Inertia in the adoption of digital technology is a major hurdle that impedes our transition to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4), which the experts say will change our lives in unprecedented ways.
This manifests as a resistance to change that is being seen at various levels, from policymaking and business processes down to the personal level, where we struggle to “learn, unlearn and relearn”, as the futurist Alvin Toffler predicted we must do to thrive in this century.
The problem is being faced by all countries to a lesser or bigger degree.
For instance, the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index 2020 notes that a large part of the EU population lacks basic digital skills, although most jobs require such knowhow.
What about the Malaysian workforce?
A survey by human resource services firm Randstad in late 2018 shows that 89% of Malaysians felt that digitalisation requires a different skill set than what they possessed.
The country’s small and medium enterprises (SME) are showing progress in this area, with about 44% of the 900,000 firms in the sector having taken to the e-commerce platform, according to the Malaysia Digital Economy Corp (MDEC).
The Covid-19 pandemic’s dampening effect on business has changed the discourse for businesses, according to MDEC chief executive Surina Shukri.
Businesses were no longer asking why they had to go digital, but focusing on the how, she said in a media interview in June.
However, the road ahead is long and arduous.
On the education front, plans to implement online learning have not been smooth for a variety of reasons. Among those cited are poor internet coverage, the challenges of sustaining students’ interest in the online medium and the lack of access to digital devices. An eye-opening survey by the Education Ministry in March shows that 36.9% of students did not have any electronic device.
These scenarios point to a raft of changes that have to take place for the potential benefits of IR4 to be experienced by all levels of society.
A white paper on the challenges of digitalisation, issued by the Asia Foundation early this year, gives a frank assessment of the situation in Asean and offers a timely prescription for policy reform to prepare the region's governments for the disruption that is taking place.
“The Future of Work Across Asean — Policy Prerequisites for the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, identifies three key areas for action — the labour market dashboard, skills training environment and structural reforms to promote innovation.
No doubt, all Asean member countries, including Malaysia, are making efforts to get their economies up to speed with the rapid changes that are taking place.
However, these efforts at reforming the institutional structures are progressing at different levels and are not sufficient to cope with the speed of change that is taking place.
For instance, the white paper notes, only 28% of Malaysia’s workforce is classified as “high skilled”, and more than half of all Malaysian jobs are at high risk of displacement by technology in the next two decades.
The paper gives a stark summary of the country’s skills deficit that prevents its workforce from being ready for the 4IR economy.
A long-standing issue is that Malaysian students score lower on mathematics and science than their counterparts in Singapore, Thailand, China and South Korea.
Our universities are projected to produce fewer graduates trained in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects than in the arts and humanities.
Moreover, skills that will be in higher demand in future, such as creativity, problem-solving and collaboration, are not emphasised sufficiently, especially in rural schools.
“To address the challenges brought by 4IR transformations, the government of Malaysia will need to pull all levers available to discover and manipulate new sources of labour market data,” the paper states bluntly.
There are some bright spots in this landscape.
In October 2018, the country took a firm step towards transformative development with the launch of the Industry4WD National Policy on Industry 4.0. The policy emphasises collaboration among government agencies as well as between the government and private sector.
Yet, streamlining government policy on innovation and skills development remains challenging, as its many components remain spread over multiple agencies and ministries that do not always work in coordination.
A 2016 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that 44 agencies and 10 ministries were involved in programmes to support science, technology and innovation in the country with inadequate coordination and communication between them.
On the way forward, the paper states: “How successful Malaysia will be in preparing its workforce for the challenges brought by 4IR transformations starts with how well it can steer its complex of cross-ministerial groups to work with the private sector in establishing new sources of data and creatively extracting insights out of existing sources.”
Nevertheless, the paper acknowledges that many stakeholders in the private sector and the non-profit world are implementing initiatives to help Malaysians develop their technological skills and retrain for the jobs that will be in demand in the future.
Two among these are the MySkills Foundation, which helps at-risk youth to learn market-relevant skills, and KnowledgeCom Corp, which provides technology-related certification programmes to students and professionals, among others.
While the paper notes that Malaysia has embraced the possibilities of 4IR by implementing initiatives across multiple fronts, one area where it could do more is in the retention and attraction of top talent.
“Policymakers may consider tailoring some of the many programmes and initiatives towards incentivising the private sector to support more rewarding career paths and retain highly skilled workers,” it advises.
The challenges are manifold, but rather than feeling overwhelmed, policymakers must seize the day in order to ensure that the tide of change that is sweeping through our lives can be channelled for the benefit of the many.
In “4IR — Reinventing a Nation”, Dinis Guarda and Rais Hussin have this message for leaders: “Governments have to claim back their power by becoming co-creators and drivers of the game-changing tech inventions appearing at increased speed. It is imperative to not allow just one or two countries or few big corporations to be the ones leading the game.”
That task begins with recognising the high cost of losing the moment.
Rash Behari Bhattacharjee is an associate editor at The Edge