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Outlook 2020 – the tourism industry at a glance

2020 is gearing up to be a big year. Prime Minister Tun Mahathir Mohammad launched the new Visit Malaysia 2020 campaign earlier in July complete with a logo, slogan and new tourism targets for next year. Building off 2018’s achievements of 25.8 million arrivals and RM84.1 billion in tourism receipts, the government has set its sights on reaching a target of 30 million arrivals and RM100 billion in receipts for 2020. While much attention (and criticism) was given to the design of the new logo, we need to start thinking about how we can best ensure that not only do we meet the targets, we do so in a sustainable way that does not encourage over-tourism or the wrong kind of image for Malaysia.

Reaching 30 million arrivals and RM100 billion receipts is an ambitious goal but not an impossible one. Tourism in Southeast Asia is growing rapidly and is expected to contribute 4.9% (USD209.4 billion) to the region’s combined GDP by 2025, making Southeast Asia the second-fastest growing region for tourism in the world after South Asia. In Malaysia, tourism has been a key contributor to the overall economy; inbound tourism contributed 5.9% to the country’s GDP last year and 6.1% in 2017. After manufacturing and commodities, it is the third largest contributor to Malaysia’s foreign exchange receipts.[1] Tourism Malaysia remains confident that the industry will be on track to meet these targets; in fact, results from the first quarter of 2019 showed a growth of 4.8% in tourist arrivals and a surge of 16.9% in tourism revenue compared to the same period last year.[2]

The case for change

Currently, Malaysia is focused on numbers – increasing the number of inbound tourists into Malaysia and increasing the amount they spend here from lodging to money spent on food and drinks as well as entertainment. Malaysia’s track record in that respect has been limited. Compared to the past 10 years, the number of tourist receipts and number of arrivals has not grown exponentially; in fact there has only been an increase of MYR5 million in receipts since 2007.

However, demand is changing. Mass tourism is no longer sufficient. Travellers today are getting more selective when choosing their travel destinations and planning their itinerary. A study by Expedia Group found that people tend to choose travel destinations based on the activities available, whether it could prove to be a once in a lifetime experience and to experience the culture. Almost 60% of respondents to the survey would choose to not go to a destination if they feel it will negatively impact the people who live there.[3] This increasing awareness has led to more travellers to literally seek out the path less travelled. Rather than simply hopping from landmark to landmark, travellers today want to do something. This could be anything from learning local arts and crafts, doing outdoor sports and activities, cooking the local cuisine, or even volunteering.

We’re also seeing a rise of younger travellers. More millennials today have reached a point in their lives where they are earning more and willing to spend more on vacation. Expedia reports that millennials are the group most likely to travel either for business or leisure, taking an average of 2.9 personal trips and 1.6 business trips a year.[4]

How people are using social media is also changing the way the tourism industry operates. With the speed and convenience of (almost) universal internet connection, all it takes is a few seconds on Instagram for someone’s holiday photos, videos and stories to spread through the circles of followers online. In fact, it seems people are making decisions based on whether or not where they’re going is worth posting on the platform themselves – a survey found that more than 40% of people under the age of 33 prioritise ‘instagrammability’ when choosing a holiday destination.[5]

Even the way travel information is consumed and used is changing. Generic, comprehensive travel guides are of the past, with more travellers using increasingly short-form, hyper-relevant and individualised content which can be neatly integrated into social media feeds. A survey by found that 52% of travellers would be excited about tech travel innovations such as a digital tour guide to give a truly bespoke experience.

What can be done

Reflecting on her experience working to deliver transformational change to the tourism industry, Dr Sarinder, Executive Vice President at PEMANDU Associates, notes that the response from the private sector tends to be very good. Private sector players have shown a willingness to cooperate in labs and are willing to do what needs to be done to drive the industry forward – what they need is support from the government. There is an opportunity here for Tourism Malaysia to change the mindset and play a more facilitative role in creating a private sector-driven industry that is accessible, interesting and sustainable.

 Many of Malaysia’s selling points are focused on shopping (we’ve seen five outlet malls pop up in five years, one of which is conveniently located just a stone’s throw away from KLIA airport) or on landmarks where busloads of tourists unload, take pictures, then get back on the bus to be whisked away to the next destination. This isn’t sustainable in the long run and it runs the risk of painting Malaysia as a one-visit destination.

Instead, we could focus on creating unique, memorable experiences to encourage people to come back. Global best practice has shown that in order to truly connect with visitors (and ultimately, grow market share) the focus needs to be on the emotions, feelings and sensations the visitors experience throughout their journey.

  1. Offer a steady stream of fresh tourism products

Unfortunately, the revenue-generating potential of our local tourist sites are currently not fully maximised due to the lack of creative content and experiences provided by these sites.

Tourism site operators and service providers need to look into offering new paid experiences to increase their potential revenue. One way this could be done is to allow private sector companies to develop and manage publicly owned sites that have been evaluated to have the potential to become tourist attractions. This way, the quality and type of experiences offered at the site will be driven by the private sector who tend to have more time and money to invest in development planning and are usually the first ones to capitalise on a new trend. They may, however, fail to adequately consider the economic and social benefits which is where the government can step in to regulate the industry and ensure it benefits the nation holistically.

  1. Use social media to spread brand awareness and capture interest

Customer service and satisfaction have been transformed as a result of the widespread use of social media as a way to record and communicate experiences. People today choose where to go based on word of mouth. When choosing a destination, they ask their family members, friends and even co-workers if they have been there before. Failing that, they turn to travel blogs and videos taken by others who have been there and are sharing their experiences with the world. Over 97% of millennials share photos and videos of their travels online, building an influential web of peer-to-peer content that is valuable to discerning industry players.

This trend hasn’t gone unnoticed. Many hotels and attractions overseas have turned to running social contests and campaigns to ensure that they get some credit for their visitor’s social activity.[6] Instead of using staged, professional photos, campaigns encourage visitors to take their own photos, tag them with a hashtag relating back to the attraction, and upload them onto social media for a reward. This creates user-generated content that is free, authentic and able to be repurposed across its marketing channels. Some attractions here are beginning to do the same. The ESCAPE theme park, based in Penang, ran a campaign on Facebook in April this year calling for visitors to post pictures of themselves on the site under the hashtag #escapephotosplash. Event venue Glamz, situated in Genting Highlands, tags all its posts and pictures shot on location with their unique hastag #glamzatgenting. However, more could be done to capitalise on the rising popularity of short, user-created travel videos or ‘vlogs’ shared on social media.

  1. Improve Malaysia’s marketing and cohesive brand image as a destination of choice

Budget is a common constraint when it comes to marketing tourism in Malaysia. In order to relieve some of the burden, marketing efforts could be collectively owned and collaboratively executed by both public and private sector players.

For example, as the government representative, Tourism Malaysia could take the lead in determining the marketing direction for the major markets and focus on a theme-based schedule to guide the industry players in their marketing efforts to sync with the overall messaging focus. This will ensure cohesivity on similar tourism products with both public and private sector players leveraging on each other’s marketing content. By doing so, the collaborative effort between Tourism Malaysia and private sector players will generate a comprehensive, streamlined tourism messaging but with the marketing expenses diffused across the industry. That said, it is important to understand that this approach does not play down other offerings but rather enables time for product development and can also reduce product fatigue.

