MyDigital: New Jargon but Same ol’ Impediments

THE Malaysian government recently launched the MyDigital initiative, which it says outlines its plans to accelerate Malaysia’s progress to become a “technologically-advanced, digitally-driven, high income nation and a regional leader in digital economy,” and will accomplish this through the Malaysia Digital Economy Blueprint.

The 104-page Blueprint is indeed hefty reading so I have selected some quick-win initiatives that I would like to comment on. I consider these as targets with immediate results, as opposed to the lofty goals espoused by some of the grand aspirations in the Blueprint.

Much of what I’ve chosen is government-focused simply because most of the quick-win initiatives involve the government. After all, the Blueprint essentially serves as a mission statement of the government.

Here are three considerations to think about.

Transform Mampu to better drive digitalisation and respond to rapidly evolving digital technologies

This positions the Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (Mampu) as the sole agency to drive public sector digital transformation and will strengthen its capacity and capabilities to facilitate effective change management.

From the wording in the Blueprint, it seems that the government intends to coordinate all public sector digital transformation through Mampu. The agency is expected to be responsible for designing, enforcing, and advising as subject matter experts on government transformation projects. This is similar to Britain’s Government Digital Service unit. 

Now digital government services are delivered through software and developing and maintaining complex software requires significant direct involvement. 

This will not be achieved by continuing the present practice of outsourcing IT projects to third-parties, which have ‘no skin in the game,’ and which do not have the security clearance nor access to internal information. They also do not possess a full understanding of the whole gamut of government services.

I would even go further and propose that Mampu be charged with delivering government projects. The model that I am proposing is the approach taken by the United States Digital Service (USDS) of shipping code and delivering services to its public. The USDS is made up of technologists from diverse backgrounds working across the government to transform critical services for the people. 

It adopts a ‘tour-of-service’ model where it hires technical talents who serve a tour by writing code and delivering actual projects to the government. Doing so is also inline with the thrust to develop in-house technical talent.

The government can start by appointing an engineer/ technologist to lead the unit, someone with actual industry experience and technological expertise, and not a career civil servant/ public administrator.

I am sure that the present Mampu director-general, with a background in economics, is a capable administrator. He has been cited as having “vast experience in various fields including finance, economy and strategic investment”. 

But if you actually care about successfully delivering technological change to the government, you would want someone who understands what it takes to design, develop, and deploy real-world software to actual clients.

Introduce a digital-first programme to enhance federal and state levels usage of cloud services

This initiative focuses on two main areas: Reducing the usage of physical storage files by shifting towards a cloud-first strategy and adopting a paperless culture by enabling paper-free workflows and transactions.

The government has targeted 80% cloud storage across the government by 2022. While this sounds like one of the few quantifiable measures specified in the Blueprint, I am puzzled by how this metric is measured. 

I doubt that it will be measured in terms of petabytes/ exabytes as this would imply that some bureaucrat has calculated how much data is being stored across the entire government.

While not explicitly mentioned in the Blueprint, additional reporting has suggested that “the government has given conditional approvals for Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Telekom Malaysia to build and manage hyper-scale data centres and provide hybrid cloud services.” 

We know the three big cloud providers have existing data centres in Singapore. But they have also omitted Malaysia from their expansion plans in favour of Indonesia. 

Then it hit me – maybe our government has set the storage target less as a benchmark but more as an aspiration, namely, to entice these companies to expand their cloud data centres to Malaysia. 

I really hope to see this happen as it will give Malaysian companies, including my company, a chance to deploy IT infrastructure locally instead of in Singapore.

However, it would normally take two to three years from announcements to operationalising a cloud data centre. Considering the three multinationals have yet to announce such plans with regards to Malaysia, I am not confident of seeing localised data centres by 2022.

Meanwhile, the government may intend to store our data in other regional data centres before the Malaysian ones are operational. 

But this would raise data sovereignty issues if the data is held overseas as our data would be subject to foreign laws. It will also raise privacy issues since the government is the largest collector of personal information and is exempt from the requirements of the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) 2010.

