It would be easy to assume that the man behind various successful initiatives may be less than humble, but this does not hold true at all for YBhg Tan Dato’ Sri Dr Mohd Irwan Serigar bin Abdullah, Chairman of Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MAGIC) and Secretary General of Treasury, Ministry of Finance.
This is a man who is not easily swayed by all that glitters – awards, to him, don’t mean as much as the satisfaction gained from realising one’s objectives – and he would know all about that, considering his background.
Tan Sri came from humble beginnings.
“Kais pagi makan pagi, kais petang, makan petang,” was how he described his childhood growing up in rural Malaysia in the ‘70s. Born and raised in Kota Bharu, Tan Sri was encouraged from an early age to earn a living in order to support his family. But this small-town boy had big dreams. He saw himself as a university graduate and refused to settle for anything less – despite having nothing in his pockets when he first came to the big city.
“I hardly had a single cent in my pocket – so I resorted to ‘crowdfunding’. Back then, it wasn’t known as such, it was called ‘begging’, Tan Sri quipped. He worked hard to fund himself in university and emerged victorious as a graduate in the early ‘80s, conquering the many obstacles that faced him. He joined Telekom, which at that time was on the brink of privatisation, and was placed in the Corporate department responsible for the re-structuring. Tan Sri was the brains behind such concepts back then such as Kedai Telekom.
However, he felt that he could do much more with his talents and skills and did not feel the frisson of challenge. Within a year, he joined a service formerly known as Pegawai Pentadbir Diplomatik (PPD) as he had aspirations to be a diplomat. His superiors had other plans for him after noting his strong background in economics. They suggested that he be posted in the Economic Planning Unit.
He eventually went on to get his Masters in the US, came back to Malaysia and obtained his PhD, and followed on a career path that led to his appointment as Secretary General within the government’s Treasury.
He credits his tenacious success to his childhood and hard times.
“The principle I hold dear to my heart is that anything can be done. If you have the passion, and the fighting spirit in you, you must persevere no matter what the challenges are. Remain patient and cool headed. Never give up,” advised Tan Sri.
During his time as a civil servant, he managed and led various portfolios via financial modelling as well as planning the state’s finances. He was put in charge of micro-economy, the country’s GDP, financial projections, and from there, he ventured to real projects for the people.
Through his journey, he soon realised one very vital thing:
“The world is changing very fast. It is not static. The Information Age that we live in makes the world change even faster. In order for human beings to stay relevant, we must adapt ourselves. Our mind-set must change too,” he said.
“When one reaches a certain age, it is very difficult to change their mindsets. They are so used to their routine lives and prefer to stay in their comfort zones. Entrepreneurship is about breaking out of that comfort zone. If you look at this from a global point of view, as a nation, if we don’t change and adapt according to the world’s ecosystem, we will become irrelevant,” he cautioned.
Which is why he really believes in quality education and enforcing the idea of innovation early on, from primary school itself. Tan Sri believes that children should be taught to be versatile, and that creativity and innovation should be embedded into education. This belief is what made him delve into the world of entrepreneurship as he sees it as a mechanism to change the mindset of the community.
He felt that entrepreneurship is the key to Malaysia’s competitiveness and relevancy on the global stage. Tan Sri also purports that entrepreneurship is not limited to your own business.
“Even if you work for someone, you can do a better job if you employ entrepreneurial skills at work. The future of work is project-based, where one person may work for more than one employee. The nature of work itself will change – it will no longer be like back in the day where if you didn’t wok, you would be sacked. People will choose their own hours to work. That is the future,” said Tan Sri.
When it comes to the future, Tan Sri is certainly a forward thinker. No sooner had he grasped that entrepreneurship was the key, he was offered a chance to organise the fourth Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), an initiative kickstarted by the US government, when its Embassy approached him in 2013. Without hesitation, Tan Sri said yes and the event proved to be a springboard upon which MAGIC came about.
MAGIC is, to describe it in Tan Sri’s words, is “a single point pulling all the ropes together.” Tan Sri noted that the whole entrepreneurial ecosystem in the country was scattered – the venture capitalists ran in their own circles, while patenting agencies also operated on silo mode – not to mention the various initiatives and programmes churned out for entrepreneurs by well-meaning government agencies.