  1. Upskill the local talent

There is a gap between the skills of local graduates and the demands of the industry. The hospitality and tourism syllabus currently taught in tertiary education institutions in Malaysia tend to lean towards hotel management and theoretical concepts. MATTA has commented before that no university or college provides actual job skill requirements needed by the tourism industry.[7] The industry is looking for graduates with technical knowledge, customer service skills and language proficiency in order to efficiently and effectively serve customers.

Understanding that the process of changing the academic syllabus within tertiary education institutions isn’t going to be quick or easy, this is an opportunity for the private sector to step up to the plate and offer apprenticeship programmes – divided between 70% on-the-job skills development and 30% certified knowledge training – to upskill our local graduates. Research has shown that apprenticeship in the leisure, tourism and hospitality sectors provide the best opportunities for fresh graduates to gain experience and customer skills.[8] In turn, offering apprenticeships helps to improve employee retention and company loyalty as many stay on to become full-time staff.

The times, they are a-changin’

Moving into 2020, the landscape of tourism is changing. Even the word ‘tourist’ is becoming outmoded, with many preferring the term ‘traveller’ when thinking about going abroad for vacation as the term ‘tourist’ has become attached to a few too many negative stereotypes.[9] In addition, while price is still important, we’re seeing more people make travel decisions based on their heart rather than their wallet. This has led to a growing change in consumption patterns, as more travellers come to places like Malaysia looking for unique experiences, rather than for shopping.

It’s also important to ensure that our attractions are being marketed and managed properly. This means creating end-to-end management; from ensuring that the site is accessible to all visitors and is connected to public and private transport, to seeing that it is marketed properly using a variety of channels as well as a storyline that is based on the site’s history and charms to garner public interest. Much like the old travel slogan “Malaysia, Truly Asia”, Malaysia is home to many interesting and uniquely Asian attractions which, if managed well, can easily get us to that RM100 billion target.

  1. The Edge Malaysia, 2019
  2. Prime Minister’s Office, 2019
  3., 2018
  4. Expedia Group
  5. Econsultancy, 2019
  6. Entrepreneur, 2017
  7. New Straits Times, 2019
  8. Travel Daily, 2018
  9. The Invisible Tourist, 2017
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Going Green – Sabah’s ecotourism industry going on strong

Today, more people are planning to go green not just at home but also on holiday. In recent years, there has been a major growth of interest in responsible travel or ecotourism, outpacing interest in the more traditional sun-and-sand holiday. In fact, some experts estimate that ecotourism now represents 11.4% of all consumer spending[1] and it is estimated that the number of eco-tourists increases by about 10% annually[2]. With all the coverage on the dangers of environment degradation and climate change, more tourists are conscious of their ecological impact when they visit natural areas and are willing to give a little bit back to the environment and the people who live there.

Other countries have stepped up to the plate to promote a more sustainable way of tourism. For example, when a video showing sewage flowing directly into the waters of Boracay Island in the Philippines went viral in early 2018 (which was referred to as a “cesspool” by President Rodrigo Duterte), the government was quick to dispatch an emergency government taskforce to save the island from a possible ecological catastrophe. The island was closed for six months for repair and restoration. It has since been re-opened, but visits are still being closely regulated by the government. Cruise ships have been banned during peak seasons and alternative island destinations have been sanctioned in a measured way.

For Malaysia, this means managing the impact of tourism on the environment, landscape and local communities. We’re fortunate to have tourism, culture and the environment all under the same ministry which should make it easier to craft the right policies and ensure that everyone, from the private sector to the local communities, are moving in the same direction.

Sabah achieved a record-breaking year in 2018 in terms of the number of arrivals and tourism receipts which also came with an added strain on the environment. For nature-focused industries like Sabah, ecotourism was a way to still encourage people to visit while safeguarding its lush natural beauty.

The Golden Goose

Often referred to as Malaysia’s ‘golden goose’ of ecotourism, Sabah has made a name for itself as a destination famed for its natural beauty. Its lush landscapes and remarkable wildlife draw crowds of nature-lovers eager for a chance to hike up Mt Kinabalu, visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, or trek down the Kinabatangan River.

This year, the government has set a target of 4 million tourist arrivals for 2019. They’re hoping to attract over a million international visitors and the rest from other parts of Malaysia.

While this growth in visitor numbers is encouraging and bodes well for the local tourism industry, this carries the risk of these sites being overcrowded or degraded due to the high numbers. This has already happened in some of the more established tourism sites. As early as 2004, the WWF lodged reports on the serious pollution issue facing the Kinabatangan River as a result of dumped waste, industrial waste from the nearby palm oil mills, as well as fertiliser and sediment from logging and plantations in the area.[3] Even the nearby villages had gotten into the habit of throwing their rubbish and plastic waste in the river. Thus, Sabah needed a way to increase income from tourism while still ensuring that the environment, the very source of their popularity, remained pristine.

It turned to ecotourism.

Implemented correctly, ecotourism allows for the conservation and preservation of the environment while stimulating socioeconomic development for the local community. Sabah’s state government has been actively encouraging the growth of ecotourism in the region and has taken steps to ensure that the environment, culture and biodiversity is preserved.

It has been relatively easy for Sabah to introduce ecotourism initiatives. Albert Teo, Managing Director of Borneo Eco Tours and the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, noted that “The fact that development came slowly here has been a blessing. The infrastructure was slow in coming to this area, and this has helped preserve the biodiversity. Ecotourism came in as an employment alternative, as logging was over.”[4]

Cuti-cuti Tawau

The eastern region in particular has the potential to become a unique ecotourism destination. Capitalising on this potential has enabled the region to further contribute to the overall state’s economic growth and development.

The recent MATTA Fair 2019 saw the launch of “Cuti-Cuti Tawau” by the Sabah Tourism Board to promote tourism in the east coast of Sabah.  Tawau is poised to be the gateway to the eastern coast, encouraging the spread of tourists beyond the already-popular Kota Kinabalu on the west coast. It is anticipated that the number of tourist arrivals to the eastern region will see over 7% CAGR between 2018 and 2035.

Thanks to these efforts, sustainable luxury ecotourism has picked up in Tawau. One organisation in Tawau has capitalised on ecotourism as a source of revenue for its larger conservation practice. 1StopBorneo Wildlife is a volunteer group whose main objective is to raise awareness on Borneo wildlife through education programmes, animal rescues and release services, and conservation tourism. Founded in 2012, the group’s founder Shavez Cheema advocates for a two-pronged education and tourism approach which a) helps locals get jobs so they can afford to safeguard the environment and the creatures that live in it, and b) educates the public on conservation through a variety of mediums like short videos, documentaries and social media engagement.

1StopBorneo Wildlife recently added another programme to their range of tours. About an hour out of town is Sabah Softwoods, a state-controlled timber and palm oil producer that has been involved in rapid-growing wood planting since 1973. The softwoods plantation itself has become a small haven for wild pygmy elephants and other wildlife. Noticing that the wildlife did little or insignificant damage to the trees nor did they threaten the safety of the workers, the company decided to allow the herds to roam the estate and was accorded a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certificate in 2007 for its efforts on environmental conservation.[5]

And just last year, the company teamed up with 1StopBorneo Wildlife to offer the Plant4Borneo Elephants initiative which seeks to use ecotourism to raise money to help preserve herds of pygmy elephants that frequent the softwoods plantation and also help recreate their natural habitat by planting trees. Up to 80% of the profits are reinvested into elephant conservation and an upcoming plant nursery project.[6]

Eventually, the goal is to create a wildlife corridor over the next decade or two that will give the animals access to the nearby forest reserve.  Under the Plant4Borneo Elephants initiative, travellers would be taken to the plantation to help plant the trees that will make up the wildlife corridor and do some wildlife watching on the grounds. In doing so, tourists will be directly involved in preserving and furthering the conservation efforts of Sabah Softwoods and 1StopBorneo Wildlife.