Therefore, I believe we may need to expand our PDPA along the lines of the European Union’s (EU’s) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) with regards to extra-territorial jurisdiction. 

This is to ensure that foreign data processors, which hold our data in foreign jurisdictions, will be liable under our Malaysian laws. This is also in line with the thrust concerning cross-border data transfer and protection.

Accelerate digital signature implementation across public sector online services to enable end-to-end digital transactions

This move will enable end-to-end digital transactions through secured authentication of the signatory to fulfil requirements of confidentiality, identity authentication and integrity of information involving public sector online services.

Malaysia has been ready for this for more than 20 years. Digital signatures that are generated using asymmetric cryptography and verified with a public key listed in a valid certificate issued by a licensed authority are legally recognised under the Digital Signature Act 1997. 

Our national identity card – MyKAD – has the capability to store just such a valid certificate and can be used by every citizen to generate digital signatures with a suitable reader and software.

In Estonia, the digital signature system implemented by its government is the foundation for some of its most popular e-services. These include the online registration of a company, e-banking, e-voting and tax filing or any other services that require signatures to prove their validity. 

Upon the issuance of identity cards in Estonia, every user receives two certificates: One for authentication, the other for digital signing. However, unlike Estonia, Malaysian citizens do not automatically get issued digital certificates in our MyKAD.

MyKAD owners who wish to have this capability need to do it at a private licensed authority by paying a fee. They will also need to pay every time they renew this certificate. 

This increases the cost and slows down the adoption of digital certificates and digital signatures.

I would suggest that our government adopt similar measures to that used by Estonia to ensure full adoption of digital certificates and signatures by all. 

By issuing digital certificates to every citizen, the implementation of a National Digital Identity (NDI) will be accelerated, which is another thrust of the Blueprint. 

The reason? Our digital certificate is a digital identity and as such,  we do not need our government to invent another digital identity – all it takes is to preload it onto our MyKAD.

The Blueprint is however light on the details of this initiative and to make matters worse, treats the digital signature initiative as separate to the NDI initiative, spearheaded by different ministries. 

Given that we have already failed to adopt a digital signature standard across government services, I’m not hopeful that this will happen, even with the legal recognition and the technological capability of being able to do so for the last two decades.

Final words

The idea of a digital government is nothing new and has been around since at least the inception of Vision 2020. 

I am old enough to remember the first and most important of the seven Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) flagship applications was the establishment of an ‘electronic government,’ led by Mampu. 

The jargon may have changed but the goal remains the same. Even two decades ago, it was understood that to digitise the nation, the government must first be digitised. 

When it was first announced in 1996, things seemed well planned and within reach. Sadly, after 20 years and then some, we are still trying to launch an initiative to digitise our government and our nation.

I am reminded that someone once said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” 

I am sure that there are a lot of good ideas and great intentions outlined in the Blueprint. 

However, as history has repeatedly shown, neither of those are in short supply in Malaysia. I pray that we have the will to do what is necessary to implement this Blueprint successfully.

Profile of a #undirosak

Let me start by saying that I have been advocating #undirosak even before it became trendy on social media. So, you know where I stand on this issue.

I’ve been reading all sorts of news articles and comments about the ongoing campaign (if you can call it that) on social media. I don’t presume to know everyone who supports it but a lot of remarks have been hurled at this group of people. Instead of trying to justify things, I thought that I would like to share a profile of one such person, myself.

I started voting in GE11 in 2004.

However, I was denied my right to vote in GE12 in 2008. I was a government scholar studying full-time overseas and tried to register as a postal voter in 2007. I chronicled it in my blog at the time. I couldn’t accept my government arbitrarily denying me my constitutionally and legally protected right to vote.

So, when I returned home after graduation, I was fired up about elections and was determined to do my best to ensure that no one else would ever be denied this right. This led me to lodge a formal complaint and present documentary evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee on electoral reforms in 2011.

Today, Malaysians who study abroad are all given the opportunity to vote by post. Please do not waste it. I would like to think that I had played a small role in fighting for this fundamental right and allowing all our fellow Malaysians who still care about the nation, even when residing abroad, to vote.

