SINGAPORE (Jan 21): Why do I say this? There has been much talk and discussion about how New Malaysia should move forward from hereon. We know that government finances are stretched and, therefore, can no longer prop up the economy with huge spending. We also know that the people are struggling, with sluggish income growth and rising cost of living. Therefore, we cannot expect a big boost from consumer spending either. Case in point: Retailers are having a tough time and sales for big-ticket items such as cars and homes are slow.

I have some ideas. In fact, I have written about this subject several times. I believe the government should let the private sector take the lead. Embrace technology and digitalisation to drive innovation and investments, enhance assets utilisation and productivity. All these will, in turn, underpin sustainable and quality growth as well as create higher paying jobs that will lift overall income levels.

Detractors may contend that Malaysia does not have that capability, that we are lagging in knowledge capital. We compare ourselves to our neighbours in Singapore and decide we come up short. I do not believe this is true. Perhaps it is in our mindset. I travel a lot. That gives me a pretty good perspective on the efficiency of the immigration process in different countries. And I can say that the Malaysian immigration system is one of the most efficient and advanced in the world. The facial recognition technology installed at auto gates at the airport can process passport entry/exit within seconds.

Last week, I accompanied a family member to have her IC and passport renewed. I was pleasantly surprised and impressed at the efficiency at the National Registration Department and Immigration office. It took us 10 to 15 minutes from application to processing and about another hour for collection — for both a new IC and a passport. Not only that, the services were delivered in a very friendly and professional manner. And, no, we were served in the same way: We queued, along with everybody else.

These experiences tell me we do have homegrown intellectual property and we can embrace technology and execute very well. Another good example is MyEG Services. It has successfully developed a platform (all the way back in 2000) that provides a smorgasbord of government services to the people, which is both convenient and efficient.

Certainly, there is controversy surrounding the award of its government concessions. But I think there are two separate issues here: the capability to leverage technology effectively and the pricing of concessions and contracts. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I see no reason that such adoption of technology cannot be replicated nationwide — in both public and private sectors. Clearly, Malaysians do not lack the imagination but rather the opportunity and a supportive regulatory framework — one that must ensure a competitive, rather than rent-seeking, environment.

Having said that, the realist in me has to acknowledge that while we are capable, inefficiencies are prevalent and persistent. Taken in its entirety, the ecosystem is disjointed and absent overall integration and comprehensive solution — because there is just too much vested interest by different parties. And this, unfortunately, is the perception of Malaysia.

Case in point: Paying for public parking can be, at times, confusing, frustrating and costly, owing to the frequent change in systems. We have gone from parking coupons to ticketing machines and back to coupons in the recent past, if my memory serves. Last year, the Selangor state government rolled out a new parking payment app called Smart Selangor Parking. Users can select (or extend) the parking duration and pay using the app. Enforcement officers will scan the car registration to check whether payment has been made. Users can check for any summons issued and, again, pay within the app.

It is all very easy, convenient and efficient — paperless for the good of the environment too — and definitely a step in the right direction. But, certainly, there is room for concerted efforts and improvement.

It is still confusing for users because it may or may not be applicable in different areas; different states have different systems and use different apps, and so on. The overall public awareness and adoption is low. For instance, I read that the Ampang Jaya Municipal Council has a separate app of its own, even though Ampang is a district of Selangor. If only we could have one centralised system.

We see some Malaysian companies doing very well, domestically and abroad, when private initiatives are allowed to flourish within conducive regulatory frameworks — no monopolies, a level playing field and without artificial barriers to entry. It can be done. It has been done. I will write a little more about this in the coming weeks.

Stocks in my Global Portfolio ended up gaining 1.96% for the week. Total returns now stand at -13.4% since inception. This portfolio is underperforming the MSCI World Net Return Index, which is down a lesser -4.6% over the same period.

Tong Kooi Ong is chairman of The Edge Media Group, which owns The Edge Singapore

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