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.

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.

Preventing Future Volkswagen-like Scandals

This article first appeared on Digital News Asia.

I am sure that most would have heard about the recent software scandal at Volkswagen. It has been widely reported by all international media and many have weighed in with analyses on why it happened.

It has even been likened to Libor on wheels, and this scandal may just change the entire automotive industry.

In the immediate aftermath, the price of VW shares have tanked by 30% and the chief executive officer has resigned. Millions of VW vehicles are being recalled and lawyers are tripping over each other to file class-action lawsuits. Even VW subsidiaries Audi and Skoda have been implicated.

While the immediate repercussions are grave, nobody really knows how far the fallout of this scandal will reach.

Personally, I think that this scandal presents an opportunity for reforming a part of the industry.

The automotive industry has always played a leading role in setting standards for software reliability and safety. Now, it has the chance to lead the way in ethical software standards too.

While there are questions about how such an unethical thing could have gotten past management, with the associated implications such questions bring, what’s shocking to me is how the engineers who have a professional responsibility of ensuring design safety could have written the software to lie about potentially harmful emissions.

A comparison has been made between the VW software engineers with the accountants in the Enron case who collaborated with the organisation to create accounting loopholes, and who failed to protect the public by not providing proper auditing.

Therefore, some feel that the solution is to do a better job of teaching engineering ethics.

With all due respect, I don’t think that teaching ethics is going to solve the problem of gaming the system. It’s clear that this VW scandal is not merely the product of rogue engineers.

I would humbly submit that the only way to prevent this ethical problem is by increasing transparency in the design of automobiles. As far as software is concerned, this can be accomplished by adopting an open-source philosophy for car manufacturers.

With an open-source philosophy, anyone would be able to study and verify that the cars work as advertised. No car manufacturer would allow their engineers to cheat if they would be discovered by a simple examination of the software source code.

In fact, a source code audit should be made part of any compliance process.

In addition, not only does providing open-source software ensure a permanent fix for this ethical problem, it has also been shown to improve overall software quality.

The previous automotive software scandal of Toyota’s killer firmware might have been detected earlier or avoided altogether if the source code had been made available for examination and audit.

With modern cars being very much software driven, it is also going to be a juicy target for hackers, as recent cases with Jeep and BMW have shown.

Hackers can now remotely kill a vehicle while it is moving on the road. While recent hackings were done by researchers, you can be sure that there are those who will do this for nefarious reasons. Our very lives are at stake.

Therefore, it is crucial for vehicle safety that all software must be securely written and audited. This cannot be provided for as long as vehicle manufacturers hide their software behind an opaque wall.

It is a well-established mantra in information security that security by obscurity is not security. While merely opening up the software will not guarantee security, it is at least a step in the right direction.

This open-source philosophy is already so deeply ingrained in the computer software industry that it should not be difficult to implement in the automotive software industry.

All that is required is a mind-set change in the boardroom and this scandal might just provide the necessary impetus to make that change.

One of my big frustrations with driving a car is with the dilapidated state of its software. While the embedded software that runs modern cars seem to be stuck in the 20th century, it doesn’t need to be.

Automotive software has already seen more innovation in the last few years than it has in the previous decade. It is now set to drive the growth of the modern car.

With the automotive industry set for an industry-wide software disruption by the likes of Tesla, Google and Apple, I don’t think that the traditional car manufacturers have a lot to win by protecting their software silos.

Instead, they could choose to lead by adopting a standardised software platform that is open-sourced and is widely available for all automotive use.

Look what such a thing did for the entire smartphone industry and how it changed the lives of billions around the world.

It is time for Volkswagen to issue an industry-wide call for a major collaboration on a standards-compliant and open-source automotive software platform.

Irrational Malaysians Prefer Slow Broadband?

This article first appeared on DigitalNewsAsia.

MALAYSIA’S newly minted Communications and Multimedia Minister, Dr Salleh Said Keruak, courted controversy recently by saying that Malaysian Internet users prefer the slower Streamyx broadband package that offers speeds of between 384Kbps and 1Mbps.

Many – including a former minister – have rubbished this assertion.

With all due respect, I think that our Minister has confused correlation with causation. No Malaysian would prefer to have a slower broadband package, if they had a choice.

The problem with the situation in Malaysia is that most people lack that choice.

The Minister himself points out that, in the end, it all boils down to affordability. This is completely accurate. If we had affordable high-speed broadband, nobody would rationally prefer the slower broadband packages.

