Friday, October 15, 2010

Facing the human capital challenge

This is Part 2 of the interview that RB Bhattacharjee conducted with the Universiti Malaya Professor Rajah Rasiah as reported in the Edge Daily:

In part 1 yesterday on Malaysia’s economic direction and the constraints that are holding it back, Universiti Malaya Professor of Technology and Innovation Policy Rajah Rasiah talked of the strategic initiatives needed to raise its economic prospects. In the second and final part, he tells R B Bhattacharjee about fixing the public delivery system and how Malaysia can draw on its diaspora for help

TEFD: What are the priority reforms needed to make the public delivery system a selling point for the country?
The best is probably in Penang. For some reason, there is much more involvement. But even there, things have flattened. During Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu’s time as chief minister, at least during the tail end of his career, they had evolved a system where it was the Penang Development Corporation’s (PDC) responsibility to keep firms happy.

Penang was one of the success stories, because in 1970 the incidence of poverty was something like 50% and it went down to 0.3% or thereabouts by 2005. How was that possible? The state recognised that it may not enjoy much support from the federal government, because it is dominated by the Chinese, even though the ruling party was with Barisan Nasional.

They often did things that included providing the requisite service that is necessary to see that firms continued to upgrade or involve firms in the network, promote linkages so that greater progression of synergies.

Some of their methods come from Singapore and Ireland. They knock on doors to identify species of firms. At one time they realised that consumer electronics is too labour intensive, then they mistakenly went to disk drives, then they realised that too was labour-intensive, then they scaled down.

Later, they went to different species of industries, knocking doors and requesting them to relocate.

Penang was among the first to face the problem of a lack of skills. The Penang Skills Development Centre evolved in response to that. PDC was the facilitator. The old PDC building was rented out at RM1 a year as their contribution. The firms came in because they knew the group of stakeholders there were interested in helping each other. Firms put in the equipment and a whole range of other things.

While providing this state-of-the-art training, it also made sure that Penangites were being trained. Some of the training went to people who were not working in those firms.

That sort of initiatives also led to linkages. PDC tried to match multinationals with local firms, and facilitated the birth of local firms from employees of multinationals. That is well recorded.

But that did not evolve into the scale of upgrading necessary to match Taiwan, Korea and Singapore because of a number of institutions governed by the federal government.

The rules of the game were established by the federal government. Say, whether Penang can have enough professionals from abroad in a particular area. That’s a decision the federal government has to make.
Rasiah uses Penang to illustrate the example of a successful public delivery system.

Rasiah uses Penang to illustrate the example of a successful public delivery system.

Whether the government will provide the requisite educational infrastructure to create the human capital they require, those instruments are governed by the federal government, and whether the federal government would put up these labs.

I have brokered this myself, with the federal government’s backing. I assisted Khazanah on it. The Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur had a MoU with Universiti Sains Malaysia, for the federal government. The idea was to undertake research, using Masters and PhD students who were some of the supervisors from there. For the moment, they are targeting what firms want, which is the research focus.

We need to get into things the firms may not want, namely some elements of those technologies that will go to the poor. That means they won’t make money, so the government will have to buy the research products and pass the benefits to the poor.

Or you can have situations where firms have not recognised the potential in their sector. There you need incubators.

At one level, you serve the firms, and at another, you provide technology for incubators. At another level, you produce the graduates that firms and others can hire.

We should give green cards to these guys. Target the whole world for employees. At the same time, take in local participants. You need this networking between the best around for them to capture the best practices, and for the improvements to stick.

I also recommended a leading Taiwanese university for that. But the reason why the university is not in the equation now is because of some political considerations then.

Can Malaysia wean itself from its dependency on cheap foreign labour without going into economic shock?
We have broad statistics to show that in a number of industries we are relying on foreign labour. There have been attempts many a time to stop taking new foreign workers, but we have not thrown back those who are already here.

From time to time, there have been raids to check that the foreign workers have not been here for more than five years.

I don’t think the government should take any steps that contravene the joint governmental agreements with Bangladesh and Indonesia to repatriate the workers. Nor with the Filipinos, who even have minimum wage legislation that requires that maids here are paid probably a premium compared to the rest.

