WHAT makes Ehon Chan successful is his positive outlook.
Though young — and looking even younger because of his baby face — the 31-year-old is able to see something positive in his daily activities. Rather than complaining, he believes in solving problems.
In an interview with thesundaypost, the words he frequently mentioned were solving problems, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. He is now executive director of the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC), an agency set up by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak to provide leadership, training and solutions for social entrepreneurs.
Chan is from Sarawak, a true blue St Joseph’s School old boy who has made it in the world and returned home to share his experience and expertise.
Q: May we know a bit of your background?
A: I am a Kuching boy who first went to SK Teresa, then St Joseph’s. We were poor but my mother was a staunch believer in community involvement. That was why I was very active in voluntary or co-curricular activities during my student years, particularly with the Red Crescent.
When I was 16, one of my best friends, Ryan Yeo, two years older than me, drowned. He was the school head prefect, my senior in the Red Crescent and my role model. His death really had a profound effect on me as I was then trying to discover who I was. I went through a few months of depression. Then I realised since I had only one chance to live, I must make the best of it — not waste it. I must try to gain as much experience as possible and also push my limits as far as I could.
Later, I went to Adelaide to take up medical science. To challenge myself, I went for a double major, doing physiology and neuroscience, and also obtained credit in pharmacology and toxicology. I graduated in 2008. A friend of mine who was starting a digital magazine called ‘News Unlimited’ invited me to join and I agreed.
So you are involved in something not exactly in line with your academic qualifications?
These days you don’t end up with what you have studied. Things have changed. After the digital magazine, I started a charity or a campaign seeking solutions to reduce the incidence of suicide, the number one cause of death, especially among men.
It is very common for Australians to say, “Harden the f*** up.” Since we wanted to change the conversation, we called the campaign “Soften the f***…. up.” It went viral for a while.
Then a friend of mine decided to start an incubator. What we did was take over a building, renovated it and called it ‘The Work Spaces of the Future’. We tried to imagine the kind of future work spaces where people would be mobile and no longer belonging to any one company, and where innovation would not necessarily come from the mainstream or the core to the edges but could happen anywhere.
So we built a place where people of different disciplines, generations, backgrounds and expertise could congregate. It’s like a clubhouse where people paid for membership and gathered, regardless of whether they were a big corporation CEO, an academic, a freelancer or just a business owner. Anyone could come with just a laptop and never know what connection he or she was going to make. It spread very quickly and we even expanded our business to Sydney and Adelaide.
Then I had a burnout and left. By that time, I had saved a bit of money and decided to travel the world. Meantime, a lot of people were asking me to help. I was the innovation guy for Chattanooga, Tennessee, so to speak, doing some campaigns here and there and raising funds to build schools and doing all sorts of stuff. I even wrote a script for a 1Malaysia Mobile Clinic documentary and was also invited by a friend to the United Kingdom to manage his companies’ portfolios and transform some of his struggling companies.
In 2013, the Prime Minister announced the formation of MaGIC, and later, an RM20 million special allocation to set up a Social Entrepreneurship Department. They were looking for someone to form and lead this department. They approached me and I accepted the offer.
Why did you decide to come back to lead MaGIC? What does the department do?
There are personal, professional and intrinsic motivational factors. At the time, my grandma was very sick. Being close to my family is very important as one of my greatest fears is losing the people I love, especially after my best friend’s death.
As for the professional factor, I felt I had reached a certain stage in my life where I knew I could make it happen if I put my commitment to anything — even something outside my field. I would like to think I had done quite well overseas. It was time I gave back to my country.
Social entrepreneurship is something I’m very passionate about. I believe it’s going to be the future for business — in one form or another. I don’t think social entrepreneurship itself will be the future but as it evolves, I believe this is where business is going to move towards. Furthermore, I believe MaGIC is a federal platform where it’s easier to influence both policies and grassroots. And I also knew I would be working with some of the most talented, passionate and incredibly brilliant people. So I was willing to give it a try.
Borneo 744 is only one little project within the larger MaGIC which is doing a lot of projects. Social entrepreneurship is one huge agenda. We have corporate entrepreneurship responsibility driving corporation innovation. We also have the largest accelerator in Asia, incubating businesses and social enterprises from around the world. Anyone can apply, work and live with us for four months.
