Malaysia’s talent shortages in data science are part of a systemic regional challenge, but the country’s potential for becoming an Asian e-commerce hub may provide an important part of the solution.
Jack Ma’s attendance at the opening of his company’s Kuala Lumpur offices not only signalled Alibaba’s continued commitment to extending its expansion into the Southeast Asia’s e-commerce market, but another step forward in Malaysia’s plans for creating a regional locus for data-intensive industries—and talent.
Malaysia’s extensive data centre resources, effective cybersecurity landscape, and a resulting growth in cloud-based infrastructure and service industries, have been attractions for multinationals looking to build a presence in the region for years. Conversely, a perceived lack of skilled human resources—particularly data scientists in Southeast Asia—has been flagged by many leading players as a key constraint.
In March, Ainun Najib, the head of Business Data Platforms at Malaysian ridesharing and technology giant Grab, said in an interview that a lack of sufficient higher education infrastructure in the region was holding back data science education and will limit the growth of data science talent. Grab currently may have more pressing local market challenges: the Malaysian Taxi Association, hoping to ride a rising tide of reform and economic reorganisation following the victory of Mahathir Mohamad’s opposition alliance in the country’s recent historic referendum election, has been agitating the new government to ban Grab. That said, Grab, which last year passed the 1 billion ride milestone and recently welcomed a US$ 1 billion investment from Toyota, has been for years building up an R&D centre in Singapore with talent development as a focus. The company reports that it has more than tripled its team of data scientists over the last year.
Other participants in Malaysia’s e-commerce ecosystem have been keen to get ahead of this looming talent crunch, and there are growing examples of efforts to mitigate it. The Centre of Applied Data Science, a Malaysian analytics talent development organisation launched in 2014, has been working with businesses and organisations throughout the country, providing training and talent acceleration programmes. Last month it signed an MOU with the Sarawak Centre of Performance Excellence, a private training company, to develop programmes designed to train up to 2,500 data scientists, aligned with the eastern Malaysian state’s efforts to become a ‘data-driven’ state by 2022.
Alibaba’s initiatives are addressing Malaysia’s data science needs, as well as cementing a cornerstone of a larger regional e-commerce platform across which that talent can be deployed. A year ago, the company opened its first Electronic World Trade Platform outside of China in Malaysia—an SME-focused solutions hub with particular focus on building up e-commerce capabilities for small businesses in Southeast Asia. In January, Alibaba’s cloud computing division Alicloud announced a plan to implement its City Brain platform in Kuala Lumpur—an AI-enabled smart city management platform that has been reported to be successful. Efforts like this could further help accelerate Malaysia’s talent development drive. Speaking to MIT Technology Review last year, Dr. Min Wanli, Alicloud’s AI head said, "Hangzhou and other cities are using smart cities to attract talent," not only because of the opportunities smart city projects produce for data scientists, but because smarter cities provide more attractive working and living environments for tech-savvy and creative talent.
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