Making a difference

Reflecting increased global interest in environmental and social issues, more travellers today are becoming more conscious about the local landscape when choosing potential travel destinations. Sabah is one such destination that has benefitted from the introduction of ecotourism practices and businesses to the local industry.

Within a year of launching Plant4Borneo Elephants, 20 conservation trips, including both international and local visitors, were made to the plantation and about 300 trees – mainly fruit trees like figs and laran – have been planted by volunteers and visitors under the guidance of the plantation’s staff.[7]

Datuk Christina Liew, Sabah’s Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment, noted that the Plant4Borneo Elephants initiative has boosted the Tawau economy by attracting tour operators who take groups of tourists to the plantations and creating new jobs for locals to cater to the growing interest in the attraction.[8]

Other organisations have also gotten onboard the ecotourism train. Earlier this year, WWF announced it will work with Sabah Softwoods to restore a wildlife corridor in the Brumas area of Tawau which has been identified as a hotspot for human-elephant conflict.[9] Much like the Plant4Borneo Elephants initiative, this partnership focuses on replanting trees and reducing crop damage from elephants to reduce the risk of elephant and human conflict.

  1. Green Global Travel
  2. Greener Ideal, 2012
  3. WWF News, 2004
  4. TourMab, 2019
  5. The Borneo Post, 2010
  6. Nikkei Asian Review, 2018
  7. The Star, 2018
  8. The Borneo Post, 2018
  9. The Star, 2019
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Transformation on the Street – Rejuvenating old cities

As a city, Kuala Lumpur (KL) is ever-changing, with new multi-story buildings being built to support the growth of new businesses and new shops opening on every corner. During the day, people flock to the city for work, shopping or just to take in the sights.

Unfortunately, the older buildings themselves aren’t keeping up with the pace of progress. Many of the older buildings are stained with grime, paint peeling off the walls. People skirt around the alleyways which tend to look dark and uninviting. Rubbish bags pile up around lampposts like a bizarre decoration. As a tourist hub, KL’s Golden Triangle still draws the greatest number of visitors, locals and tourists alike, but the wear and tear is undoubtedly evident.

There is however some glimmer of rejuvenation taking place in the form of a new tourist attraction along a once a dirty, neglected alley, Kwan Chai Hong.  This newly christened street is now a vibrant, colourful, charming laneway surrounded by new cafes and small shops. A ‘passion project’ administered by Bai Chuan Management, Kwai Chai Hong evokes memories of the area’s past as the heart of KL’s Chinese community during the 1960s through the very modern medium of street art.  The lane was officially opened to the public in April this year and has quickly gained a name as an Insta-worthy spot amongst locals and travellers alike.

Bringing back the charm
Photo courtesy of Bai Chuan Management

When asked about why they chose this particular laneway to revive, Bai Chuan Management co-founder, Zeen Chang, recalled that it was the charm of the place and the nostalgic memory of Jalan Petaling and Lorong Panggung that inspired them to revamp the area. “As we began work to mend this once neglected laneway, we fell more and more in love with it,” Zeen notes. “It was more than a dream come true.”

The project was founded by Ho Yung Wee and Coco Lew who were offered a 12-year lease for 10 units of shophouses connected by a laneway between Jalan Petaling and Lorong Panggung. From the start, the intention was never to demolish or strip the area of its cultural heritage. Instead, the couple was inspired by Coco’s memories of her childhood years tagging along with her mother as she frequented Petaling Street. At the time, Petaling Street was her favourite childhood spot with good food to feast on and filled with peddlers selling all sorts of interesting things. Decades later, Coco would return to Petaling Street to open a shop of her own selling toys and stationery.

“We were more inspired by the potential [the area] brings. We wanted to bring people back to KL Chinatown – bring back the glory days of Chee Chong Kai (茨厂街) and make the place lively once again,” Zeen explains.

To help make their vision come true, they turned to five local artists – Khek Shin Nam (郭先楠), Chan Kok Sing (陳國勝), Chok Fook Yong (祝福荣), Chew Weng Yeow (周永友) and Wong Leck Min (黄烈明). Rather than commissioning more well-known or even international artists, Zeen explains that they wanted to open the opportunity to others. “Much like how this project has given us the chance to explore things outside our expertise, we wanted to give talented artists, who were waiting for a break, a chance to share their work.”

Photo courtesy of Bai Chuan Management

They used murals as a way to depict what life was back then and share the stories of the heritage buildings in the area and the people who once lived in them. And these murals aren’t just one-dimensional; next to each mural is a plaque with a unique QR code which adds an additional audio element to the experience. The addition of props – a stool placed before a calligrapher’s table or a handkerchief dangling from a courtesan’s fingertips – allows visitors to interact with the images and, in a way, become part of the artwork.


Creating memorable cities

Project Kwai Chai Hong is just one of the many rejuvenation projects in the Greater Klang valley. There has been a new movement by locals, many of them young entrepreneurs, working together to reclaim some of Malaysia’s abandoned areas.

Think City’s Lee Jia Ping speaks to Transformation Today

Think City’s Programme Director, Lee Jia Ping, calls this placemaking, a term first introduced by US-based non-profit Project for Public Spaces to describe the practice of communities reinventing public spaces to fit their needs and to truly make these spaces the heart of the community. By reclaiming public spaces, she believes that cities can be made welcoming and comfortable for all, not just for the locals or the people who have lived there for generations, but also for tourists, migrants and the younger generations who move in.

“For any city to be successful and vibrant, there needs to be diversity of content and a variety of offerings. At the moment, nobody is really celebrating this part of the city because either a) people feel that it is unsafe and don’t dare to come down, b) that there is nothing to come down to this part of the city for, or c) that it only caters to a certain segment of the population,” Jia Ping says, motioning to the windows that overlook the main Leboh Pasar Besar street. “That’s not enough to sustain an area like this.”

Set up by Khazanah Nasional Berhad in 2009, Think City is an urban regeneration and social purpose organisation whose true north is to create cities that are resilient, inclusive and able to be celebrated by everyone. They specialise in rejuvenating areas that have fallen into disuse, using methods like space activation, public realm improvement, content and culture curation, capacity-building and research and advocacy.

Georgetown, Penang, was their first project. Now, they’re working with KL City Hall to turn five blocks in downtown KL into a creative and cultural district.

For Think City, the hardest part is figuring out how to make areas relevant again. Despite being the capital city of Malaysia, KL is virtually empty after hours as most of its footfall comes from people travelling to the city for work and leaving immediately after. Rare is the person who ventures outside of KL’s Golden Triangle.

“You don’t go to a city for the scenery of blocks and office towers. You go to a city to see its natural beauty, to see its built heritage and engage with it. Every time I take people around [downtown] KL, they’re surprised that there’s so many things to do when in fact, there’s a lot of stories here that are interesting not just to tourists but also to locals. I get a lot of people telling me, ‘Wow, I feel like a tourist in my own country, in my own city!’,” Jia Ping laughs. “So, [our work] is about unearthing forgotten narratives or building new ones and making these areas relevant again.”