However, we still had many Malaysians at home who weren’t even registered voters. So, I did what I could. I volunteered to help with voter registration. You might have heard me shouting at the pasar malam each week. I signed up thousands (possibly more than 10k) of voters in the years leading up to GE13. I was even appointed an Assistant Registrar to the Election Commissions until my license expired in 2013.

To facilitate my work, I even wrote a simple software application to check (in mass) the status of a voters registration against the SPR website. I also contributed a script to read the MyKAD directly so that we can easily capture the information needed to register a voter to reduce the reject rate of their applications (as the SPR would reject applications whose information does not correspond to their MyKAD data).

However, I wasn’t done yet.

When parliament was dissolved for GE13, I opened my cheque book and donated to the opposition candidates running, whom I felt needed the support, as they were fighting an uphill battle. I even convinced my friends and relatives to open up their cheque books too as the battle needed a lot of funding.

In addition, I took two weeks of leave right up to polling day to volunteer with two constituencies that needed more man-power, enduring several sleepless nights in the process. Towards the end, I ended up helping to organise and manage the PACA for two districts and we had some of the largest districts in the nation.

On polling day itself, I went from polling station to station to check on the PACA whom I had assigned to make sure that things were going smoothly. That night, I was diligently checking and keying in results as they came in from our PACA. Finally, I joined in the celebrations in the hall where the EC announced our winning candidate. Another night without sleep.

I’m not someone who doesn’t care about our democracy. I am not someone who is uninformed about our politics. I am not an armchair critic nor keyboard warrior. I am not someone who doesn’t understand how flawed and unfair our system is.

I know. I have been a victim.

When it comes to elections, I have given money, time, blood, sweat and tears. I have fought for our rights. I have gone to the ground and done the hard work. I have even contributed software source code so others can benefit.

Oh, I forgot to mention that on the morning of the GE13 polling day itself, even though I barely had two hours of sleep the night before, I woke up, went to the polling station, queued and cast my ballot.

This GE14, I will definitely cast my ballot again and cast it with a clear conscience.

Coding in Assembly

In my work, I often come across a younger generation of engineers who are interested to write software. When asked on tips on how to be a better programmer, I often tell them to study assembly. The result is usually a mixture of shock and incredulity.

Assembly programming is taught as a matter of course, in any electronics engineering program worth it’s salt. It is a very important skill to learn as it is one of the key areas of programming that require a certain level of technical engineering knowledge to understand. Therefore, as engineers, we have no excuse to be afraid of assembly programming.

Most of the time, these people are coding in C/C++ and not one of the sexier languages. I often remind them that C was only invented around 1970 and humans were perfectly capable of writing complex software in assembly, well before that. Today, many people still write assembly code when they’re forced to deal with certain hardware registers or because there isn’t a suitable C/C++ construct to access specialised features of the processor.

It is in this realm that the electronics engineer comes in handy – to work on software that runs close to bare-metal.

Therefore, it saddens me to think that the younger generation of electronics engineers today think that embedded systems programming means using something like the Arduino. While I think that the Arduino is an absolutely useful tool for developing embedded systems, it is not a great tool to teach it to electronics engineers because it abstracts everything away.

In fact, learning to read and write assembly is an absolutely amazing way of improving one’s programming skills in any language. After doing it enough times, one can truly appreciate how all the software constructs are reduced to machine operations. It basically teaches a person to think like a compiler and allows us to truly instruct the machine to do what we want it to do.

It feels like magic.

PS: Look at the amount of code that was written in the past. Think at how much work went into that. Lines of code? Try volumes of code.

TPPA – IP Chapter: Another Look

This article first appeared on DNA.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) has been getting a lot of attention recently, as the text has been released after years of secret negotiations.

In Malaysia, there is a special sitting of Parliament scheduled to debate the merits of the TPPA.

I had the opportunity to read the TPPA chapter (PDF) on intellectual property (IP) rights recently.

