic centers of Asia has been a major factor not only in the growth of the Malaysian economy but also in the development of trading and commerce as a key dimension of Malaysian rich history and culture.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates that roughly 80 percent of global trade by volume is enabled by shipping. A relatively narrow channel, the Straits of Melaka is relied upon by a third of total global shipping. In dollar terms, an estimated US$5.3 trillion worth of goods transits through the South China Sea annually.

As early as the first few centuries A.D., trade on the Straits of Melaka helped to create economic and cultural links among China, India, and the Middle East.  Europeans also plied the Straits during this time.  By the middle ages, it had become the hub for trade and commerce that it is today, with ships using points along the coast of the Malayan Peninsula to dock and conduct commerce.  It is said that the Chinese, Indians, Omanis, Yemenis, Persians, and Africans exchanged goods and established trade agreements with traders from Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Canton. Silk, brocades, porcelain, and perfumes from the Middle Kingdom were traded with hardwoods, carvings, precious stones, cotton, sugar, livestock and even weapons from India. From the interior of Malaya came tin, camphor, ebony, and gold. Surrounding traders brought spices, perfume, rice, gold, black pepper and sandalwood.

The regional prosperity that came from being the hub of activity for traders of all ilk (and silk) led to a self-reinforcing loop that perpetuated an affinity for the virtues of commerce. The strategic location of the Straits at the heart of the Eastern trade routes, coupled with favourable seasonal winds, were critical natural factors that encapsulated the trade-hub potential of Penang and Melaka. But it still took the inspired decision of the then administrators to build the infrastructure, establish the network and train the local population to turn Penang and Melaka into major entrepots of their time.

While the world and its modes of commerce and trade have evolved greatly over the past several hundred years, the Straits of Melaka has sustained its position as a preeminent trade route.  Today, Malaysia is the gateway to the 630 million consumers of the ASEAN region – collectively the world’s sixth largest economy at over US$2.4 trillion annually.

Malaysians’ commercial sensibility is a key underlying factor in the growth of Malaysia’s digital economy. Entrepreneurship and understanding, producing and trading the goods markets want are deeply ingrained among Malaysians. As Datuk Yasmin observed, “we are traders – locally, nationally, and internationally, giving the various programs undertaken by MDEC and others access to a deep talent pool that is readily adapting to the possibilities and opportunities of digital.”

This dimension of our culture also affords Malaysia the ability to have a highly inclusive agenda for building its digital economy, one that touches a large proportion of our people, extending their outlook and what they already know into exciting new digital endeavors. Datuk Yasmin outlined the scale at which this was being undertaken: “on a national level, we are doing things to expose our entrepreneurially-inclined population to digital entrepreneurship.  Digital marketing and digital e-commerce instruction is now a formal curriculum in our vocational schools.  We will have over 400,000 vocational school graduates each year who have had in-depth exposure to digital marketing and e-commerce.” This program is now being expanded to the university level.

After only two years, the transformative impact has been phenomenal.  We already see cases of successful young e-commerce entrepreneurs going from renting a small house to being to buy a house for their family, and then having sufficient demand for their product to warrant moving production from their backyard into a brand-new factory. International expansion of the markets where these small and medium-sized enterprises (SME’s) do business is the next step, and one, given our trading culture and heritage, that is coming naturally, and now more easily, leveraging the partnership between Alibaba and the Malaysian government and the capabilities of Malaysia’s recently launched Digital Free Trade Zone.

Datuk Dan E Khoo is the President of MDEC Americas Inc; a Silicon Valley organization established to drive the global expansion of Malaysia’s digital economy.

Why Malaysian Companies Need To Be Better Storytellers

When national agency Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC, previously known as Multimedia Development Corporation) was formed in 1996, the aim was to support the development of Malaysian-based technology companies — MSC (Multimedia Super Corridor) Malaysia status companies.

Over the years, the number of these MSC-status companies has grown to more than 2,500.

Many of these companies are already market leaders here, and some are ready to take the next step, which is to succeed in the ASEAN market.

To help crystallise their expansion efforts, MDEC recently launched the GAIN (Global Accelerator and Innovation Acceleration) programme.

We saw their potential to global players, and even to become global icons: ASEAN was envisioned as the next major stride forward.

Why Malaysia?

Why is Malaysia a fertile ground for emerging global icons? Firstly, Malaysia is centrally located, and for companies based here, many markets are easy to reach. We have gained a deep understanding of buyer behaviour and market dynamics.

Also, Malaysia – with a population of some 30 million limits the growth potential of any business, especially a technology one.

This fosters a creative tension, a drive to answer the strategic challenge: How does a company stand out from the rest of the field? During the infancy stage, most companies start by selling to customers that they can connect by a sharp focus on competencies, pricing, and delivery.

However, the next chapter of the story demands answering the overpowering need to stand out from the crowd. This will always remain a challenge, of course, for most companies throughout the entire life-cycle of the company: it’s the pressure to adapt.

But just to stop the story here: Consider that most companies will only look into this issue when they achieve a certain scale, a certain milestone along their growth journey.