And the best way to do it is through organising events, to give people a reason to come back and rediscover these forgotten areas. For Jia Ping, it’s all about content. An improved façade can only do so much; the key to increasing footfall is the character of the building and what’s inside. A good example is the refurbished Zhongshan Building which has recently made a name for itself as a creative hub that is hip, alternative and yet still very respectful and welcoming.

The Kuala Lumpur Creative and Cultural District (KLCCD) builds on Zhongshan’s model, covering a 100 hectares area from Little India to the north to the old KL Railway Station in the south. With so many important heritage sites under threat, a framework is needed to ensure that future growth is holistic. The hope here is to attract new investment in the creative industries as well as a higher value of tourism that is anchored on Malaysia’s built heritage, vibrant public spaces and policies that promote diversity and inclusivity.

Ensuring sustainability 

tarting an urban rejuvenation project, no matter the scale, is a big task in itself but as with any project, the launch is only half of the work. The other half is ensuring that the project is sustainable – like ensuring that the project site remains well-maintained, and that there is a constant flow of visitors – and this takes both discipline of action and flexible problem solving.

Picture courtesy of Bai Chuan Management

It’s been only a few months since Kwai Chai Hong was first opened but judging from the thousand-over posts tagged with the hashtag #kwaichaihong on Instagram, the project has gotten off to a flying start. It has brought a lot of people back to Petaling Street, both locals and international visitors alike, and this spike in traffic has given more business to vendors along Jalan Petaling. Many shopfronts have started their own renovation projects soon after the Kwai Chai Hong was launched in April which Zeen posits is either because new tenants are moving in or that existing tenants have decided to embrace the change that the revitalised laneway has brought.

Zeen and the rest of the team at Bai Chuan Management are well aware that they’re in this for the long run. Understanding that constant monitoring and engagement are critical to ensure project sustainability, the team have planned a full schedule of events designed to attract people to the laneway.  “There’s so much more we can and will do to bring people back to KL Chinatown. We will continue to curate the space and its content moving forward, in the hope of creating a space where people will gather and learn about the history, arts and culture unique to the Chinese community in Malaysia.”

To Jia Ping and the team at Think City, success is “when we’re not needed anymore, and the city thrives by itself.” An old hand at overseeing long-term projects, the team at Think City tends to use a ‘pop-up’ methodology to help get projects off the ground. Jia Ping calls it ‘lighter, faster, cheaper’.

“First, we do the baseline research to find out the community’s needs and wants, then we ideate on what’s there and then we experiment. We basically display some of your plans and see how the community reacts.” If there is a positive reaction from the community – if more people show up to use the space – the team keeps the idea. If not, they toss it and go back to the drawing board. This use of recursive problem solving has helped Think City keep their projects relevant, sustainable and, ultimately, successful.

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What’s the deal with Industry 4.0?

We’ve seen three Industrial Revolutions pass by, each fundamentally changing the way employment and business operate – for good and for bad. The economic changes of the first Industrial Revolution reshaped policy and laid the groundwork for the welfare state. It raised the standard of living for the middle and upper classes but worsened the living and working conditions of the poor.

Today, another similar revolution is underway, with rapid developments in technology like gene-editing and artificial intelligence (AI) provoking significant changes to our economies, societies and politics. Answers are cheap in the age of the internet; in the age of AI and machine learning, answers are going to be even cheaper. Want to know what’s happening in the world around you? There are matching algorithms that pair people with news updates, song recommendations and even job openings without any user involvement at all. But what effect will this have on the overall economy?

The Fears:

As with most processes of transformation, the introduction of new technology is being met with fear and scepticism. Ever since the discovery of artificial intelligence and its ability to perform some of the same tasks that humans have been doing, people have been worried about losing jobs to a machine. Researchers point out that around 47% of total US employment is at risk of losing ground to computerisation.[1] In a recent survey, 69% of Malaysians believe the rise of automation will lead to a loss of jobs; 45% believe the most impacted would be young Malaysians between the ages of 18 to 24 because as the least experienced group by the time AI would become widely utilised, they would be the most vulnerable to layoffs.[2]

It is this same fear that is currently playing an important role in how AI and digitisation are being represented online and in social media? There are articles like this one that lists the eight types of jobs that are “unlikely to be occupied by robots or machines, at least in the near future”. Another article advises people to prepare for a less-employed future by “training ourselves to care less about our jobs now”.[3] Much like how the first Industrial Revolution was a turbulent time that caused as much harm to people’s lives as it did benefit them, many people today worry that the upcoming technological revolution will usher in the same turbulence as its predecessor did.

The Facts:

Fears aside, embracing new technological developments is the biggest commitment that policymakers and businesses need to make right now. And this commitment needs to be done in the belief that tech is – and will continue to be – a generally positive force for society.

As machines get a little more capable by the day, every inch brings a few more jobs within reach of automation. In most cases, it’s not individual jobs that will be impacted but entire industries as more needs are being met through massively scalable software. And this will have a trickle effect down to our private and social lives. It will be a huge shift in the way society works, but it doesn’t have to be a bad one – we just need to look at the bigger picture.

Even in its current state, technology is doing more than ever. It’s being used in both healthcare and warfare; it’s helping writers publish books and musicians make music. It’s reminding people of birthday engagements and tweaking the photos you take on your phone. It’s helping students write essays, matching jobs to workers, even assessing your credit scores when applying for a loan. In short, it’s making decisions that affect people’s lives right now.

As in the past, technology won’t be a purely destructive force. As some jobs are being automated, new jobs will be created and existing roles redefined. For example, many jobs in agriculture were ‘lost’ due to new advances in technology that automated many of the traditional farming roles. The proportion of the workforce in agriculture decreased from 40% in 1990 to just 10% in 1950; today, this figure is even lower, hovering about 2%.[4] However, these workers didn’t all just become unemployed; instead, they found work in other industries. In China, one-third of the country’s workforce which was in agriculture was absorbed into other sectors such as manufacturing, telecommunications and mining.[5]

The Challenge:

The technical potential for automation differs across sectors and activities. While automation and machine learning will have some effect on almost all jobs, some industries will be more impacted than others depending on the type of work they do. The challenge is preparing industries, businesses and governments to be able to meet this digital transformation. Organisations that fail to anticipate or adapt to new technologies risk being blindsided; either they miss the sudden shift in market perceptions when their customers and stakeholders start demanding or expecting these new innovations or they risk getting left behind. However, those who take note of what’s coming around the tech bend and embrace new technologies gain a first mover-advantage. The ability to react even a few months ahead of the competition can be worth millions or billions of dollars.[6]

Instead, we need to ask ourselves how can technology be used to help people? How can innovations like AI and automation be used to make the most improvements in the best way possible?

For example, in education, new technology will change how we learn. Online courses have changed the “where” of learning from inside classrooms to anywhere with a decent internet connection. In healthcare, the use of technology in diagnostics will transform how resources are deployed, whether it is freeing up more nurses to spend more quality time with patients or how diseases are being treated. More focus could go on prevention and monitoring so that people can live longer, healthier lives.[7]

In consulting, AI and automaton could significantly enhance how consultancy firms tend to operate as well as the quality of services provided to clients. The huge, smarter-than-most-humans, computer AI in science-fiction is still a long way in the future. Machine learning, a sub-field of AI that entails enabling computers to learn, is a lot more viable for use right now. Having a decision-making system learn and teach itself to comb through data to look for patterns to inform transformative strategies for organisations across industries. Naturally, consulting firms have started to take notice; in 2017, Accenture started to offer solutions using tech like data analytics, cloud computing and internet of things to help clients run their business more efficiently under a sub-brand Accenture X.O. Accenture helps their clients look at IT or technology from an implementation standpoint. Others like Wipro Digital started off as part of a software exporter but has since strengthened its consulting business after recognising that consulting and digital expertise have started to overlap in a lot of areas.