While the chapter itself is merely 74 pages of legalese, in order to make sense of it, I had to read relevant parts of other treaties – for example, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), Paris Convention, Berne Convention – and so on, as these are regularly referenced from within the chapter.

Additionally, I read up on the local legislation such as our Copyright Act, Patent Act, etc., to compare the differences between pre-TPPA and post-TPPA scenarios.

Let’s just say that there was a lot of reading involved for a single chapter, and I can appreciate why few have a real grasp of the entire agreement, and also why many are asking for more time to study it instead of rushing into signing in February.

Politicians and civil society have raised issues of biologics and pharmaceutical patents when it comes to the IP chapter.

However, I would like to point out that the IP chapter goes much further than pharmaceuticals and biologics, and I’m afraid that some other issues may have been overlooked.

I have commented on the issue of copyright extensions previously, and I won’t repeat those remarks here.

However, I’m interested in highlighting some other changes that piqued my interest while I was digesting the chapter.

Sounds and scents

Trademarks are undergoing interesting reform. Trademarks are currently protected under the Trademark Act 1976 in Malaysia.

However, our current law merely protects marks such as unique names, signs, and geographic indications.

Under Article 18.18 of the TPPA, each government must not deny a trademark application for merely being a sound and must also make best effort to register scents.

This means that trademarks are being extended to both sounds and smells. As an example, instead of merely protecting the name of Satay Kajang, one may soon be able to protect the unique smell of burnt satay and also the unique sounds made while it roasts.


Industrial design is often missed when discussing IP as it is not primary protection. Industrial design is currently protected under the Industrial Design Act 1996 in Malaysia and typically covers designs such as product packaging and furniture, but not textile designs.

A PwC study (PDF) shows that the Malaysian textile sector is set to register the largest gains in export growth due to the trade effects of the TPPA. I’m sure that our local textile industry is happy to hear this.

Reading Article 18.55 of the TPPA together with Article 25.2 of TRIPS, each government must ensure that textile designs are protected under industrial design.

Also, reading it together with Article 26.3 of TRIPS, the period of protection is being extended to 10 years from the current five years.

As a result, while the textile industry in Malaysia is set to grow, it will have to pay licensing fees for the textile designs that are manufactured, even for designs that are way past season.

Online services

Under the Copyright Act 1987 of Malaysia, Internet service providers (ISPs) are burdened with the responsibility of policing copyright infringements. If a rights-holder complains to the ISP of an infringement, the ISP is required to take certain actions as detailed in the law.

Under Article 18.82 of the TPPA, the definition of ISP is being extended to include online services that store content; and provides links to any other online location using hyperlinks.

That pretty much describes every modern online service.

What this means is that any online service that provides user-generated content, which is pretty much any social media-enabled service, will now be responsible for policing copyright infringements. It even covers content that is automatically scraped and aggregated.

Trade secrets

Trade secrets are mentioned only in a single article within the entire chapter. Also, there is no specific Malaysian law that deals with trade secrets.

Therefore, it is easy to understand why this issue has gone under the radar.

Under Article 18.78 of the TPPA, each government must enact specific laws to deal with the unlawful disclosure of trade secrets and must provide for criminal procedures and penalties if such a law is breached.

I do not think that it is right for the government to incarcerate someone to protect the commercial interests of corporations. Unlike state secrets, trade secrets do not endanger the public nor harm the rakyat (citizenry). Think on that for a minute.

These are just some of the interesting ones but there are many other changes and I would recommend anyone with an interest in IP to read the chapter.

As someone who minds his own business, I will have to get myself ready for these changes as many of the provisions must come into force within two to three years after signing.

Personally, I think that the biggest beneficiaries of the IP chapter are the agents and lawyers. They will definitely see more business.

Maybe it’s time for me to start an IP firm.

Total Recall: Scholarship Woes in 1998

Our government has recently refined the national budget due to the slowing economy in Malaysia. One of the victims of the modified budget is the JPA scholarship programme. You will find details about it reported elsewhere.

I’m not going to talk about the rightness or wrongness of reducing the JPA scholarships. What I intend to do is share a story – one that is familiar with the scholars around my age.