Can you be differentiated by your product, service or is there something else? Looking at a sampling of the successful local technology companies such as iPay88, Fusionex International, N2N Connect, iflix, Sedania Innovators, Les Copaque, Mindvalley, I would say that only a couple have engaged the power of story.

Having worked at several MNC’s – such as Lucent, American Express, Telstra, and others – I have had first hand opportunity to delve into the sales process from the inside.

The truth, they say, always lies within. It has become crystal clear to me that the truly successful companies have been able to craft powerful strategic stories to explain their relevance.

Yes, we needed to have the right product-value mix, but the deal is definitely lost if our story lacks meat, lacks structure, and misses telling the unique selling point.

Photo taken from http://www.stevejobsmovie.co.uk/

Why stories work?

Stories are powerful differentiators, and for this reason have always appealed to the human psyche. The first clear stories that remain visible for human-kind are probably the Palaeolithic cave paintings in Lascaux, France, which are estimated to be 20,000 years old.

For centuries our ancestors were captivated by stories, and long before the written word, history was passed down verbally through the generations in the form of stories.

Photo taken from http://www.stevejobsmovie.co.uk/

It was paintings, visual work and the spoken word that captivated our imaginations.

Interestingly, fast forward to the modern era and noted linguist, Noam Chomsky, who in the 1960’s said that we are all born with an innate language.

He went on to say that the primary purpose of language was for thought – not communication!

Yet leaders and sales people continue to throw facts and figures at us. I am not saying that these are not important, but they need to be placed within the engaging, compelling structure – that we call an overarching story.

This is something that NGOs do very well. Talk to any successful NGO and they are able to explain the reason for their existence without using facts and figures.

Companies, possibly influenced by the finance and product specialists, seem to just jump straight into why the product is better or cheaper, and the better ones are able to sell the value proposition.

It seems we have deliberately ignored the wisdom of generations in order to get into a “you can never win” race to prove our product is better than competitive offerings.

Companies that are not able to climb out of this abyss will find it difficult to survive in an increasingly competitive and connected world.

It is tough to win the features and benefits war when you are sitting in front of a prospect, and impossible when you are not.

And in a competitive world, this is the challenge faced by ASEAN companies. There are of course notable exceptions; AirAsia always had a great story, represented by its famous tag-line, “Now Anyone Can Fly”.

Nadiem Makarim, Founder & CEO of GoJEK ,is a powerful storyteller and is propelling the company into an Indonesian logistics and payment superstar.

Strategic storytelling

Grab is following suit. The ASEAN market will be an open one, which means local SMEs need to start thinking about how they are going to compete, not just within the region but against global players.

For SMEs and technology companies the writing is not the wall. Learn to compete, or face extension. This is why the storytelling skill is critical, and, for me, an area where local companies have not mastered the battle of the mind that needs to be fought.

Let’s take a look at a couple of extraordinary storytellers from the technology world.

Steve Jobs attention to detail in presenting Apple product is legendary.

In the movie Jobs, you can see the time and effort that goes into his presentation – it’s not a matter of running through the few slides with a narrative. What he says, how he says it, where he stands, sits, how he unveils the product functionality is all carefully crafted within an overarching story so that he captivates, entertains and most importantly speaks to each and everyone in a personal way that touches our emotional core.

Why does he do this? Is it his passion, obsession with detail? Perhaps. But I think he truly understands how important stories are to the human psyche. And by casting the story correctly, he is opening the door for his sales and marketing people to follow up with the features and benefits pitch. That’s the art of strategic story-telling.

Simon Sinek, in his most watched video on the “The Golden Circle” says that by answering the why question you can reach into the limbic system, or the “emotional brain,” which we know from biology is buried within the cerebrum and is possibly the oldest part of our brain.

This part of the brain doesn’t control language, reasoning, coordination, etc., which are controlled by the cerebrum, but because it is the repository of emotions and memories it can drive actions more effectively than rational thought. Jobs and others have perhaps intuitively understood this and used stories to set their companies apart from the pack.

Elon Musk, a man I truly admire and respect, entrepreneur and leader extraordinaire is another example of a great strategic story-teller. He announced the Tesla Roadster in 2004, using the chassis and engineering strength of Lotus Engineering and delivered the first unit four years later.

The cars that were on the market were sold on their features and performance. Potential buyers were told about; zero-emissions, luggage space, range per charge, etc.

When presenting his electric car, Musk talked about it being “cool, great design and acceleration. It was a simple but powerful message targeted at the limbic system. Tesla’s Model-S became the bestselling electric vehicle in the US in 2016 and 2017.

To end on an important point: Why is storytelling so important to local technology companies? I’ve already talked about the competitive environment these companies face. Instead of pushing more and more information out, we need to learn the art of storytelling. The emotional engagement that I mentioned earlier is vital to business performance.

Technology today has democratised and has deepened our connectivity and our reach to our customers, competitors, and just about every single person on planet earth: So let us share the stories of our business propositions, and tell the stories of our entrepreneurship journey globally.

Malaysian companies can stand tall with other global players: we need to tell our compelling stories!

by Gopi Ganesalingam, MDEC’s Vice President of Enterprise Development.

This article also appeared on New Straits Times on 14 March at “Why Malaysian companies need to be better storytellers?

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