REGIONAL SPRINGBOARD

Malaysia 2017 | ECONOMY | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Tan Sri Dato' Dr. Michael O.K. Yeoh, CEO of Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI), on infrastructural opportunities, the ASEAN economic community, and smart cities.

Tan Sri Dato’ Dr. Michael O.K. Yeoh
BIOGRAPHY
Tan Sri Dato’ Dr. Michael O.K. Yeoh was the co-founder and CEO of ASLI, one of the world’s top think tanks. Dr. Yeoh is also Founder & Vice-Chairman of CPPS. Dr. Yeoh was appointed by the Prime Minister of Malaysia to be a Member of the National Unity Consultative Council, the Advisory Board of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, and a Commissioner in Malaysia’s Competition Commission. With over 30 years of corporate experience, he sits on the Board of Directors of Pan Malaysia Corporation, Malaysia-China Business Council, and MUI Properties and was a Director of Star Publications and the National Heart Institute.

How do you assess the opportunities for Malaysia with the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, especially with regards to the recreation of the Maritime Silk Road?

The OBOR initiative will open up many opportunities for Malaysia and its ASEAN neighbors. In particular, we see opportunities in the infrastructure area, as the main objective of OBOR is to improve the connection between China, the rest of Asia, and strategic regions in the world like Europe. We would be able to benefit from a great deal of interest from China in the development of ports, railways, and power plants here. There is significant participation by China in two large-scale infrastructural projects, the East Coast Expressway and the high-speed rail connecting Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. As the interest is mostly on the maritime road, most of the investments are diverted to our ports, which will benefit our economy and position it as the Southeast Asian hub for maritime transport.

How active should the government in Malaysia be in business given the view that a high-income economy should have a dominant private sector?

The government should take a leadership role to promote investments. In particular during low periods of the economic cycle and when private investments slow down, the government has a role to take over certain investments in the public domain that can help restart economic activities. We are currently in this phase, requiring more involvement from GLCs before the private sector can take on more responsibilities there. In the construction of the LRT extension packages, we already see the involvement of many private companies, which are all good signs.

How should Malaysia position itself within ASEAN, especially in light of attracting foreign investment?

Malaysia is an attractive investment hub not only for ASEAN, but also for the Asia Pacific region at large. We share more borders with ASEAN than any other nation in the bloc: Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Brunei. Having half of the community as a direct neighbor already makes us a good regional hub for multinationals seeking to establish themselves in the region. In addition, Malaysia has an active and dynamic private sector that invests abroad. Particularly, our financial sector has an established presence in ASEAN and Asia Pacific. AirAsia, a Malaysian enterprise, is the leading Asian low-cost carrier. Increasingly, we see international manufacturing companies setting up shop in Malaysia, as we have proven to have an efficient, productive ecosystem, combined with business-friendly policies. The government is willing to listen to the needs of investors and to draft policies to meet investors' needs. It is easy to use Malaysia as a springboard to export to other ASEAN countries, especially as we are moving towards the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).

What needs to be done to drive innovation forward and enable the digital economy to flourish?

In terms of education strategies, we need to do some rethinking. First of all, there is a great need to improve English in Malaysian schools, and having our students become more proficient at an early stage would boost our competitive advantage over other developing economies in the region. Other than that, we should focus more on vocational training and prepare more people on the right and needed skills. Too often we have graduates in non-specialized fields. There needs to be a combined effort from the government and the private sector in order to achieve this.

How do you envision smart cities to be a driver of economic growth and wellbeing?

We organize annual smart city conferences because we see the potential and because it brings together many interesting and innovative voices. Malaysia is a rapidly urbanizing country and the base of urbanization is growing as more people move to cities. This means we need to transform our cities into smart cities. That would mean smart graphic systems, smart security, and a more integrated transportation system.