The year was 1998.

We were promised scholarships to pursue our studies abroad the year before. Then, the Asian Economic Crisis hit and the government had to tighten its purse strings. One of the victims was the JPA scholarship programme, but it wasn’t the only one.

Those who were already overseas were fortunate as they were allowed to continue their studies abroad. However, there were many who were less fortunate.

Those who had just finished their pre-university studies and had gotten offers from various universities around the world, and those who were partly through their pre-university studies were hit the worse. These two groups were redirected to local universities – mostly UTP, MMU and UniTEN – and made to sign new local scholarship contracts that superceeded the overseas scholarship contracts that they had signed previously.

The worst hit were the ones who were only partly through their pre-universeity studies. Since the highest academic qualification that they had at the time was SPM, they had to reboot their education and start over. Effectively, they lost a year of their time preparing for a pre-university examination that they never took.

At the time when JPA announced its cuts, there were many other scholarship awarding bodies – such as PETRONAS – who did not announce any cuts. In fact, many PETRONAS scholars thought that our scholarships were safe because oil is traded in USD and PETRONAS was not that badly affected by the falling exchange rate.

However, due to government policy, other government related scholarship funds made similar changes. I got caught up by this as we were told that our scholarship program was cancelled. I will always remember the day that I received that letter printed on thick paper with a PETRONAS letterhead in the post box starting with, “dukacita dimaklumkan…”

Those of us who had yet to begin our journeys were redirected to local foundation programs and offered local scholarship contracts instead. We were the lucky ones as we had just finished our SPM and hadn’t yet gotten a foot on the plane yet, unlike our seniors who were kicked off the plane.

Some still managed to appeal the decision and got to go overseas but these were treated on a case-by-case basis and were far and few between and often required a trade-off.

I had a fellow PETRONAS scholar on a Chemical Engineering programme who opted to switch to a MARA scholarship for Accounting as he was insistent on going overseas and he didn’t really care what course he did.

When I was asked to reconsider my engineering course for an accounting one, I barfed at the idea.

I had a room-mate who was one of those JPA scholars who had already completed his pre-university and had received an offer from a university in the UK. He was extremely unhappy with his change of situation and expressed his frustration very visibly.

However, we all got on with our lives eventually.

Orientation week at our local university was like attending an AA meeting. We would begin by introducing our names, then telling each other what course we were supposed to pursue in whichever country we were supposed to be in. This was followed by our current course at the local university.

In a way, I think that this was therapeutic as we were surrounded by hundreds of others who were caught in the same situation and were equally as frustrated and unhappy. This also helped us to bond as a group as we were going through adversity together.

In the end, I think that things turned out for the best as I still had a wonderful time at university.

I think that our lecturers enjoyed teaching us too as we were essentially the crème-de-la-crème of the country who would have normally ended up studying abroad but are now studying locally instead. They certainly gave us a lot of room to work and shine independently.

Looking back at this experience, I think that it taught me the lesson that there are many things beyond our control in life and plans do not always go the way they were inteded. However, it isn’t the end of the world. Life is much more than an overseas education experience.

As they say, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

In the end, I still managed to work my way to an overseas education for my PhD, at one of the top universities in the world.

So, this story has a happy ending.


Half-hearted Broadband Upgrades do more Harm

This article first appeared on DNA.

Recently, I received a phone call from Telekom Malaysia (TM) offering me a free upgrade of my high-speed broadband subscription from the previous 10Mbps package to the brand new 30Mbps package, for the same price.

I must be one of those irrational people mentioned in my previous article, who prefer to subscribe to slower broadband packages, because I rejected the offer of a free upgrade and decided to stick to my present 10Mbps package instead.

Previously, TM used to sell several high-speed broadband packages ranging from 5Mbps to 20Mbps, for both home and business users. Today, it has abolished all these packages in favour of offering only 30Mbps and 50Mbps packages to new subscribers.

