People can work from anywhere in the world now, so why not Malaysia?


  • Living
  • Monday, 18 Jul 2022

Sometimes, it’s not about the technology but a question of implementation. Great ideas die when users don’t see the benefit, including when they have a final product that just doesn’t give them value. — Filepic

Back in the early 1990s, I spent a lot of free time playing computer games, and one in particular that really caught my attention was a game called Frontier: Elite II.

You owned a spaceship and you were free to explore an entire galaxy of stars and planets in whichever way you wished: as a peaceful merchant, an asteroid miner, a bounty hunter, a dastardly space pirate – it was all up to you. And it did all that from the confines of two floppy disks, each one holding an amazing 1.44MB of data.

Many reviewers actively hated the game because the controls were difficult and there was no official way of “winning” it. It was up to you to define what success meant in the game. But for people like me, the appeal was being able to fly wherever you wanted, do whatever you like, and find success literally on your own terms.

At about that same time there was a game called 7th Guest that could only be bought on – gasp – compact discs. It was a glorified puzzle game that needed a CD-ROM because it included videos.

I criticised the use of CD-ROM as a medium to sell games on, saying that it encouraged developers to make bloated software with gimmicks at the expense of game quality. After all, Elite managed so much more with so much less.

Of course I was wrong. Instead of having too much space that would only be filled with dross, CD-ROMs were in fact cheaper than floppy disks, and that coupled with the increased storage and speed meant it became the medium of choice.

As I predicted, very few games stayed small and instead grew to fill the space, and not always in a useful way. Indeed, the next version of Elite called Frontier: First Encounters added videos of some in-game characters on the CD-ROM.

Just a few years after the release of that game I graduated from university and joined the Multimedia Development Corporation (now called the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation) to work on the Multimedia Super Corridor project (MSC). Part of what we had to do was to try and understand what technology would look like five to 10 years down the road.

One idea I recall we more or less accepted straight away was the idea that “thin client”, or even “browser-based” applications would work. It’s normal now for you to be able to do almost anything through a browser, but back then it was still the norm to install standalone software on computers. If we had been more ambitious, Malaysia may have been able to claim to be a pioneer in cloud computing.

On the other hand, I wasn’t really sold on virtual reality (VR). Yes, there were cool demonstrations, but it was too much of a gimmick. On top of that, wearing those headsets disorientated me and gave me a headache.

Predicting what works going forward is always tough because, sometimes, it’s not about the technology but a question of implementation. Great ideas die when users don’t see the benefit, including when they have a final product that just doesn’t give them value.

Earlier this month, the MSC was revamped and renamed the Malaysia Digital initiative. One of the ventures announced was DE Rantau. According to the website, it “aims at establishing Malaysia as the preferred digital nomad hub in Asean” to “harness human capital that can thrive in the digital economy”.

In short, if people can now work from anywhere in the world, why not pick Malaysia as their home base? DE Rantau will capture talent to work in Malaysia, and encourage them to also spend their hard-earned money living and playing in Malaysia.

To be honest, this is not a programme I am thoroughly enthusiastic about. It smacks a little of “if you build it, they will come”, and as a friend of mine said, everybody is trying to build “it”, but is it attractive enough compared with everything else out there?

It projects a RM60mil contribution to the local economy in the first year of its implementation. How exactly did they come to this value, where will it go, and will those responsible for making it work – both the partners and the nomads – find this an attractive enough proposition? And this is before we talk about how small the millions it will contribute is compared with the hundreds of billions of the Malaysian economy as a whole.

Perhaps I am too cynical. Perhaps the programme will eventually welcome hundreds of thousands of excited talents from around the world, who completely embrace working where they want, however they want, and in the process create a sort of silicon caravan park in Malaysia. Ultimately, nothing is set in stone, and even if the start is a little rocky, there might be enough to build a promising road to the future.

If we had made the right bet back then and built up expertise in cloud computing, it would have been to Malaysia’s benefit. Meanwhile, VR (and its companion, augmented reality or AR) has been much slower to take flight.

Except that I have been keeping a closer eye on it for the last few years. Is it because of improved productivity and hardware? Well, yes. But also because Elite Dangerous: Odyssey can be played in VR. It’s now possible to fly around a galaxy of 400 billion stars, immersed in a 360-degree 3D environment, with all the freedom of the original game. It’s enough to make me forget about the headaches and instead get dizzy from excitement.


In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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Dzof Azmi , remote working , travel , MSC , VR , AR

   

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