TENGKU Dr Mohd Azzman Shariffadeen is synonymous with information technology (IT) in Malaysia.
His relentless pursuit to bring about a more progressive Malaysia with an IT industry to be proud of has spawned Mimos Bhd. He was also instrumental in the birth of the nation's most ambitious IT project, the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC).
Azzman's initial dream was to be rich, and he had it all planned out: study electrical engineering and be a consultant. In 1967, he went to Manchester, England to continue his study. In the six years there, he completed his bachelors, masters and PhD degrees.
But most significantly, he says, living near the origins of inventors of science and technology changed his perspective on life.
“Manchester was the heartland of the British industrial revolution. I was breathing the air where it all started; and it was a powerful influence upon my thinking,” he recalls. “Why and how did it start? Can Malaysia do that, too?”
“I discovered a world of ideas and concepts. What it means to develop, to have certain values,” he adds.
There in England, Azzman abandoned his childhood ambition to be rich.
“It was a very conscious choice. I knew I would not be rich. I was immersed in idealism. Being rich wasn't important anymore. And I thought it would be better for me to be an academician, to teach,” he says.
Azzman returned to Malaysia on Dec 25, 1973, and three weeks later, on Jan 17, 1974, he joined University Malaya as a lecturer in electrical engineering.
Through the reports from his students doing industrial training in factories located throughout the country, whom he also visited because “I was a free bachelor”, Azzman discovered that the local manufacturing industry then was basically an assembly industry.
“We didn't own the technology, we knew practically nothing about the product, its branding, marketing or value, we only knew how to assemble it. The factories were copies of other factories,” he says.
Azzman realised that, in many cases, factory processes ran on simple software his students could easily write, or improve upon, but were “not allowed to, because everything has to come from the United States, or Europe”.
“I knew then that if we wanted to be at the top of the industry, we had to have our own R&D (research and development), not just on the manufacturing process but on the products and brands as well. And this requires national orchestration,” he says.
According to Azzman, before the late 1970s, chips design was based on “gut feel”. Subsequently, computer-aided design software and the event of the Internet made chip design “open”. At the same time, fabrication plants also started offering contract manufacturing.
Incidentally, computer-added-design software happened to be Azzman's doctoral thesis, and he was excited.
Thus in 1980, together with a few other academicians, Azzman formed a small inter-university group that decided Malaysians could, and should, design chips.
“We wrote papers and presented the idea almost everywhere, but we completely failed to make any headway,” he recalls.
His fortunes changed in early 1984. Azzman was invited to a tea party by his uncle Tengku Ahmad Rithaudeen, then the Minister of International Trade and Industry. A casual question about the electronics industry, to which Azzman gave an in-depth reply (as he had done a lot of research and thinking on it), gave him the break he needed.
He was invited to talk to the ministry, which liked the idea and suggested he write a proposal for the Prime Minister, Datuk Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Azzman submitted the proposal in July. And in August, Tan Sri Omar Abdul Rahman, who had then just been appointed the Prime Minister's (PM) adviser, wrote a Cabinet paper based on it.
In August, Azzman met Dr Mahathir. He recalls that the PM was silent throughout the 20 minutes of the presentation, which made him a little uneasy.
“The first thing he asked was, 'How much do you want?' I said 'For the first year of operations, I'll need RM5 million' and he said 'Ok, I'll give you RM5 million. When can you start?'
“Because I had to take care of my students' exams, I told him January 1995. He said 'Why so late?' It wasn't a question; it was a statement,” Azzman says.
Within days, Azzman got a call from the Treasury, asking him when and how he wanted the RM5million allocation. He knew then the PM was very serious about the project.
“I've always assumed the government would take forever. But the PM was serious and he wanted me to start work as soon as possible, though officially, I would only start in January,” he says.
A former palace in Kenny Hills was renovated for RM600,000 and Mimos began its operations.
Azzman formed a small team of six, all with doctorates in electrical engineering. They were Dr Mohamed Awang Lah, now Jaring chief executive officer (CEO); Datuk Dr Mohamed Arif Nun, now Multimedia Development Corp (MDC) CEO and Dr Muhammad Ghazie Ismail, now MDC senior vice-president for corporate investment; Prof Emeritus Dr Zawawi Ismail, former vice-chancellor of Unimas; and Tan Sri Dr Mohd Othman Yeop Abdullah. With the exception of Othman, who was then with Telekom Malaysia, the rest were academicians.
