Brand Malaysia: A Little Soul Searching
|Are we worth what we have? By artist Ashaari Rahmat
Graphic sourced from www.loyarburuk.com
They arrive on our shores and fall in love. Visitors and expatriates are immediately enchanted with our food and our people. And for all intents and purposes, the modern metropolis projects a first-world facade.
Yes, Malaysia is modern. We have skyscrapers that are comparable to the best in the world, and we have brandished them with great pride. The Twin Towers, together with our participation in the F1 were both part of a strategic brand plan to put Malaysia on the map. To a large extent we have succeeded.
But like any brand plan, Malaysia, who excels in building and creating icons, seems to have suffered not from a lack of vision but rather from a lack of sustainability.
And sustainability is a word that many in Malaysia seem to have difficulty with.
Plans are often made on a quick-win basis and once that has been completed, another plan is hatched and on it goes. We seem to thrive on the adrenalin of the new with hardly a thought to managing our treasures and assets,both tangible and intangible.
Once pristine beaches are now polluted. Our stately buildings consistently develop holes in their ceilings. Visitors to the Sepang F1 track say that the conditions near the docks are deplorable, and those who had the pleasure of working at Istana Budaya would have seen the entropy inside its bowels. Many of the first-world fittings have been made to fit into a third-world culture complete with leaky faucets, filthy tunnels and warped wood carvings.
Does all this have to be definitive of Brand Malaysia?
In short, no.
I mentioned tangible and intangible assets above for a reason. For any brand to survive the long-haul and come up on top, we really need to understand the sustainable interplay between tangible and intangible assets.
All great brands are high on the intangible or emotional.
They have brand equity – the value and goodwill they have collected by working hard at being a great brand. People are willing to go that much further or pay a little more for your product and not your competitor’s; they would much rather work for you and not your competitor – because of brand equity.
New York’s brand equity lies not just in being a great city filled with iconic buildings, but also the cultural and economic heart of the US. And poets and writers have waxed lyrical about other great brands, cities such as Paris and Bali, which have marked their souls indelibly.
It is our intangible assets that compose our soul. Aside from the food, our soul lies in our people; a wonderful mixed palette of the best of Asia. Our soul lies in being one of the most tolerant peoples around – we live with numerous customs, cultures, religious practices, social strata. It is a confluence of too many things to mention but we navigate them all daily without incident.
The upside of that is that there is peace. And should there be unrest, it is never the will of the majority.
But this peace is an asset we have sadly not managed well.
Instead, our people are divided and controlled with raced-based politics and an education system riddled with serious deficits.
And the downside of that are meek, rather insular and ignorant masses who accept not just the good, but also the bad. While we pride ourselves on our tolerance of racial, ethnic and religious difference, we also tolerate bad service, bad mobile connections, shoddy workmanship, continuous breakdowns (from satellite TV to traffic lights and autopay parking machines to hospital registration), bad on-road behaviour – the list goes on.
Will We Rise?
While other destination brands are touting their Creative Class to potential investors and MNCs, we Malaysians watch with resignation as our own innovators receive accolades and distinctions elsewhere, whilst residing in another country.
Patents that could have been owned by Malaysia are now in the hands of others who saw the promise and invested in them. All this happened while we were busy building our monoliths.
For Brand Malaysia to truly rise, we need to first overhaul our HR and education values. The powers that be keep talking about the importance of innovation, yet contradict themselves with an education system and dogmatic attitude that is designed to churn out conformist thinkers.
In a world where currency resides in creativity and innovation, we have emerged severely lacking. We need to start encouraging and valuing creativity over uniformity; independent thinking over conformity, the big picture over the small successes. Until then, Brand Malaysia will always be like a teenager, awkward, in-between and full of unrealised promise.
Brand Malaysia Personified
Thankfully there is a select group of individuals working in GLCs who love Malaysia enough to fully appreciate the predicament that the Brand faces and are working towards reversing this trend.
They have been working tirelessly within the system, consulting both global and local experts. They have devoted thankless months speaking to economist, professionals, innovators, visionaries, scientists as well as those in the arts and NGO communities.
Their self-assigned mandate is to uncover the best way forward and some of this has already been realised.
Slowly, their efforts to locate the different facets of Brand Malaysia are being expressed. More and more, we see social enterprise, exemplifying our recognition that community must be enriched and our modern mantle of entrepreneurship. We see high-quality lectures and writing by local and international luminaries who offer the public of a Malaysia that can be.
To these people, I salute you and offer you my support should you need it in any way. The time has come for Malaysia to reclaim its glory and I am optimistic that it will happen in my lifetime.