We have a whole academy running all sorts of workshops to train budding entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs. We do community outreach. We also want to do entrepreneurship for Asean and match great ideas to resources. These are usually for corporations and governments looking for fresh ideas. Our vision is to drive creativity and innovation for entrepreneurship.
We passionately believe the only way this country can become a developed or high income nation is if the rakyat become active citizens within whom we can unleash that brilliance to be innovative and creative whether through becoming entrepreneurs, inventors or problem-solvers. That is our ultimate aim. So for us, it’s about changing the mindset of the people.
What are your views on the Chief Minister’s vision of a digital economy?
It’s a very brave vision that has been fast-forwarded by the Chief Minister. I’m very excited about it. This is one of those very rare times when a politician or a government not only puts forward a vision that is so large, but at the same time, also announces the practical steps to get there, including the setting up of the Development Bank of Sarawak, the Sarawak Multimedia Authority, the Sarawak Digital Economy Corporation and the Digital Village.
The vision is a lofty idealism. What he needs to do now is getting the right people to translate the practical steps into action to achieve that lofty idealism. I think it’s a realistic vision and it all comes down to having the capital and the talents.
Do we have the talents needed?
I think we have enough diaspora around the world to provide the talents. How and what are the formulae to attract some of these talents back is something we need to find out.
The other way of doing it is bringing in foreigners who have the talents. We can bring in brilliant people who can infuse their culture, influence and mentality to uplift our people. Chile has proven successful in doing this. No one had ever imagined Chile could be a start-up hub. The Chilean government realised the future is about innovation and it needed to bring brilliant people in. So it opened up and welcomed anyone with innovative ideas by giving subsidies and grants. Many came and Chile was turned into a start-up hub.
A study has been done showing that for every dollar the government spent on bringing in talents, it got seven dollars in return. I think we can replicate the same thing. Sarawak has all the right factors to attract foreigners. Now it is the question of how to match resources and talents.
How can we prepare the younger generation for a digital economy?
There are three factors — structural, social and cultural — we need to consider. The easiest is the structural part. When I say structural factor, I mean the system, the way we hire, procure, educate and expose our young generation to possibilities, trends and all ‘the crazy things’ — around the world.
Let us start with education. Our education is a straight path. The moment you are born you almost have that straight path to follow. The moment you enter university you sign up for a straight path to a specific job. But we know it does not happen anymore. In fact, the top job today did not exist five years ago. I may enrol in a course which takes me four years to complete and by the time I graduate, the job may no longer exist. How do we prepare for jobs that do not exist? It comes down to building character, critical thinking, higher order thinking, creativity and innovation and being able to respond to change, new technology and new ways of thinking.
That’s why the way we educate our children is critical. Let us not put them into boxes because these days, there are no more boxes. A lawyer needs to know as much about technology as a technology guy needs to know about the legal aspects of things. It’s a world that criss-crosses, not vertical anymore. For example, telecommunication used to be vertical as an industry of its own. But these days, telecommunication is something that every industry needs.
Socially, we also need to redefine what success is. It used to be seen as ‘having a job in a company or a corporation’. In my grandparents’ eyes, I’m not successful because I don’t really attach to anything. I travel here and there and do this and that. How we define success in a social construction manner is very important.
Moreover, we need to build a culture of entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation. Digital economy is an all-encompassing giant cloud. What actually realises digital economy is the many activities that bring us there. On the one hand, there is the hardware and infrastructure while on the other, there is the software which is the talent.
The activities that follow — such as more start-ups and more digital inventions — are the elements that lead us to an economy that is digital. Along the way, people become inventors and entrepreneurs who create economic activities that lead us towards digital economy. So culturally, we have to prepare our young people for that.
Does this mean we need to change our education system in total to achieve a digital economy?
If there is a will there is a way. I think it comes down to political will and how far leadership is willing to push it. Even if the government is not ready to transform our current education, little efforts help. For example, the Education Ministry is now introducing coding and programming to schools. That’s a good start though obviously we need to do more. Even the Ministry of Higher Education now is huge on promoting students to start their own businesses while pursuing a degree. I think that’s a big leap compared to the past.
Outside the traditional education system, we are also seeing a lot more non-traditional and non-conventional forms of education. For example, there is a centre in Penang called the Arus Academy. It’s doing after-school programmes, teaching kids to build robots, do DIY, coding and programming as well as come up with their own inventions. So I think even if we can’t transform our education system, we can invest in non-traditional forms of education. It can work too.
