It is time for Malaysian startups to look beyond MaGIC

MaGIC Final

MaGIC is not the Malaysian ecosystem and with the government’s pro-Bumiputera agenda it is time for the community to look elsewhere

The biggest news in the e27 world this past week was the announcement that Cheryl Yeoh will step down as the CEO of the Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC Academy) in January.

The overwhelming reaction to the Yeoh’s departure was shock and sadness that the organisation was losing a smart, capable leader. Since being appointed CEO of MaGIC, she has been known to spearhead many of MaGIC’s initiatives such as the MAP, e@Stanford Program and even was a sponsor at the Bahtera Bumipreneurs of Tomorrow Summit.

But as much as losing Yeoh is disappointing for many, the news reignited a discussion in the community about the Malaysian government’s pro-Bumiputera agenda.

Yeoh is not an ethnic-Malay, a fact Jefrey Zan Dain Yunan, a representative of Pergerakan Pemuda UMNO (the ruling party’s youth movement), was quick to point out on Wednesday in an article for Utusan Malaysia titled, “MaGIC Gagal Laksana Agenda Bumiputera” (MaGIC fails to execute Bumiputera agendas).

“This is an agency that was set up to motivate business revolving around innovation and creativity, but it is sad to compare the amount of Bumiputera companies that took the opportunity versus non-Bumiputera companies,” he said. “Do [Bumiputera] know about these opportunities? Even the CEO of MaGIC herself is not a Bumiputera, it’s a sure thing that she doesn’t know what the Bumiputera aims are, she should figure it out.”

Briefly, Bumiputera means ‘sons of soil’ and it refers to people who are ethnically Malay. They make up 50 per cent of the population, while Chinese are about 23 per cent and Indians represent nearly 7 per cent. People qualified under ‘indigenous’ are 12 per cent of the population. (CIA World Factbook)

For years, the Malaysian government has openly, and aggressively, promoted a pro-Bumiputera agenda granting distinct political and economic advantages to the Malay segment of the population.

But, unfortunately for MaGIC, despite his fervent racism, Yunan may have a point; although, I imagine, we disagree on the solution.

Also Read: MaGIC’s Cheryl Yeoh gives her notice, leaving CEO post this month

MaGIC is a government agency, and if the country’s leadership want to promote an ethnically-driven economic agenda, then MaGIC should be expected to follow.

As a result, if the current pro-Bumiputera agenda comes to dominate MaGIC in the post-Yeoh era, it may be time for the collective startup community to turn away from the agency.

There is private money going into the scene. Jungle Ventures invested US$1.5 million dollars into KL-based CatchThatBus. Just today, in-house incubator LaunchPad raised US$1 million to continue its startup strategy.

Other success stories include:

None of these organisations can, or will, make business decisions based on ethnicity.

The Malaysian ecosystem is not simply MaGIC, there is a diverse set of people working to support entrepreneurship in the country. It is high time to empower the people who value performance, sustainabilty and growth projections over the ethnic background of the founding team.

Also Read: Malaysia’s LaunchPad raises US$1M to incubate startups in-house

Unfortunately for Yunan’s political prerogative, if Malaysia wants to follow the Silicon Valley startup model (and why would it not?) the system cannot take his racial agenda into consideration.

The Silcon Valley is a circle. One company sells for US$1billion, the C-suite employees, who just got rich beyond their wildest dreams, take a chunk and re-invest. The result is a Silicon Valley economy that, outside of New York City, is the most important metro area in the United States.

I wonder, if GrabTaxi Co-founders Anthony Tan and Tan Hooi Ling decide to start the ‘GrabTaxi Mafia’ and become the Peter Theil and Elon Musk of Southeast Asia, would Yunan still suggest Bumiputera founders look the other way because “Even the CEO (COO) of MaGIC (Grabtaxi) herself is not a Bumiputera?”

I discovered the article through a friend who saw a Facebook post shared by Syed Ahmad Fuqaha. Fuqaha is the Founder of Katsana and certainly one voice worth considering.

He most eloquently wrote:

“A strong startup [is] often the culmination of several talents from various backgrounds. One startup that I’m fond of, TheLorry, for example, consists of Malay and Chinese co-founders that work their butts off to grow the company. They fulfil each other in term of roles, experience and knowledge, and, with that, I bet one day, can be a truly global company.

I find it hurtful and humiliating to even think that bumi startups need government doctrines to compete with peers of different races and countries. Based on my observations, preferential treatment by the government is causing a pampered-child syndrome among local Bumis.”

Also Read: Malaysia-based startup Offpeak bags US$117,000 grant from Cradle Fund

Finally, I would just say this: Business is business, but it is also life.

And, in life, those who are most successful embrace the cultural differences of their peers and rivals.

We are not all the same, ethnicity is a defining part of the human experience and those who find true long-term success are the ones that can cross that bridge, understanding that both parties will achieve much more working together than scrapping for dominance.

But really, Mr. Yunan, that schlocky statement is irrelevant, because while you’re pushing for a pro-Bumiputera MaGIC Academy, ethnically tolerant founders are driving right past your high horse.

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