Delivery units have also used a tech boost. Delivery units need to analyse a lot of data to ensure that the key performance indicators (KPIs) set prior to implementation remain on track. Using a machine learning system like a dashboard to help track performance allows consultants to have another (digital) eye that can spot patterns that humans might miss or never think of in the first place. Speaking as a delivery unit, one of our top priorities is looking for new ways to innovate in the tools we use so that we can always offer our clients the best analysis and the best solutions.

Moving forward

To get ready for tomorrow’s technological innovations, organisations around the world have challenged themselves to understand the data and automation technologies that are being developed today.

Back in 2012, the Louvre was the first to ditch the outdated handheld audio guide; instead, the museum opted to use the Nintendo 3DS XL console to provide an interactive element in addition to audio content. Developed with help from Nintendo, the specialised 3DS system uses both a GPS and 3D imaging to provide users with an interactive map (thus cutting down the number of lost tourists) as well as high-resolution images, 3D models and video commentary about the artwork.[8] The Louvre hasn’t just stopped there; just this year, the museum launched a mobile app with Accenture Interactive that uses augmented reality for visitors browsing the Petite Galerie.[9]

Such partnerships are valuable as technology evolves faster than any museum – or company – alone can follow. Implemented well, digital transformation can promote a more holistic and collaborative working environment between companies as well as between departments and units. In the words of PTC President & CEO, Jim Heppelmann, “no one company can do it alone”; we’re excited to see more partnerships between organisations and technology vendors and developers moving into the digital age.

  1. Frey and Osborne (2013)
  2. The ASEAN Post (2019)
  3. Quartz (2019)
  4. SkyNet Today (2019)
  5. McKinsey (2017)
  6. Bain & Company (2019)
  7. TechCrunch (2019)
  8. Time (2012)
  9. The Drum (2019)
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Creating tomorrow’s top public transport app

There’s still no sign of flying cars by 2020 but technology has given us a way to make public transport safer, greener, more convenient and more efficient. No longer do we need to go all the way down to a station to buy tickets, obtain travel schedules or be alerted to possible route disruptions; today, all of this can be done quickly and conveniently on a mobile phone.

Who’s winning and how?

One country has brought the convenience of mobile connectivity to public transport with great success. Cheap, frequent, clean and efficient, Vienna has been lauded for having one of the best public transport systems in the world. In 2017, it introduced its WienMobil app that combines both journey planning as well as ticketing in one. Taking the public transport app to the next level, WienMobil allows users to completely plan, book and pay for their journeys on all the different modes of transport in the city. This includes both public transport as well as options like bike sharing, taxis and car-sharing. The app also lets commuters to filter route planning by distance, time and cost as well as by environmental impact, allowing the Viennese public to not only find the route that costs the least number of euros, but also the least amount of CO2.[1]

The situation in Malaysia

Unlike Vienna, there is no similar all-in-one app for public transport in Malaysia. Transport providers like MyRapidKL, which oversees the major railways and bus routes in the Greater Klang Valley, generally communicate through social media – for instance, updating commuters about a delay in the Kelana Jaya LRT line through Twitter.[2]

Previously, there was a mobile app called MeterOn launched about three years ago that allowed passengers to verify and track their journey while taking a taxi or bus. However, general awareness of the app was low as many Malaysians were not aware of this app or its function as a channel allowing interactive and efficient customer feedback, rating and complaints. As of 2019, the app itself does not seem to be available on the Google App Store anymore.

A case for change

MeterOn was a good start but did not allow for commuters to view information about public transport services in real-time. Malaysians have often remarked that public transport in Malaysia, especially the bus service, tends to be inconvenient and tardy. Service information, such as the estimated time of arrival (ETA) of buses, is not publicly displayed so commuters often have no way of knowing how long they would need to wait for a bus or train to arrive without having to go to the platform itself or post a question on social media. This makes planning a trip on public transport (much less one that uses more than one method of public transport) inconvenient.

With easy access to technology like Wi-Fi and GPS systems, public transportation services have been able to upgrade their services to keep up with consumer demands. For instance, mobile connectivity enables real-time, two-way information flow between commuters and transport providers, allowing passengers to get updates or even give feedback on their travel experience on the go. Smart algorithms can process this information rapidly, and tweak schedules and routes of public transport services to provide better and more targeted services. Even artificial intelligence (AI) has a part to play in improving transport services; using AI reduces the need for human intervention, allowing services to be provided quickly and more efficiently.

Recently, more countries have moved toward combining all modes of public transport under one system or app much like Vienna’s WienMobil. Mobility as a service (MaaS) is a consumer-centric model of transportation for people. Instead of using personally owned cars or other means of transport, MaaS seeks to make taking public transport easier for commuters by allowing people to plan, book and track their journeys all on a mobile phone. A growing body of evidence has suggested that providing more infrastructure won’t solve traffic problems – building more is costly, time-consuming and would likely only provide temporary relief.[3] Instead, MaaS builds on what is already there and makes travelling more convenient.

As a consumer-centric model of transportation, MaaS works by providing commuters with an on-demand, real-time platform that can include any combination of transport methods. It allows for easy route planning by letting users plan end-to-end journeys from the moment they leave their front door right up to when they reach their final destination. It allows for simplified payments by allowing users to pay for transport via e-wallets or credit cards before or after their journey. Some MaaS even offer subscriptions. Lastly, MaaS offers a personal touch; as a fully personalised service, it builds relationships between users and transport providers by using big-data, two-way communication and constant user feedback to customise and refine the offered services.

Where is Malaysia at currently?

Malaysia has taken steps in the right direction. MyRapid provides journey planning for all modes of transport under their purview on their website. They’ve announced plans for a journey planner app to be rolled out within the next year. KTM Bhd, which manages the KTM rail network for intercity and commuter trains, recently launched a journey planner app called MyRailtime in May that allows passengers to check for real-time information on train ETAs, departures and delays.[4]

However, all these apps are strictly for their individual services and do not allow for services like booking and paying for tickets which still must be done at the stations themselves or through e-payment options like Touch n Go. There is no one common app that allows commuters to see the schedules or routes of all transportation services in the city.

In addition, the data collected through GPS devices installed on buses and other forms of public transport vehicles tends to be only made available through the individual transport operators when necessary as in the case of a service disruption when it should be communicated in real-time to the public. Malaysia has started using GPS data to track bus fleets as early as 2012; however, providers seem to only do limited monitoring of this data when this data could be used to ensure that all public transport vehicles maintain a certain set of safety and service standards. For example, GPS data could be used to publish real-time estimated time of arrival (ETA) and departure (ETD) on platforms such as a journey planner app or to 3rd party transport service providers like Grab for those who need additional transport to get to where they need to be.

The platform for hosting this data is key. Rather than posting updates on Twitter or hosting the journey planner on a website that may not be optimised for commuters on the go, a mobile app is a perfect platform for this information as it reduces the cognitive effort to sift through route schedules or lists of stations. Studies have shown that mobile apps give users more control over a task which enhances their satisfaction and comfort with the decision-making process.[5] In transport, this means that apps help the user’s sense of being on time and knowledge of when they will arrive. For example, people waiting in line at the bus station who don’t have access to real-time arrival information feel that their waiting time is longer as opposed to those who can track exactly when the bus would arrive.