In a recent study by the Internet Society and consulting firm TRPC on Unleashing the Potential of the Internet for Asean Economies published in 2015, they identified the Asean countries that do have affordable broadband access, taking into account GDP (gross domestic product) and purchasing power parity: Singapore and Thailand only.

The same study shows that these countries have average broadband speeds that are higher than the Asean average of about 15Mbps.

Malaysia’s average broadband speed of about 5.9Mbps is well below the Asean average. This is just plain embarrassing for the home of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC Malaysia).

We are now lagging behind many of our Asean neighbours and this may have a detrimental effect on our already suffering economy.

Another study by Ericsson, Arthur D. Little and Chalmers University in 2011 has quantified the impact of broadband speeds on national GDP. It claims that a simple doubling of broadband speeds increases GDP by 0.3%, while additional doublings can yield even more growth – for example, quadrupling of speeds increases GDP by 0.6%.

Read the other way, this means that by preferring to have slower broadband speeds, Malaysians are also choosing to reduce our GDP by a significant amount.

To put things into perspective, according to the World Bank, Malaysia’s GDP was US$326.9 billion in 2014. So ‘halving’ our bandwidth decreases our GDP by more than RM4.34 billion (US$980 million) a year.

Now, chew on that number for a bit and consider why our Government is not too concerned with increasing our broadband speeds.

Sure, some may argue that we do not need to have super-duper high-speed broadband in this country. Some even suggested that the demand for high speeds in Malaysia is purely driven by file-sharing piracy.

But the fact of the matter is that higher bandwidth means more modern services can be supplied to every home.

The same study by Ericsson claims that growth stems from a combination of direct, indirect, and induced effects. The induced effect, which includes the creation of new services and businesses, is the most sustainable dimension and could represent as much as one-third of GDP growth.

Everyone already knows that the future of computing lies in the ephemeral ‘cloud.’ This means that we will need high bandwidth for everything, since all our data and our everyday lives are going to be stored and processed on the Internet.

There is no escaping this new paradigm of computing as those who have no knowledge of a world without the Internet embrace this.

Personally, I don’t like to speculate on what people are going to do with their high-speed broadband when it arrives in their homes. I believe that Malaysians are a creative and entrepreneurial bunch. Once there is abundant bandwidth, I can guarantee you that someone will find a way to profit by using it for something other than piracy or porn.

Of course, broadband speeds are not the magic doorway to a high-income economy, but it sure is a step in the right direction.

Furthermore, a recent report from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations has declared that access to the Internet is a basic human right. The same report states that Internet access facilitates economic development and enables individuals to enjoy a range of basic human rights, such as freedom of opinion or speech.

In fact, in some parts of the world, broadband rights are already codified into local law. While none of our Asean neighbours have adopted such lofty ideals, we can all immediately appreciate how faster Internet access provides more opportunities for people to better their lives.

Even the most authoritarian governments understand this.

In the case of broadband speeds, more is definitely better. Higher 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.

And it would also enable broad deployments of tele-medicine, which could save countless lives, especially in the interior and remote areas.

To suggest that Malaysians would actually prefer to subscribe to slower broadband speeds is plain irrational and I refuse to believe that Malaysians are irrational people.

Love Me Like You Do

Having seen the film – 50 Shades of Grey – in the cinema, I have to say that the film was kind of under-whelming. The premise was simple enough but I guess that it is a very fine line for the director to walk – to make a feature film that didn’t cross the line into porn.

However, the theme song is another matter altogether. The tune has stuck in my head the entire day today. So, here it is.

Bonsoir Paris! Comme, ca va?

I came home from dinner to news that things are getting out of hand in Paris.

I have to commend the French authorities for swiftly tracking down the Charlie Hebdo murderers. Within days, they have identified and cornered the suspects. I have the feeling that if such a thing were to happen in Malaysia, our authorities would be at a loss.

However, the Kuoachi brothers are now ready to die as martyrs. I would say, don’t give them the pleasure. These people need to face justice in the Courts, not with the barrel of a gun. I hope that the French police do their best to apprehend these killers and bring them to justice.

Unfortunately, there is another hostage taking situation, which does make me wonder if there might be a third. You know the old saying that trouble comes in threes. I sure hope that it doesn’t happen though.

Now, the thing that I have to wonder is how these things will change Paris and France as a whole. I sure hope that the tensions don’t boil over and cause a meltdown in the French social structure.

Je ne suis pas Charlie.