“I made the assumption that by taking these people of similar background, we would form the right relationship. But I was completely wrong,” he says. Some of the founding members accused Azzman of “stealing their stuff, their programme” which set back the growth of Mimos for years.
“That was a shock to me. I thought that we were going to form a national organisation and help everybody. The first thing Mimos aimed to do was to help all the universities acquire the design tools to design chips, and to train their students. The goal was to have a large number of chip designers in Malaysia, but it took years to accomplish that because of that misunderstanding,” Azzman says.
He realised then that academicians, with their way of thinking and holding on to what they believe was theirs, were not very good picks for national projects.
“Though Mimos was formed because of chip design, we knew its role would grow much bigger. And the PM's support was crucial to its growth, not just for the RM5 million, but his moral support and commitment to the project,” Azzman says.
“As soon as Mimos was formed, we decided to expand its scope. That's why we're called the Malaysian Institution of Microelectronic Systems – systems that arise from IT revolutions,” he adds.
A competitive producer
The role of technology has not changed, and has become even more dominant today. We now speak of the role of a knowledge-based economy. “That was in the original paper I wrote in 1984,” he points out.
”The need for national orchestration at the top level has not changed. Today we have a term for it: The national innovation system (NIS). It is a subject of intensive study by all countries. Some have the NIS, some don't but try to create one,” he says.
“We're at a critical situation because the world now has changed to a knowledge-intensive world, it's no longer labour or capital. We must be able to turn knowledge to value – economic, social and culture, political and military value,” Azzman notes.
And even back in the early days, Mimos knew Malaysia needed a focus programme to initiate the process of change.
In 1994, Mimos was appointed by the Cabinet to be the secretariat for the National IT Council (NITC).
Azzman tried to get the PM as the chairman. Dr Mahathir initially refused but was persuaded. The PM said he was confused about the “whole IT thing” and wanted to be “deconfused”. So, Azzman lined up three experts to brief the PM about the “whole IT thing” but the first presentation did the job.
On Oct 18, 1994, Dr Kenichi Ohmae, then with management consultants McKenzie & Co, came with a colleague to present to a group of 30. The PM asked further questions at a post-presentation gathering.
What was great about Ohmae's presentation, recalls Azzman, was the economic simulation. It drove home the point that based on the then trend; Malaysia would not be able to achieve Vision 2020. The nation needed IT and new multimedia industries to raise national productivity.
After the presentation, the then Telekom Malaysia chairman, Tan Sri Rashdan Baba, approached Azzman and asked if he could team with Ohmae to come up with a detailed plan of how the government could spearhead the development of IT in the country, and Telekom would foot the cost for the study.
“You didn't know Telekom paid for the study, did you? Most people don't,” Azzman laughs.
Azzman, Arif and Mohamad worked on the study. Five months later, in March 1995, the study became the basis for the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) project.
“The report was staggering, it was the dream of all dreams. It would carry us into the next phase of development for sure,” Azzman says. “But we were all from the same background, all techies.
“We were convinced about it, we could say 'we can do it', but we were not the whole country. How could we make sure the people of Malaysia would feel the same way?”
Azzman got Tan Sri Noordin Soopie, chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia, to look at the report from the political and social points of view and assess the feasibility of implementation. A few days later, Noordin reverted, excitedly saying that the project should go ahead.
“We wrote a letter and submitted it to the PM and then went to see him. He acknowledged the letter and said he would think about it. Meanwhile, we exposed the idea to various groups, including senior government officials, top decision makers, CEOs, and they gave a resounding 'yes' and that this was something we should do.”
A few months passed, but still the PM was silent over the subject.
“We wondered what happened. We found out later that the PM was very cautious. He wanted to factor in everything,” Azzman says.
“At the end of August 1995, the first ever mention of the MSC came out in the newspapers. It was a cryptic one-paragraph mention and nobody knew what it was all about. Some people who realised the significance called us and asked us what the MSC was all about,” he recalls.
The reference to the MSC was made when the PM introduced the Perbadanan Putrajaya Act 1995 in Parliament. In the speech the PM made about Putrajaya, he mentioned the MSC.
Azzman knew at that point that the PM had given the MSC project his go-ahead. And the PM knew if Malaysia were to embark on the MSC, he would have to be its champion.