Tan Sri sees himself as an entrepreneurship ecosystem-builder, driven by the desire to unite isolated parties via a single platform. However, despite MAGIC’s relative success, Tan Sri was left unsatisfied. He felt that the organisation needed to go further afield, namely, to include regional waters and then why stop there? Going global was the next logical move – which explains how the Global Entrepreneurship Movement (GEM) came into being.
As mind-boggling as the abbreviations can be, Tan Sri has a valid case with GEM – with its tagline, ‘Democratising Entrepreneurship’, the organisation aims to make entrepreneurship accessible to anybody, thus creating space for a dialogue that is often overlooked in the industry’s overzealousness in obtaining funding and finding angel investors.
Few can say that Malaysian entrepreneurs are not innovative and always striving to outdo themselves, however Tan Sri has higher expectations for them.
“In Malaysia, I would say we are slightly above infancy level – we have the knowledge and skills but somehow we are not maximising them. In the past, production was based solely on land, capital and labour but now, innovation and creativity is becoming main factors in the process. Companies that have these two components will succeed,” he commented. Tan Sri witnesses a convergence between industries and the success of bringing diverse businesses together. His vision is to oversee how technology can enable different industries coming together to solve current problems.
“Entrepreneurship is driving our economies, but the level of technology penetration in entrepreneurial endeavours is low because as a nation, we are still labour-intensive. The other issue is our over-reliance on foreign labour, yet, our productivity levels are still low. As a nation, we need to fast track and consider how tech can improve our businesses via automation and so on,” he advised.
Tan Sri’s passion for improving his country and the level of innovation is clear when he explains how he spends time talking to various entrepreneurs. He faces a challenge when talking about embracing technology.
“Most of the time, I find it difficult to talk about the future because people tend to look at the current situation as it is now. Most don’t want to take risks and try new things. They shy away from automation as they don’t believe that it will give them the same stability that they currently enjoy. On the contrary, it has been proven that automation and other forms of upgrading your technology can possibly double or even triple your income, while cutting cost and increasing productivity. This is what I tell entrepreneurs,” he explained.
When asked how he plans to rectify this, Tan Sri says that he has suggested several out-of-the-box ideas, such as his regulatory sandbox idea, which consist of gathering all the various industry regulators and having an open discussion on how to change the whole entrepreneurial ecosystem by creating a level playing field. This would cut across different industries, from telcos to commodities.
Tan Sri sees the new and young players as a positive asset to the market. According to him, they are the ones who can jumpstart the industries by competing with the big boys who will then be forced to change and innovate.
Being someone who practices what he preaches, Tan Sri himself has the DNA of an entrepreneur. Always keeping up with changes and trying new things, his various successful initiatives have won him several awards.
He is the man responsible for such ideas such as the Urban Transformation Centre (UTC) which is a one-stop centre open until 10pm, for the public to solve issues such as renewing passports, Identity Cards and paying off their road summons. The idea behind UTC is: rapid execution, high-impact and low-cost. With over 10 agencies under one roof, these centres have received positive feedback and led to recognition in the form of the PM’s Award to Tan Sri in 2016. However, awards don’t phase this ambitious and big-hearted man.
“The satisfaction I get is when someone comes to me and tells me that through my initiative, he is successful. Money and awards cannot buy that satisfaction because it is coming from the heart of another soul,” said Tan Sri.
Despite his numerous achievements, his proudest milestone to date is the formation of MAGIC, with GEM coming in as a close second. GEM was set up within two weeks of approval, and is run like a company with a designated woman CEO, Tan Sri was happy to point out. This future-forward thinker definitely supports women in the workplace. Her KPI consists of regional markers as Tan Sri dreams of seeing GEM counterparts in far-flung cites such as Europe and Africa. In his words, he wants GEM to be a “real global organisation.”
“We want to make this world a better place to live. Through these events, we want the entrepreneurship ecosystem to come together in order to help each other. As for Malaysia, I want us to be ahead of the curve, rather than being behind it. Let us become a nation of technology creators, instead of merely being technology adopters. That is the shift I wish to see,” he concluded.