What about end-users of technology between age 40 and 60? How can they contribute to a digital economy?
The great thing about digital economy is that it does not discriminate. Previously, you could stereotype a certain race, age or profession. For example, a company CEO must be over 40 or 50 years old. But when you talk about digital economy, people of all ages are involved.
Take the example of Facebook — the CEO is only a young guy who created the world’s largest tech company in his university dorm when he was still in his late teens or early 20s. But he knew he did not have the worldly knowledge to run the company, so he brought in Sheryl Sandberg, 15 years his senior, from a big corporation. Both worked together to form the most powerful digital company in the world.
Things have changed. Digital economy does not discriminate according to age, race or gender, unlike the traditional industries back in the old days. As long as you have an intrinsic motivation to get involved in that space, you can find ways to do it. You may not be the coder and programmer or the hardware inventor but you may be the person who comes up with the idea, the design or the system.
A good place to start is when you find yourself in a situation where you say to yourself “if only there is this thing”. Write it down even though it may just be a good idea you can work on. Ask yourself, in what scale will it affect people? Hundreds, thousands or millions? The more people it affects, the higher the chance it will be a successful invention.
There is much scepticism over the Chief Minister’s vision of a digital economy. What are your views?
People can criticise but it must be constructive. We must ask ourselves, if not this vision, what is the alternative? This is a big vision with a practical approach to it. I can see it happening and I’m more than happy to support it.
The way the Chief Minister laid out his vision at the International ICT Infrastructure and Digital Economy Conference Sarawak gave me goose bumps. This is huge. I understand people may be sceptical. To me, scepticism is okay as long as it is kept at a healthy level. Don’t be a cynic. The moment you are cynical and say no to everything, that’s when there is no innovation.
Take Kodak for example. Back in the old days, it was a huge corporation and the most popular camera company in the world. Some 20 years ago, one of its employees created a digital camera and presented to the boss but the boss was sceptical to the point that the employee was fired. Some 20 years later, Kodak shrunk into a company that only produced films while other brands took over the leadership in camera production.
Everything has changed. New roles come up, old roles disappear. Take the example of Airbnb. It is one of the largest companies in the hotel line but it does not own any hotels. GrabCar is also one of the biggest taxi companies in Southeast Asia, yet it does not own a single taxi. Things are done differently now. If you are a corporate leader, be open-minded and be open to change. Start thinking about the future and invest more in innovation. We have to think five or 10 years into the future. We don’t know what is going to happen but at least we are putting our hands on the pulse.
Is there anything you think is really important you would like to share with Sarawakians?
I have been back for two years now and working with both the federal and state governments. People always say the government doesn’t care and they complain. As one who has worked with the government at different levels, I dare say the majority in the civil service and politics are fiercely committed. Some politicians may say stupid things but at the end of the day, we still have a government or a civil service that is actually very committed, whether from the standpoint of the economy or people’s well-being.
I think there has to be a shift in Malaysian culture — from pessimistic complainers to optimistic innovators and problem solvers, especially among the younger generation. If our young people are going to complain every day, we are not going to have a bright future. We must become a nation adept at solving problems.
There are some who are already problem-solvers, especially in Sarawak. I have incubated over 70 over companies in the last two years with MaGIC. They are doing extremely well, making over RM10 million in revenue, and some are from Sarawak. They are problem-solvers.
Another example is that we may complain about food wastage but there is a couple of young Sarawakian boys who set up a ‘tong’ at the Third Mile Market to collect organic food waste and sell to pet shops. These boys are solving problems and generating an income at the same time.
At Padawan, young people are moving out because there are no jobs. A young woman, Abbie Hosanna, went back to start a company called the Backyard Tour, and promote it to foreign tourists. She then trained the locals to be tour guides and brought jobs to Padawan. When there is a problem, let us do something about it rather than just complain.
The moment we move ahead collectively as Sarawak or Malaysia, and if we can move forward in an optimistic manner, with strong conviction, and we feel no discrimination against us, we can build a brilliant state.
Sarawak is unique. We are extremely diverse in terms of culture, food and geography — in fact, almost everything. We have mountains, seas and giant trees. We also have a top superstar director James Wan. Indeed, we have a lot of talents. The question is how to unleash these talents. Let us discard the old school mentality that certain jobs are for certain age group or certain gender. There is no such thing anymore.
If you want a digital economy, you have to think of the future. The Chief Minister has laid out the vision and the plan, let us all be on board.