Having access to real-time data can also be used to help transport authorities refine the routes and modes of public transport. When introducing a new policy or solution, the chances are that implementation won’t go perfectly right out of the gate as at least some of the initiatives will need to be tweaked as problems arise. By creating a platform where users can get real-time updates and report back on problems would help authorities to get a clearer picture of what is happening on the ground, what works and what doesn’t, and to make the changes necessary for a smooth public transport experience that fits public demand.

Opportunities abound. But it’ll take a village to move the needle.

MaaS cuts across different modes of transportation, which are owned and operated by multiple providers, to provide an easy, one-stop-shop to get from point A to point B. It has clear benefits for the public who would be able to choose where they want to go, when they want to go and how to get there. The challenge here will be getting buy-in from transport providers. For trips that include more than one mode of transport, each mode should be adequately compensated for its portion of the trip – this means taking into consideration the different ticketing systems (including fare zones, discounted fares and concessions) of the buses, trains, and e-hailing rides operating within the area.

This is where public-private partnerships come in. This is an opportunity for governments to work with private transportation providers to create MaaS platforms with the true north of increasing the use, productivity and efficiency of transportation within the country. We’re seeing some of this happen already, here in Malaysia as well as in cities around the world, with transport authorities partnering with technology service companies to build mobile apps, or with e-hailing companies to provide short trips to and from public-transit stations. Public private partnerships have great potential for innovation. Working together optimises the use of available knowledge and resources especially for a project like MaaS where there is a need to pool together all relevant data and expertise. Rather than simply building more stations to encourage more people to use public transport, transport authorities can work with private corporations to transform the way people get around in a city. The key is to develop strategic alignment across all stakeholders and build common ground so that everyone is motivated and held accountable to work towards the true north – a safe, convenient, and efficient public transport system for one and all.

  1. Ziptopia (2017)
  2. The Star (2019)
  3. The Conversation (2019)
  4. The Star (2019)
  5. US Department of Transportation (2017)
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Transformation on the Street: From running errands to transforming businesses

With more people running businesses online or from the comfort of their homes, there is a growing demand for short-term help. GoGet Malaysia is a home-grown company that is helping businesses and individuals hire part-timers, re-born as ‘GoGetters’, to help run errands or help with tasks ranging from distributing flyers to data entry.

We speak with Francesca Chia, co-founder and CEO of GoGet Malaysia to get her thoughts on the upcoming digital transformation and how GoGet is redefining the way the gig economy works in Malaysia.

PEMANDU Russia talks humanity at the Skolkovo Startup Village 2019

In the thick of what many call ‘the startup era’, aspirations towards effective and innovative entrepreneurship continue to loom large worldwide. And the buzz at the Skolkovo Startup Village 2019 event held in June, is testament that this is no different in Russia.

Organised by the Skolkovo Foundation, the annual event brings together the most innovative, talented and open-minded individuals from the business communities in Russia and CIS countries. Chris Tan, Managing Director of PEMANDU Russia, was invited by the IPChain Association to share a fresh perspective on delivery transformation – specifically how value creation through human capital and knowledge was instrumental in effecting Malaysia’s socio-economic transformation.

Drawing from a crucial aspect of PEMANDU Associates’ Big Fast Results (BFR) – 8 Steps of Transformation© methodology, Chris remarked, “It is critically important to have a program management framework that constantly aligns planning and implementation actions of the implementation community on the ground with the high-level aspirations of the leadership”.

Speaking on how the methodology can be applied to start-ups, Chris illustrated a condensed three-part checklist comprising a) a detailed program of action with clear accountabilities, timelines, and targets, b) a program management framework that guides the transition from planning to implementation, and c) a problem-solving mechanism to make quick decisions at the numerous inflection points a startup can expect to encounter.

Having covered more of the process and systems-oriented approaches of the firm, Chris went on to elaborate on what the firm calls ‘transformational leadership’ to deliver on a start-up’s business objectives, reminding the audience that, “even though most of you are starting up small technology ventures, you will face the same transformational leadership challenges as CEOs of the largest corporations, if not more so.” This was also a chance for the audience to be taken through the firm’s proprietary 6 Secrets of Transformational Leadership © – a holistic framework to help leaders effect tangible change in any organisation, big or small.

These humanistic insights, which included adopting a “Discipline of Action” and “play[ing] the Game of The Impossible” were a refreshing take for much of the audience. But what perhaps piqued the most intrigue was the mention of the sixth and final point on ‘Divine Intervention’ – the acknowledgment of mankind’s limited control over the outcomes of our actions. Chris quickly followed this up with an exposé on the firm’s counterintuitive belief that a leader who knows that he or she is not in ultimate control over every variable is a leader who is more willing to take bold steps required in pushing ahead in the transformation journey in the pursuit of delivering big fast results.


BFR Untold: Delivering Big Fast Results – a PEMANDU experience

Beginning as a delivery unit tasked to assist the government of Malaysia in pushing forward a nation-wide transformation, PEMANDU Associates has spent the last ten years helping governments and corporations across the globe to deliver results. Applying their proprietary Big Fast Results (BFR) – 8 Steps of Transformation ™ methodology, the firm believes in getting everyone from government units, ministers and the private sector on board and motivated to make transformational change happen quickly.

In this month’s episode of BFR Untold, we sit down with PEMANDU Associate’s Sivaram Superamanian, Siti Nathrah Johar Salim, and Mohamad Ridzwan Hamzah to discuss what it is like to be on the ground both working in and establishing effective delivery units.


Delivery Units 101

All citizens expect governments to make choices that are in our best interests, improve the quality of life within the country, and be transparent and upfront about the changes they would be making. The difficulties faced today by governments (and organisations alike) isn’t in the crafting of policies or plans but in implementing said policies to ensure that results or outcomes are delivered.

Several governments have begun utilising the idea of delivery units to overcome this implementation gap. In the UK for instance in 2001, the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PMDU) was set up under then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s cabinet to provide support and scrutiny across issues in the education, health, transport and justice sectors. Its efforts produced strong results. For example, dropping the number of patients waiting in emergency rooms for longer than four hours from over 23% to 2.3% in just two years. PMDU became a pioneer of the delivery unit model, starting a trend of delivery units being founded by governments seeking to enact and implement transformations of their own. The past two years alone have seen delivery units spring up in multiple countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Figure 1: Locations of delivery units in Latin America, the Caribbean and the world[1]

What is a delivery unit?

Delivery units are teams that concentrate on developing, implementing and monitoring transformational projects. Typically deployed by governments, they can operate at the state, local or national level to help ministries and government units monitor high priority policies and ensure the performance of these policies are on track.

These teams are small and highly skilled, able to gather and analyse a constant stream of performance data and watch out for any roadblocks. In the event that the desired results are not materialising on the ground, the teams will investigate and intervene. Some also scrutinise policy proposals to see whether implementation plans are feasible, and address delivery capability gaps in the public sector workforce through activities such as training and co-designing implementation plans.[2]

Do delivery units work?

Today, delivery units are an effective government implementation support that delivers measurable outcomes. While there is genuinely global appeal around the delivery model, as with any unit tasked to effect change, criticism is sure to abound – most of which surrounds sustainability of such units. Reports show that many of these new units have limited timescale of operations and in doing so, much of the criticisms are on “what happens next?” Like any other tool, understanding both the origin of delivery units and the value they bring will enable governments and organisations alike to use them to the best of their ability.

