As Malaysia is at the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and digital transformation, the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), together with other agencies, have been empowered through substantial budgetary allocations in Budget 2021 to ensure Malaysia is ready for the digital economy through 4IR technologies.

However, without a new fairer governing and economic framework, in the best-case scenario, we’ll end up with an outwardly technologically-advanced society while internally it remains plagued with the same old issues of disparities, injustice, inequity, environmental problems and many others.

What then, is the value in the 4IR? Why would digital transformation solve these issues?

The answer is that it won’t - not unless we (humans) change as well. Malaysia (and the world) needs to internalise the spirit of empathy, compassion and justice in its economic and governing practices and implement it in a workable model.

The way we have governed ourselves combined with unethical economic practices have arguably failed the majority and benefitted the few. A new framework that promotes socio-economic justice is needed.

‘Economics of Empathy’ as coined by Chairman of MDEC Datuk Dr. Rais Hussin that forms the fundamental principle of the people-centric ‘Malaysia 5.0’ framework – to ultimately solve problems of the people. File image

Thus, this is a timely call for a system that places the people – not just profits - at the heart of the technological revolution. This framework internalises the ‘Economics of Empathy’ as coined by Chairman of MDEC Datuk Dr. Rais Hussin that forms the fundamental principle of the people-centric ‘Malaysia 5.0’ framework – inspired after Japan’s ‘Society 5.0’ – to ultimately solve problems of the people.

Putting words into actions, MDEC’s recently-announced major restructuring which appears to draw elements from Society 5.0 whereby the agency shifted from the traditional divisional-based structure to the delivery of specific focus areas.

This is a good example of Japan’s Society 5.0’s ‘breaking the walls of organization’ from the micro perspective so that divisions no longer work in silos. Instead, it promotes divisional collaboration towards a common goal, which in itself a micro example of ‘Unity Alliance’ outlined in Malaysia 5.0.

The new heads of divisions under MDEC should internalise the principles of Malaysia 5.0 in the delivery of their respective focus areas to ensure that 4IR and digital transformations ultimately serve the rakyat.

Afterall, MDEC is funded through rakyat’s money and therefore, the people are the true shareholders – not technology giants, politicians, or other parties with special interests.

Some would be quick to dismiss the call for change as a far-fetched notion, which is reflective of how these much-needed values are severely alien in the hearts of people. It’s no wonder society is in the sad state that it’s in. But it’s not entirely their fault; most are helpless victims of the system and therefore, have lost faith.

The hopelessness felt by these people is unfortunate yet understandable. Society has gone through several technological revolutions and various versions of societies - the progression of which are all associated with higher levels of technological development. Yet, we still face various persistent socio-economic problems.

Clearly this is not the failure of technology, but a failure of the people, particularly those in position of power - be it in governments or corporations. Afterall, technology is just a tool.

What’s missing in past technological revolutions, is the human transformation. It’s insane to think we can solve the same old societal problems through the same flawed mindset that created it. As per the famous quote widely credited to Einstein “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”.

Malaysia 5.0 isn’t a radical swap from extreme capitalism to extreme socialism. Instead, what is proposed is simply a more empathetic version where both economic prosperity and the burdens of difficult times are ‘shared’, and the beneficiary of the technological revolution is the people – not just the elite.

We can observe a simple example in Top Glove, Hartalega, Supermax and Kossan ‘giving back’ and contributing RM400 million in the fight against Covid-19, as reported in relation to Budget 2021. Hardcore capitalism certainly didn’t teach such acts of altruism and unlike hardcore socialism, no one stopped these companies from making profits and owning assets when markets favoured their businesses.

Social innovation expert from the World Economic Forum, Murilo Johas Menezes, also alluded to an ‘empathic alternative to capitalism’. Menezes credited capitalism with various advancements but noted that profit maximisation resulted in these advancements coming at significant costs. Menezes highlighted various examples that demonstrated the failure of the incumbent system such as the lack of basic necessities, socio-economic issues, geo-political conflicts, and environmental issues.

In a balanced view, Menezes also mentioned how extreme socialist models could not prosper due to ‘conceptual issues that were not properly addressed’ and the associated authoritarianism tendencies which have been historically proven.

At the corporate level, transformations solely led by technological innovations such as digitization, automation, high-tech surveillance and artificial-intelligence (AI) hold the promise to be highly efficient at improving profits. However, in the absence of a policy that puts the well-being of the people first, such a system would do little to improve the lives of the vast majority of the public. At its worst, it could be the final iteration of uninhibited capitalism.

At the government level for example, the use of high-tech surveillance (through various technologies such as cutting-edge video analytics) can assist in improving security but without proper guidance, it can be misused to mine for people’s personal data for the wrong reasons. The integration of a poorly-governed National Digital ID and the associated personal information ‘big data’ with AI can be wrongfully exploited by the government for the purpose of increasing control and undermine democracy. At its worst, this leads to tyranny.

Japan’s Society 5.0 puts the people at the heart of inter-connected technologies and through what Japan refers to as a ‘super-smart’ society, people’s problems can be addressed. It also segregates power and opportunities, instead of concentrating it.

Malaysia 5.0 takes the inspiration from Society 5.0 and integrates Malaysia-specific circumstances and goals. It goes beyond ‘super-smart’ as it recognises the often underestimated and overlooked human transformation that must accompany technological revolutions.

Through these virtues, it promotes equitable sharing of the envisioned increased prosperity as well as socio-economic burdens. It is only under these human transformations can new technologies, products and services - touted under 4IR, Society 5.0, and others – can be made accessible in an equitable manner to solve society’s problems.

This is the principle that drives government, economic and financial policies to favour the human condition on top of the economic situation. Understandably, this will take time but it is a necessary course-correction measure if we want to avoid the same old trajectory.

The initial catalyst for nationwide adoption would be leadership embrace of Malaysia 5.0 as an overarching governing policy framework - by political leaders, industry captains, and heads of ministries and agencies. Culture starts from the top and in time, exemplary leadership trickles down to all segments of society and all parts of the value chain.

Malaysia 5.0 takes the inspiration from Society 5.0 and integrates Malaysia-specific circumstances and goals. File image

Ameen Kamal is the Head of Science & Technology at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.