What they should do is through policy governance, by introducing levies that make it more expensive to hire foreign workers. Not immediately, because then the immediate retracting factor could be deleterious to the country, but gradually, they should defer recruitment. This would be like in Taiwan, where they imposed a levy if you take in unskilled labour.

You have to start somewhere, but you should not do it abruptly. If you do that, you are actually going back on your word. Firms should be given the assurance that you will stick to the word you gave earlier, otherwise they will lose confidence in whatever you do.

What is the positive news about Malaysia’s economic situation?
The minister mentioned that in the first quarter they had more than RM5 billion already. If they can maintain that they will be able to achieve more or less the annual figure to reach the RM115 billion in five years.

The positive news is the promise that the NEM provides. Of course, there are things that are unclear. Among them, you need to achieve 12.8% annual growth in investment over the next 10 years. Does it make sense? People are reluctant to believe that when it has slackened substantially from 1995 to 2010.

I remain convinced that NEM has provided the motivation that policy should focus on inclusive growth. In other words, embrace corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices as an inherent part of growth itself, not as a detached one, that you take care of afterwards.

NEM has taken head on the need to generate the human capital necessary to reinvigorate economic growth in the country.

Thirdly, the focus on the 40% of families with income levels less than RM1,500 per month. When you enable their thinking faculties, it gives them the opportunity to improve their situation, although the NEM does not explain that much. I would prefer that they look at the Scandinavian countries, so that they will create a welfare state without free riders.

There should be no misallocation of subsidies. There needs to be different instruments to address the problems of targeting subsidies. The focus should not be the distortion they think they are creating. Even if there is distortion, the welfare state will correct that better because you don’t have misallocation of resources.

You now identify the poor, which you know from the Statistics Department’s household income and expenditure survey. Of course, real income varies between locations, and you need to adjust for that. Then, if they divert the current system of providing additional income or coupons or whatever form they give aid in, then I don’t enjoy the subsidy, I don’t become a free rider, and neither does a foreigner.

It also reduces smuggling. That figure will be very small.

Although there are some sceptics, I think the NEM’s good points are that it provides the conceptual and epistemological rationale behind why these 12 economic activities should be done. That to me is exciting. What is not clear to me is that it is not very explicit about how they will go about doing it.

That same thinking is found in the 10th Malaysia Plan. Perhaps more foreigners were involved and they did not understand the workings of the macro organisations. Perhaps they weren’t able to outline the responsibilities to different ministries that the previous Malaysia Plans had done.

Those things need to be made clear, but we at least have the motivation.

You can also see universities now getting into this bandwagon of competition. In the past few years, Malaysian universities have been investing and working towards raising their performance, especially in the science faculties.

That means positioning themselves to hire anyone from any part of the world, provided they meet the standards required to perform. So, we can hire anyone from India, UK or elsewhere, provided they can provide the publications required, because we believe universities should be led by research to drive teaching.

These things weren’t done before. These are things that are happening, but the results may not be immediate, but the long-term effect will be there. Local staff strength is going up, as well as foreign staff standards, and this will have some kind of effect on the economy, including towards supplying the labour force in all fields, including science and engineering.

Is the Talent Corp idea workable and what are the lessons from previous exercises to attract the Malaysian diaspora?
I am a participant because I came back under the brain gain programme. I also coordinated the brain gain report of 2009 for MOSTI. We recommended that a Talent Advisory Council be set up. We called for an R&D investment of GDP of 1%. We wanted the ratio of R&D personnel and scientists per million persons to be raised from 367 to 1,500, if I recall correctly. I think they are looking at 1,000.

The Talent Corp, from the R&D side, again is not very explicit to me. It is hoped that we adapt from the experiences of successful countries. In a country like India, there is no incentive scheme for talent to come back, and yet there are all sorts of talent going back.

Taiwan and Korea are our real models, compared to Singapore, which targets the world, like the US. Taiwan and Korea have talent advisory councils which play an important role because they connected to the diaspora very well, and they gave them recognition to participate in the initiative.

You must look at the whole ecosystem that has been evolved. You must see all the parts, and the way they are organised. This is critical.