Below are the top four criticisms of delivery units and how to make them work for instead of against you.

1. Delivery units don’t last.

A report from consultancy firm Acasus points out that every delivery unit established more than ten years ago has been closed down, including those in the UK, the Netherlands, Indonesia, Australia (Victoria, Queensland and Canberra), Sierra Leone and Maryland.[3]

Figure 2: Location of past delivery units[4]

The thing to remember is that delivery units are not designed to last for years or ad infinitum. These units aren’t government departments; they’re formed specifically to work on a particular programme and should or will be disbanded once the project is done. Part of the mandate of delivery units is to build capacity and transfer their knowledge to existing government units who can carry on the methods and mindsets instilled. In this way, the results-oriented culture continues even after the unit has been disbanded.

In light of this, the measure of success for delivery units shouldn’t be in their continued existence or the length of their service, but the outcomes they deliver. For example, a delivery unit in Pernambuco, one of Brazil’s most violent states with 4,000 deaths a year, introduced the ‘Pact of Life’, a strategy improving data-gathering for decision-making used in weekly meetings organised by the delivery unit.[5] As a result, there was a 27.1% drop in the number deadly and violent crimes between 2007-2014. In contrast, the number of homicides in neighbouring states increased.

2. Delivery units are overly dependent on political backing.

Delivery units are often established by and report to the highest tier of governance; because of this, they depend on the authority invested in them by the leadership to function effectively. In Sierra Leone, the delivery unit introduced periodic reviews and increase accountability as part of its mandate to improve the ministries’ monitoring and follow-up capacities. Due to the unit’s location in the president’s office, they were able to substantially improve coordination amongst ministries and improve their ability to promptly identify bottlenecks and problems requiring presidential intervention and to adjust their strategies accordingly.[6]

Critics have pointed out that the delivery model falters when there is an administration change or when a transition of power occurs. In actual fact, there are delivery units who have survived transitions of power; it’s just the direction or the programme that changes. For example, Australia’s Cabinet Implementation Unit became the Strategic Co-ordination Unit after ownership was transferred to the Prime Minister’s Office.[7] Ownership aside, its responsibilities remain the same: to provide high-level, strategic policy advice and coordination. Delivery units are there to ensure that whatever was already planned would be implemented. They assist governments and organisations to deliver on the high-impact socio-economic outcomes which benefit both the public and business community. Transitions of power aside, the agenda to deliver impactful results should always be paramount.

3. Delivery units overpromise

Claudio Seebach, from the President’s Delivery Unit in Chile, remarked that “on one side, stretch targets help persuade people to work hard to get things done. But on the other side, you can aim too high and miss, or if communicated badly, people take what you achieve for granted so it is a fine line to tread. This means that you also need clear accountabilities – so everyone knows who is doing what.”[8]

Once the true north has been broken down into manageable, achievable parts, it is easier to see what progress has been made so far and how much is “too little”.

The Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) in Malaysia became a globally recognised and acknowledged expert in addressing Claudio’s comment. During their time within the Prime Minister’s Department of Malaysia, they had utilised their proprietary “lab methodology” to ensure that all stakeholders, from ministers to private sector and subject matter experts were brought together into a lab to discuss and collectively resolve issues at hand by implementing a 3ft programme geared at achieving outcomes.[9] The lab allowed these key people to pool their knowledge together, find solutions and agree collectively on how to move forward. This model is today adopted in several countries.

4. Delivery units are just a form of government propaganda

One of the greatest challenges facing governments is keeping up with public expectations of transparency and accountability. When the transformational agenda is not credible in the eyes of the public, it is seen as political propaganda and the veracity of the data produced during the project is questioned. Thus, even if positive results are achieved, the delivery model becomes discredited in the eyes of both the public and heads of governments. Wales’ First Minister’s Delivery Unit – now defunct – was regularly criticised for being “shrouded in secrecy” due to a lack of public awareness of its activities other than just giving Welsh leader Andrew RT Davies “a heads-up when he’s about to face criticism”.[10]

Regular progress updates are critical. Few countries publish annual reports on what has been done during the year or invite external review of progress made which does little to encourage transparency. Understanding this, many units today are proactively publishing information on the projects and providing stakeholders – including the public – with access to delivery plans and performance data. This has been done through mechanisms such as:

Table 1: Transparency initiatives undertaken by delivery units[11]

In Malaysia, PEMANDU overcame this by developing a public sector communication programme, holding several open days where citizens were exposed to the strategies and initiatives for the country’s National Transformation Project. Delivery unit members as well as policymakers were present during these events to answer questions and collect feedback from the public. PEMANDU believed that by doing this, the public would be fully informed of the plans made on their behalf and could keep the government accountable should progress on these goals falter. Furthermore, after a full annual cycle of implementation, annual reports illustrating the achievements, challenges and way forward are published to demonstrate greater transparency and accountability. Today, open days and annual reports are recognised as important steps in their Big Fast Results (BFR) – 8 Steps of Transformation™ Methodology when working with international governments and businesses.

On the value of delivery units

Acting more like policy SWAT teams deployed to expedite results, delivery units aren’t meant to change a whole country overnight. Their value lies in getting specific policies implemented and changing the culture of a government towards one that is results-driven, accountable and transparent. They can be used to break stakeholders out of their silos and bring them together to work on one common goal. Used correctly, the delivery unit can be a government’s best tool to bridge the implementation gap.

  1. Mariano Lafuente & Sebastián González (2018) Do Delivery Units Deliver? Assessing Government Innovation, IDB Technical Note [1]
  2. The Mandarin, 2017 [2]
  3. Acasus, 2017 [3]
  4. Institute for Government, Tracking Deliveryreport [4]
  5. Mariano Lafuente & Sebastián González, 2018 [5]
  6. Ibid. [6]
  7. Institute for Government, Tracking Delivery, 2017 [7]
  8. Centre for Public Impact, 2016 [8]
  9. To read more about PEMANDU’s lab methodology, read the World Bank report here:[9]
  10. Andrew RT Davies, 2015 [10]
  11. Institute for Government, Tracking Delivery report, 2017 [11]

Transformation on the Street: Delivering transformation to Malaysia’s public transport system

When the idea to build a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) in Malaysia was first put on the table in 2010, it was met with varying degrees of both resistance and cynicism – resistance from pockets of community where the rail system would pass through, and cynicism that it would take the government of Malaysia a lifetime to get its act together.

They were wrong. It took Malaysia only six years to build and develop an entirely new rail line and integrate it into the existing system. The MRT is one of the country’s largest single investments and was intended to radically improve and transform Kuala Lumpur’s inadequate public transportation coverage. It was meant to propel the Greater Kuala Lumpur metropolitan area to be on par with that of developed cities around the world. Today, the MRT has managed to deliver both and has quickly become a popular mode of transport to get in and out of the city centre for residents and tourists alike.

Historically, public transport systems in Malaysia functioned largely as part of the social safety net for those with no other means of getting around. These included people from low-income households (B40) as well as those with lesser means to get around. This is slowly beginning to change with the growing demand amongst city dwellers wanting to go carless. The transit system of the future will be for people across the board. And today, the MRT moves an estimate of 196,000 people daily.

Malaysians already have access to a range of public transportation in the Klang Valley, from several bus operators, three light rapid transit (LRT) lines, two commuter rail lies, one monorail line, to an airport rail link. But as the city grows, so does the number of commuters travelling between the city and surrounding suburbs. Delivering a reliable and modern mass rail transit that elevates the current public transport system could not have come soon enough.