Azzman, who was in the entourage going round the world selling the MSC, recalls that those at the various presentations were very impressed. “I've met some of them again in these recent years, and they are still impressed,” he says.
Regarding the criticisms the MSC has received, Azzman says though the MSC had gone through difficult patches, it is nevertheless doing fine.
“Give it time, don't be too harsh. People accuse it of being all hype. Of course, we had to hype it up to get interest and attention. But we have targets, and they are largely being met,” Azzman says. He cites, for example, several multi-nationals that had developed huge bases within the MSC.
“The latest statistics I've seen –I'm not sure why the MDC is not publicising it – indicate that it is succeeding very well. Products are coming up and are being sold and exported. Many products are being patented. Companies are becoming profitable. Investments are going up and employment good.
“We projected a shortfall of engineers in the MSC, but because of the hype we had so many Malaysians enter the programme that we did not experience the shortfall,” Azzman says.
Azzman has made a lot of speeches over the years to promote the MSC. “For years and years, I was doing that. I was tired and almost burnt out. And because of those speeches, friends and neighbours were asking if they should send their children to do IT, computer science; and if multimedia was the right course.
“Everywhere I went people recognised me, even the people in the market. It was frightening,” he laughs.
But it means Azzman has managed to galvanise the people. “ E-government can't be done in a vacuum,” he says. “We were trying to turn the mindset of the entire population of the country, and we succeeded.
“I could see the mindset changing from being not conscious at all of the IT revolution, to having their own friends and families directly involved in it. That's the first milestone.
“We have turned the thinking of the people. It was the MSC hype helped it,” he notes.
Regarding the criticism Mimos had received over the years, and most recently about its lack of profitability, Azzman says: “We undertake self-criticism all the time. It's part of the R&D culture and it's a very strong open culture in Mimos. We have also not stopped others from criticising us.”
Mimos being criticised
The critics accused Mimos of having failed and therefore it now has to be split into three – R&D, policy work and business. Ironically, the management of Mimos had been proposing the very same thing since 1999 but was not given the green light to restructure.
When Mimos was corporatised in 1996, the instruction was that it should be profitable. After a year or two, the management realised profitability could not be achieved.
“We were doing R&D, policy work, and business operations. We had to separate the three functions, and we had been working on that since 1999. And to date, we're still working on that,” Azzman explains.
“We cannot have failed because we grew from less than 300 (in headcount) at the time of corporatisation to nearly 1,000 in three years. And we've come up with many new initiatives, some successful and some not.
But, Azzman says that is the basic nature of research – venturing into the unknown, making one's best judgement that it would work. “We take risks of a different kind. And it is because we have been successful, that we now have to separate the units and refocus the organisation,” he says.
Relaxing on the farm
WITH so much high-tech packed into his long working hours and social calendar, Azzman seeks relaxation in his good old “low-tech” three-acre fruit farm in Sungai Buloh.
Among the assortment of hobbies he pursues on the farm, or used to, are carpentry, fishing, dirt bike riding and crossbow shooting.
He also reads in his spare time, especially philosophy, professional development and science fiction.
“I never took any philosophy programme in my studies and I felt inadequate. I felt the need to understand the philosophy of science and philosophy of civilisations,” Azzman explains.
And, rather interestingly, he admits to being “almost computer illiterate”. “I know the concepts but I don't have the patience to fix crashes and stuff like that. I'd rather do carpentry,” he says.
Azzman finds carpentry very relaxing. He learnt it through books and has tried his hand at making furniture in a hut at his farm, where he has a whole set of carpentry tools acquired from all over the world. Regretfully, he says, he hardly uses them now due to lack of time.
“I've made tables and beds. The bed I used before, I made it myself from cenggal. It looked quite professional,” Azzman laughs.
He keeps two scrambler bikes in his farm and another big bike at home. Like with all bikers, exposing one's body to the elements while riding gives Azzman a sense of freedom.
“And with my full-faced helmets, no one knows that it's me. To be anonymous is wonderful,” he smiles.
Looking back, Azzman is glad he entered public service.
“My decision not to be rich was a correct decision. It has been a wonderful roller-coaster ride (through life) but I did something useful.
“It has been a privilege for me to be allowed to do what I have done, and I thank the government and the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohammad for giving me the chance to make a difference. Not many people get a shot to do this. I did,” Azzman says.
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