New Malaysian premier snubs ICT body

Prior to Najib's April 3rd appointment to Malaysia's top political post, Pikom had urged the country's incoming administration to establish a single, dedicated ICT ministry — given the sector's prominent role in the local economy.

By Lee Min Keong, ZDNet Asia

Newly-minted Prime Minister Najib Razak has delivered an embarrassing snub to the country's ICT association Pikom, after he not only ignored its call for a single ministry, but also transferred jurisdiction for the local communications sector to a low-profile ministry.

In a statement released last week following the Cabinet reshuffle, Pikom said it was "disappointed" its recent request for a single ICT ministry has gone unanswered. The industry body also revealed it was "caught by surprise" that the responsibility for the country's ICT sector has been transferred to the Information, Culture and Arts Ministry, headed by Rais Yatim, a veteran politician who is regarded to lack substantial experience in the ICT sector.

Prior to Najib's April 3rd appointment to Malaysia's top political post, Pikom had urged the country's incoming administration to establish a single, dedicated ICT ministry — given the sector's prominent role in the local economy.

The ICT industry was previously a shared responsibility between the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, and Ministry of Energy, Water and Communication.

Pikom noted that such fragmented arrangements pose great challenges — administratively and logistically — in mobilizing requisite resources in an appropriate and coherent manner, due to blurring boundaries, roles and responsibilities.

Pikom Chairman David Wong said in the statement: "Our proposal for a single ICT ministry would see faster, more convenient and informative provision of information. It also quickens the decision-making process, saves cost, increases efficiency and offers procedural clarity for local and foreign ICT companies to prosper.

"We envisage such a ministry would be specifically tasked to actively promote Malaysia's ICT industry, develop constructive policies and guidelines to deal with global ICT deregulation and market liberalization."

Highlighting the significance of ICT, Pikom said statistics indicated value added ICT services contributed 10.8 percent to the country's GDP in 2008, while the overall sector accounted for 26.9 percent of the local manufacturing industry last year.

Najib's decision to transfer oversight of the communications sector to a ministry that essentially deals with the media, culture and arts, has stupefied Pikom.

Wong said: "Pikom was caught by surprise that the communication element was lumped together with the Information Ministry, especially since communication is high on the national agenda with the rollout of high-speed broadband. In this respect, Pikom is disappointed that our call for a single ICT ministry has not been realized."

He noted, however, that the retention of Maximus Ongkili as Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation will provide "continuity in the policies and plans" established for the ICT industry by the previous administration.

"Drifting" under previous government

Najib replaced Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whom opposition lawmaker Tony Pua said had done little for the local sector.

National publicity secretary for the Democratic Action Party, Pua told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail: "Over the past five years, the ICT sector has essentially been drifting on a free-gear mode… There was absolutely no direction, no emphasis, and little incentives or funding were allocated to the sector–unlike when it was under [former premier] Mahathir Mohamad's administration."

Abdullah's term led to "the relegation of the sector", he said, straying from Malaysia's target of building a knowledge economy, to one that has been "neglected and regarded as irrelevant".

Can Najib then steer policy changes needed to boost the ICT sector? According to Pua, the early signs are not very encouraging.

"We have yet to see any indication that Najib will be more generous toward the ICT sector," he noted. "Even in his last 60 billion ringgit (US$16.6 billion) stimulus budget, there was no allocation or announcement of initiatives that support and promote the local ICT sector."

Driving competition is a key area that the new administration should look into, he added.

Pua said: "ICT is a sector that is necessarily driven by innovation and competition. Without competition, the industry loses its cutting edge. There should be liberalization of competition, particularly for the government sector, which to date, has been restricted to contractors approved by the Ministry of Finance."

He added that funds should also be set aside to encourage qualified software service providers to explore overseas markets.

Lee Min Keong is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.