Meeting a need

It was estimated in 2017 that about 1.1 million people travel by public transport every day, most of them travelling in, out and around the Greater Klang Valley area. The Klang Valley itself is home to about 725 million people; it’s a rising urban hub and the site of one of the worst traffic jams in the country. A study by Boston Consulting Group showed that Malaysians spend an average of 53 minutes in traffic and 25 minutes to look for parking each day.[1] That’s a significant portion of time of the day spent stuck in a traffic jam and this adds up depending on how far Malaysians have to travel for work or to school.

In an attempt to ease traffic congestion and offer more transport options to commuters, the government made urban public transport a priority area. Prior to this, the last major upgrade to Malaysia’s public transport infrastructure was the introduction of the LRT in the late 1990s and the monorail in 2003. The LRT is still one of the more popular railways in the country but limited stations and overcrowding during peak hours makes the line inaccessible for many Malaysians.

The MRT was launched to address these concerns. The first line, stretching from Sungai Buloh to Kajang, connected 44 shopping centres, 11 education centres and several hospitals and was completed in 2016. In terms of integration, the MRT has been seamlessly connected to the existing public transport system, with paid-to-paid walkways and connections linking the MRT Line 1 to LRT, KTM and monorail lines. As the other MRT lines are built, more stations will be integrated into the overall Klang Valley rail network.

Providing an alternative choice of commute

Introducing the MRT extends the public transport coverage to more neighbourhoods and suburbs who, prior to the MRT, did not have easy access to a train station. It has given more people more choices on how to get in and out of the city centre and made public transport equally accessible for all.

A study by the Centre of Governance and Political Studies (CENT-GPS) pointed out that many of the MRT stations were built adjacent to higher-income neighbourhoods, arguing that this was why the MRT was not as popular as anticipated.[2] However, the study assumed that only middle- and lower-income households take public transport; this isn’t necessarily the case. More Malaysians from all backgrounds are choosing not to drive to work[3], whether to avoid the city centre’s infamous traffic jams, because they’re becoming more environmentally conscious or simply because there are more options now.

It’s also pretty cheap to ride the MRT. The price of MRT fares is comparable to the LRT and is actually lower than the Sunway BRT, with concession rates for senior citizens, students and people with disabilities. There’s also a second option, introduced early this year. Understanding that the concession cards cater to only a fraction of the population who take public transport, the government introduced two monthly travel passes, one at RM100 and another, just for buses, at RM50. The cards were extremely well received by the public; ridership on all rail lines surged by 40% surge in ridership after the travel cards were introduced.

Is the MRT for everyone?

One of the key characteristics of good public transport is accessibility – stations must be accessible for everyone, especially for people with disabilities or senior citizens with mobility needs. In 2017, over 450,000 people registered as Persons with Disabilities (PWD) with the Department of Social Welfare. 35.2% were PWDs with physical disabilities. Earlier stations were not built to cater their needs, causing disabled commuters to feel marginalised.

However, focus was aimed at increasing public convenience for all – including the disabled community. The government ensured that all MRT stations were constructed to be disabled-friendly and upgraded LRT stations along the Ampang and Kelana Jaya lines in July 2011. Today, most if not all stations are equipped with features like elevators and tactile paving. The gap between the train doors and MRT platforms has been designed to ensure that a wheelchair can roll in easily.

The Challenges – Today & Tomorrow

Urbanisation is on the rise as a truly global phenomenon as more people around the world are living and working in cities. This growing trend makes it even more important that cities transform to support the greater mobility requirements of urban dwellers. But creating the perfect public transportation network isn’t easy. Designing urban transportation for today’s cities has become highly complex; planners must balance the different modes of transport and a multitude of stops, while ensuring that the network can handle the amount and variety of traffic a good-sized city sees every day. While the focus of urban transportation traditionally is on residents, cities today are becoming hives of commerce and economic activity with residents, non-residents and travellers alike converging into one place. This makes having that public transportation network even more important for convenient mobility.

Malaysia’s public transport system is still a work in progress. One of the more valid criticisms in recent times given by Malaysian users on the urban transport system has been the poor first and last mile connectivity, with stations lacking safety measures such as dedicated pedestrian walkways on the streets closest to the station. This doesn’t just affect the MRT but also can be said of the other rail stations in Malaysia – a common complaint describes crossing the last 100 metres to get to a train station as “a nightmare”.[4] The government has addressed this by introducing a feeder bus system to provide that last mile connectivity between MRT stations and neighbourhoods. The fares for all MRT Feeder Buses have been set to RM1, making them a very affordable option for commuters. However, more could be done to improve the efficiency of this feeder bus system and increase safety standards for pedestrians.

Another common perception is that few people take the MRT. As evident, MRT ridership is still growing. As of March 2019, the MRT operator reported that January’s passenger traffic for the MRT surged by 40%.[5] Even if the increase rate drops back to the 28% yearly increase, it’s very likely that the MRT would reach the 250,000 ridership target before 2021. Moreover, the MRT is doing better than the LRT and Monorail lines who are both experiencing a decrease in ridership.[6]

Integrated public transit systems are a big investment to build, operate and maintain to remain relevant to urban mobility. Introducing travel passes, electronic tickets and cashless systems have made Malaysia’s public transportation more convenient, but there are still more ways to encourage regular uses. For example, the rising demand for loyalty rewards programme and incentives, like the use of a point system based on trip miles, for commuters could be a way to promote the use of public transit and to influence consumer behaviour. Another thing to think about is using technology like phone apps to give commuters live traffic updates of the train and bus schedules for each line.

And this doesn’t have to come at the cost of taxpayers’ money; a study noted that for every USD$1 invested in public transportation, approximately USD$4 in economic returns are generated, and for every USD$1 billion in investments in the sector, 50,000 jobs are created and supported. [7] The reasoning is that as more people cluster in a city centre, more jobs are created which would ultimately boost both wages and economic productivity over time.

Looking ahead

The MRT system is only two years old; it would take a few more years and the addition of the other two planned lines for it to reach its full potential. Cent-GPS concluded its report by stating that “the project was in the right place, it was in keeping with a greener future, it had the right idea for a sharing community.”[8]

We agree. The MRT project was designed to provide a cheaper, greener, more convenient alternative to driving and it has delivered on its promise. Effective transportation makes cities more liveable by easing residents’ commute and transportation needs and increasing accessibility. For those who can’t or don’t drive, public transportation allows them to go to work, to school, to buy groceries or seek medical help, or just visit friends without having to ask for a ride or spend more to take Grab.

Moving forward, perhaps the time has come for the Ministry of Transport to conduct a country-wide stock -take of user needs, compatibility, trends and incentives to drive the next wave of urban public transport initiatives. It is after all almost 10 years ago, since this agenda was put under the microscope of the BFR Lab Methodology.[9]

  1. Straits Times, 2017 [1]
  2. Cent-GPS, 2018, p.56 [2]
  3. The Malaysian Reserve, 2018 [3]
  4. Malaysiakini, 2018 [4]
  5. Malay Mail, 2019 [5]
  6. Cent-GPS report, 2018, p.52 [6]
  7. National Express Transit, 2017 [7]
  8. Cent-GPS report, 2018, p. 57. [8]
  9. The BFR Lab Methodology is a trademark of PEMANDU Associates, which was tasked with helping the government of Malaysia conduct its National Transformation Programme (NTP). The lab is designed to bring all stakeholders into one room to discuss issues and brainstorm solutions. To find out more, visit:[9]