According to a study by the Internet Society and TRPC on Unleashing the Potential of the Internet for Asean Economies, published in 2015, the average broadband speeds globally, within Asean, and in Malaysia, are about 20Mbps, 15Mbps and 5.9Mbps respectively.

These new TM packages should significantly bolster our national average to hit the 20Mbps target mentioned in the 2016 national budget, propel us to become the second fastest nation in Asean, and a world-class broadband nation. Bravo!

Unfortunately, the devil is in the details. These new packages come with mere 5Mbps and 10Mbps upload speeds for the 30Mbps and 50Mbps packages respectively. There is currently no package on offer with more than a 10Mbps upload speed.

That is why I rejected the purported upgrade because if I had agreed, while my download speed may have improved from 10Mbps to 30Mbps, my upload speed would have dropped from 10Mbps to 5Mbps.

This has a negative impact on the way that I work and live. I do not understand why TM is packaging it this way.

Historically, before we had high-speed broadband in Malaysia, the broadband service that we had – Streamyx – was deployed over ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line). The ‘A’ stands for asymmetric because the upload and download speeds are different – for example, 8Mbps download with 512Kbps upload.

This difference in speeds was due to a technical limitation of ADSL technology. However, even the slowest upload speeds offered were still faster than dial-up speeds at the time.

As a result, consumers readily adopted ADSL and got used to the idea of having different upload and download speeds.

However, the high-speed broadband deployments of TM’s UniFi in landed residential properties use Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) while most high-rise buildings use Fibre-to-the-Building/ Curb (FTTB/C) coupled with VDSL2 (very-high-bit-rate digital subscriber line) into each individual residence unit.

These technologies are symmetric in nature.

VDSL2 has a 100Mbps bandwidth and FTTx technologies have multi-Gbps bandwidth. Our neighbours down south can subscribe to symmetric 1Gbps broadband for a mere S$39 (US$28 or RM119) per month.

Therefore, I feel that it is disengenous for TM to set arbitrary asymmetric bandwidth limits when there is neither a technical nor a financial reason why such a difference should exist.

I will humbly suggest that this behaviour of arbitrarily limiting our upload speeds has a negative economic impact.

According to Pemandu, the very first Entry Point Project, EPP1 for the Communications Content and Infrastructure sector aims to, “enhance capacity, capability and competency in Malaysia’s creative industry to produce world-class content and make the country a regional hub for digital content.” It is expected to create 10,000 jobs and increase GNI (gross national income by RM3 billion.

Pemandu is the Performance Management & Delivery Unit of the Prime Minister’s Department, tasked with overseeing the Government’s aspiration of transforming Malaysia into a high-income nation by 2020.

If you’re someone trying to answer the call of the Government to turn Malaysia into a regional hub for digital content, you may be making a mistake if you decide to upgrade to the new packages.

Slow upload speeds definitely affect you if you’re a content creator. If you’re a filmmaker, you will already know that it takes a lot of bandwidth to upload your latest HD (high-definition) videos.

However, high upload speeds do not merely impact filmmakers.

Higher upload speeds allow people to communicate better, by using video-conferencing instead of mere voice calls. It also allows people to work from home as effectively as they work in the office, which would improve family values.

It would also enable broad deployments of telemedicine, which could save countless lives especially in the interiors.

It’s not cool that TM has decided to arbitrarily limit our ability to work and live.

Furthermore, by arbitrarily limiting upload speeds, TM is inadvertently hurting our national aspiration of becoming active content creators and turning us into a nation of passive consumers instead.

TM has even graciously allowed us to consume content five to six times faster than we can produce it.

To be fair, if you’re currently on the 5Mbps package, then you will not have any negative experience from the upgrade other than having to pay more for it.

However, if you’re currently on the 10Mbps package, you’ll experience a downgrade if you decide to upgrade to the 30Mbps package. Instead, you should get the 50Mbps package.

I would have willingly upgraded to 20Mbps upload and download for the price of my current package. That would have been an improvement. It’s unfortunate that such an option is no longer even available.

While I applaud the effort to improve our high-speed broadband to meet international standards, I think that it should be done whole-heartedly.