Monday June 29, 2009

IS Malaysia ready to become an innovation economy?

Tableau Economique - A column by Steven C.M. Wong

IS Malaysia ready to become an innovation economy?

At this stage of the race, the question is not whether this transformation should be made, but how. The days of selling cheap land and labour are long gone and if we are going to make a real great leap forward it will have to be by brains, not brawn, by minds, not muscles.

We can, of course, rely on depleting resources such as oil and gas or on volatile primary commodities. We can continue to depend on screw-driver operations and import cheap labour from neighbouring countries to twist them. But we had better get ready our begging bowls for when these avenues are exhausted.

To become an innovation economy, however, is easier said than done. As a country, we have had many very expensive flights of fancy. Invariably, what elude us are solid execution and even more solid successes. We have thrown money when we should have thrown our best minds.

If we are not to reduce economic transformation into a mere slogan, we must see things as they are and not how we would like them to be. The reality is that many things in this country will have to radically change if we are to have any chance at all of having a go at it.

The way that the country and corporations are governed will need to be reformed. Slow, unwieldy and top-heavy hierarchies will have to be thrown out. How innovation is rewarded and failure penalised will also have to be totally overhauled.

But nowhere is change more needed than in the minds of Malaysians. This then begs the question: What are the qualities our leaders and citizens have to evolve? And how on God’s green earth do we effect these mindset changes in the fastest and most comprehensive manner?

Someone who has thought deeply about mind change is Howard Gardner of Harvard University. Credited as one of the most influential psychologists of his time, he is famous for arguing that an individual has not one but multiple intelligences, and for his work on changing people’s minds.

Gardner, together with another Harvard luminary, Professor Quinn Mills, was in Kuala Lumpur last week for a seminar organised by the Harvard Club of Malaysia and the Charles River Centre. His latest book, Five Minds for the Future, addresses many of the issues before Malaysians.

The first type of mind that Gardner espouses is that which is disciplined. Discipline is used in its two usual senses. One, it is the acquisition of an area of expertise. The disciplined mind is able to differentiate, reflect, develop and apply theories and experience. Two, it is about continual application of time, energy and effort to hone and master this area.

Many Malaysians today are earning higher degrees. Surprisingly few, however, can show anything other than superficial knowledge or even interest in their chosen disciplines. Fewer still can demonstrate a profound understanding of them.

The second type of mind is one which synthesises. Synthesis is a necessary skill today given the enormous amounts of information on virtually any topic. The world’s top political and corporate leaders – Bill Clinton and Bill Gates as examples – have the ability to grasp the “big picture” quickly and accurately so that decisions can be made.

Synthesis, however, is not an easy skill to acquire. It requires the ability to identify, classify and weave together many different threads and perspectives.

Many Malaysians do not have the ability or the interest to make decisions based on synthesis. They prefer using their prejudices.

Creativity is the third type of mind and the one most emphasised these days.

Gardner argues that creativity is not the result of an individual or a group of individuals. It emerges from interactions between individuals who have mastered a discipline, the cultural domain (made up of rules and norms) in which they work, and the social field, comprising experts, peers, users and consumers.

In Malaysia, creativity is focused on either the individual or the domain (in most cases, the university or workplace).

There is insufficient appreciation of those who assist, evaluate, approve, criticise and encourage. We believe in consensus even when that consensus is tantamount to nothing more than group think.

The fourth and fifth minds, which are equally critical, are that which are respectful and ethical. Far from being airy fairy, these are essential complements to the earlier three mindsets.

The respectful mind accepts diversity and the need for change and compromise. The ethnical mind values excellence but is also driven by a responsibility to one’s self, family, peers, community and society at large.

Is Malaysia ready to become an innovation economy? I think that the onus is on the optimists to prove the doubters wrong. There needs to be strong and inalienable proof that our minds are not as archaic, anti-change and illiberal as reports make them out to be. And, more than anything, we need to try. Our economic and social well-being depends on it.

Steven Wong is assistant director-general of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia responsible for the bureau of economic policy studies.

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