In the case of Taiwan, they continue to spin off incubators that are potential world class firms. Then they bring people from similar industries to head them, like Morris Chang, who was senior vice president at Texas Instruments taking over Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp or Dr Wang from IBM. There are so many of them in many different things. You have all these hi tech firms like Vanguard, Asus, etc.

The advisory committee is very well linked to them. And they don’t discriminate, at least from 1985, because they recognise the role that they play. Before that, the local people thought they were the most loyal.

In the case of Malaysia, they must see a transition. We have a problem, again, of political economy. Most of these people abroad are not Malays. Of course, there are Malays too. Are they willing, say, to bring a Chinese, who may be the best suited to run Mimos? Or Silterra? This is an area we have to solve, because you are now competing. You cannot suddenly have a sub-optimal performer running a big corporation or a meso organisation without the standards that you put there in order to achieve running those things. Is Talent Corp going to do that?

We have a problem because more often than not the person who comes back plays a secondary role. He is not the boss and has no autonomy to do anything.

Let me give you examples of people who left. They came back, they didn’t mind being second in command, but the first in command often left critical meetings when the minister called. These people were trying to establish MoUs with critical suppliers, even buyers, from abroad.

But when they come, the main person is not there because the minister has called. And his position, if he doesn’t take care of the minister’s interests, he won’t be here. And the real talents are the people who came from abroad.

I thought this would be a rare case, but when I speak to them, I find that it is a common case.


walla said...

A good interview.

The key message was that we did not develop a strong technical education system to keep tempo with the demand for english-speaking, technically proficient, and skilled workers - and the failure to do that was owing to a systemic fault in the structural reform process - and that fault was the result of political interference in schumpeterian economics - from medium of instruction in education to bureaucracy and loaded policies in government administration of investments.

So if our local graduates out of the vocational schools cannot do precision engineering, would investors bother to set up high-tech plants here when such workforce are readily available in other countries which have already caught up in the other factors we are still trying to parade as our present advantage, such as infrastructure?

All honest answers will only reinforce the conclusion that our deindustrialization has become irreversible - because the other option of keeping a low-skilled foreign workforce - will be nullified by our new-fount policy to go high income which itself is a hormonal exercise to draw funds for more property plays and the attendant campaign funds for the next elections.

In his recent paper titled "Are Electronic Firms In Malaysia Catching Up In The Technology Ladder?" (July 10 2010), Rasiah concludes that:

"Whereas lead firms in the electronics industry have moved up to the frontier of the technology in the competitor
countries of Korea (e.g. Samsung) and Taiwan (e.g. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing), most firms in Malaysia are still not engaged in the Shumpeterian-Mark-II type of level 6 knowledge-intensive activities related to creative accumulation. Government
policy should emphasise the stepping up of human capital output, including R&D personnel (RDP), to enable intermediary organizations to quicken the movement of firms to the technology frontier."

Now if you look at Bajet 2011, there's nothing there to show the present government has recognized the utmost gravity of our non-competitive situation. And i don't mean just industrial. Even services.

Sure, it is allocating some money here and there for assorted departmental and agency causes which may seem related to this problem at hand but one has to stretch their relevance by a remarkable mile of imagination since we all know how allocations are normally spent to no effect.

You won't get a top-down drive to nail this problem; it is structural in nature while the solution required is emergency executive action.

Meanwhile in places like Penang where there is at least some hope we can kickstart a real sectoral revamp, federal funds are a trickle - and that's again because of politics.

We may now conclude that politics finished off this country.

If Rasiah is reading this:

Hopefully in his usual engaging styl the blogger will be able to re-synthesise Rasiah's points to make for another post on the future of Malaysia's economy. It's important because without an economic future, other futures don't matter in a material world.

It would be hoping too much that others who can do something about all this would be reading the posts.

So, ended.

msleepyhead said...

Hi dm,

Thanks for reposting this in full. The Edge's site has some kind of a malware alert (at time of writing).

walla's response is always a pleasure to read. Can't help but agree that politics are too deeply entrenched in everything from education to sports, so what else can us average joes do to fight the powers that be.

A bunch of gems here: