Good for Business: AI, Robotics, and All Things Tech – A Summary of Session A
SESSION A: Good for Business: AI, Robotics, and All Things Tech


  • Ms Aireen Omar, Deputy Group CEO of Digital, Transformation & Corporate Services, AirAsia
  • Datuk Mohd Zarif Hashim, Group CEO, Sapura Secured Technologies Sdn Bhd
  • Mr Afzal Abdul Rahim, CEO, TIME dotcom Berhad
  • Professor Dr Ishkandar Baharin, President Malaysia Robotics and Automation Society
  • Moderator: Dr Farouk Abdullah, Chief Data Scientist, Natural Intelligence Solutions


Nobody really understands AI, robotics, and technology, and their role in business. Malaysia needs a structured programme to create awareness that addresses both the demand and the supply side, as well as certification which tells us where we are and what we have.
The Industrial Revolution has been here all along. Its elements are artificial intelligence, data analytics, cloud computing, systems integration, and sensors. With 5G technology, we will have low maintenance, high bandwidth, and better standards in terms of the Internet of Things (IoT). On the other side of the equation, we will need devices and sensors that can hold on to their charge for longer periods.
Malaysia needs to understand our position in the food chain. We don’t have the crème da la crème of people working on the ground-breaking facets of AI or big data or robotics in the country. As a country, we should think smarter in identifying which verticals we want to capitalise, instead of being too broad. We have to stop imitating and build a framework that leapfrogs whatever is out there now. That is very crucial from a technology and data analytics perspective.
Where infrastructure is concerned, while Malaysia’s communications infrastructure has improved tremendously, we are still lacking in terms of connectivity.
In terms of encouraging the adoption of any new technology, the government needs to understand that necessity is the mother of invention. Demand will drive change.

 Summarised Points by Panellist


Dr Farouk Abdullah (Moderator)

  1. In the Malaysian context, we need to stop imitating and start creating. We have the tendency to imitate. What we need to do is build a framework that leapfrogs whatever is out there now. This is crucial from a technology, analytics perspective, and data analytics perspective.
  2. Countries that are successful in implementing AI or adopting big data and robotics are countries where there is a framework for data-sharing but not necessarily a blueprint for how to share data.
  3. Do business leaders really drive the economy? In today’s world, consumers drive the economy. For example, malls in the UK are shutting down due to lack of demand, so it is a consumer-led economy.
  4. Where is Malaysia as a country when it comes to Industry 4.0, AI, and Robotics? Is Malaysia’s environment conducive for SMEs to drive or adopt technology, robotics, and AI? What do we need to do to get on to the world platform?

Ms Aireen Omar

  1. In the travel industry we are moving away from being just an airline, as a result of all the data that we have from our website visitors, passengers, terminal activities, as well as our aircraft and engines.
  2. We discovered a few years ago all this data can be better utilised. Today, it is data, not aircraft, that has become a key asset to us.
  3. We use data to increase productivity, create a better passenger experience, and anticipate changes. The challenge now is to extend the use of data further, in creating a seamless journey, in operational AI, in incorporating voice and facial recognition, for example.
  4. Business leaders need to be open about change. Whatever works now, whatever worked before, will not continue forever. They need to evolve to remain relevant.
  5. While I agree that consumers drive the economy, at times business leaders need to lead the way. Sometimes consumers don’t know what they really want or need, This is where business leaders can work best, by taking note of the gap and adding value to consumers.
  6. At AirAsia, we acknowledge the importance of digitalising companies. We also realise that it’s not just about adopting technology for artificial value. Last year, the work that we did was not about the tech but about restructuring the whole company to take advantage of technology.
  7. We need to be agile and nimble in our business. We welcome millennials on our board to ensure we get different perspectives. The most difficult thing to do is to change mindsets. I spend a lot of time making sure that the heads of department understand any new technology that we adopt, especially as we embrace open innovation – ie: we don’t just invite ideas from managers or staff, but we also work with external parties, for example universities and start-ups, to innovate. One aspect of an innovation-culture is embracing start-ups.
  8. Unfortunately, it is impossible to understand digitalising overnight. It is a continuous process.
“Today, it is data, not aircraft, that has become a key asset to us.” – Ms Aireen Omar

Mr Afzal Abdul Rahim

  1. First of all, we should understand our position in the food chain. We don’t have the crème da la crème of people working on the latest thing in AI, big data or robotics in the country. We are not lions, maybe not even hyenas. We should understand our position and punch according to our weight, This is nothing to be ashamed of. We have to think smart and focus on which verticals we want to capitalise.
  2. For instance, there is tremendous potential in agriculture to use technology to improve yield, reduce costs, and monitor growth. I think we can be really good at automating agriculture.
  3. Secondly, we need to look at our infrastructure. We have a good base infrastructure, but whilst connectivity in communications has been improving over time, it is still lacking. As an example, 2.5 million of 7 million homes still do not have access to fibre-optics. Until we figure out how we are going to deploy fibre and connectivity in these 2.5 million homes, it makes it difficult for us to think about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Fortunately, the government is talking about fiberising homes in the next 3-4 years.
  4. In terms of propagating the adoption of any new technology, the government needs to understand that it doesn’t actually have a role. The government believes it needs to create awareness but necessity is the mother of invention. Real demand is going to drive real needs.
  5. The issue that we have is that we keep thinking that as a country, we should have native Malaysian-owned intellectual property to supply the AI or big data needs of our Malaysian corporations. But our tech companies may not have the breadth, skills, or exposure.
  6. A national blueprint on 4IR may make the government feel good but the real drive is going to come from consumers and corporations. Competition breeds innovation.
  7. In terms of regulations and ethics, we can follow the example of Bank Negara in enabling the growth of fintech in Malaysia via the fintech sandbox. Bank Negara regulates to avoid systemic risks but allows the fintech companies to create and innovate. Going forward, we should be very clear about what the ethical arguments are, and where boundaries lie. It should not be a free-for-all.
  8. Automation and robotics as well as other aspects of the industrial revolution should lead to an increase in efficiency.
  9. We have talked about the government, academia which I believe is absolutely critical, and business leaders. However, the group of people we don’t talk about enough, who are going to change things, are the early stage entrepreneurs. What these entrepreneurs need is an environment that enables them to grow in scale.
  10. Currently, we have this weird situation where we have Baby Boomers on company boards, presiding over Gen-X management teams who are recruiting millennial employees. The baby boomers are more open to new ideas than we give them credit for, and having a board which allows companies to take risks and experiment, is very important. There should be more interaction between the baby boomers and the millennials.
  11. We are the smallest Telco by far. Yet, I find us unable to propagate or to inculcate an authentic culture of innovation. It is very easy for a company to come up with an innovation blueprint that the CEO signs, but to come up with an authentic and organic innovation culture is tough.
  12. The real innovation and the real business drive is going to be led by entrepreneurs because large organizations are unable to innovate or take advantage of change as quickly. Unfortunately, Malaysia’s environment is not conducive enough for SMEs to drive technology, robotics, and AI. What’s missing is the intellectual capability because of the weaknesses of our education system from primary all the way to tertiary level.
  13. I would like to mention the example of Huawei:
  • It employs more than 1,000 PhDs in its headquarters
  • They encourage employees to pursue PhDs.
“We have to think smart and focus on which verticals we want to capitalise.” – Mr Afzal Abdul Rahim

Professor Dr Ishkandar Baharin

  1. Our members are people who are from industries. In our engagement with our members and producers in the supply and demand space, there’s a lot of hype and a lot of talk, but nobody can understand what the Fourth Industrial Revolution is all about. SMEs are also frustrated as they want to learn about robotics, AI, etc, but they don’t know how. Our experience has been that we need to go back to basics.
  2. We recommend a structured programme, comprising three segments:
  • Awareness – This should address both the demand and supply side. In Malaysia, there are many businesses selling (tech) products. However, there is no real value creation, and no innovation with local-grown technologies. There is also insufficient local talent.
  • Certification – We need to map where each 4IR player is in the framework via certification. Certification would enable the players to know where they stand. The certification is similar to hotel rankings of 2-star, 3-star, etc.
  • ·Adoption – once you know where you are, the next step is the adoption of technology to raise your level. But the issue with SMEs is often that: a) they don’t want to be the first to adopt a new technology, and b) who will pay for it. It is about risk management. Hence, they need support when it comes to adoption. When adoption is proven to be successful, it will be quickly replicated in Malaysia.
3. The question of whether robotics, AI, and data are good for business is a no-brainer to me. They are good for business.
4. AI: The story of AI is closely linked to robotics. A good benchmark in terms of where we are in AI in the country is the smart phone. The smart phone is actually a robot and an AI machine. The power of its operating system is tremendous. The more you use it, the more intelligent the AI becomes. But we use perhaps only 5%-10% of its power.
5. I disagree with Mr Afzal on the subject of blueprints. Our country did a blueprint for robotics, Blueprints are like flight paths and road maps to help you navigate. If you leave it open to the market to decide, we may be pushed to certain directions without our own realization. As a country we must be very clear about where we are (and where we want to go).
6. On the subject of culture, in my company, older people understand the problem statement. Our younger employees are given space to be creative and innovative in solving problems. To be profitable in the AI and robotics space, one needs to be very creative, innovative, and quick.
7. I have a lot of hope. I believe Malaysia can still be an ASEAN Tiger in robotics and AI.
“Blueprints are like flight paths and road maps to help you navigate. If you leave it open to the market to decide, we may be pushed to certain directions without our own realization.” – Professor Dr Ishkandar Baharin

Datuk Mohd Zarif Hashim

  1. The industrial revolution actually started a long time ago, with artificial intelligence, data analytics, cloud computing, systems integration, and sensors. AI has been around since the 1950s but the pace of technological change today and the business landscape are what make the current wave a “revolution”.
  2. In the 1990s and early 2000s, we had devices connected to the internet, but connectivity was limited to only 3G. With 5G technology, we can benefit from low latency, and high bandwidth, which will enable better standards in terms of internet of things.
  3. The power to power up devices, and sensors, has also improved, enabling devices and gadgets to last for a longer period of time.
  4. The economy is driven by business, and hence it is up to business people to be creative and innovative to push boundaries.
  5. Malaysians, especially younger Malaysians, are good at applying technology but we need to anticipate and prepare for the shift in the job market. The skills demanded for the future will be different. Mundane, traditional, repetitive jobs will be taken over by machines or robots. What will be left? Jobs that involve creativity, data analytics, and innovation.
  6. The government has to step in to provide a catalyst for this shift to happen so that Malaysia as a whole will be ready for it.
  7. Our company has been around for some time but in our culture, we consider ourselves a start-up. We do not organise ourselves as departments but instead as teams. We don’t have ranks; we have team leaders and team members. Our performance management system is weighted to favour team-work, with 80% made up of team-based performance. Only 20% is on individual performance.
  8. Is the environment in Malaysia conducive enough for SMEs to drive technology, robotics, and AI? My straight answer is Not Yet. We need to start producing PhDs and harness the potential of the people here.
  9. Singapore does not have a billion people but they are able to organise their resources and functions under Singapore Inc. Malaysia is much larger than Singapore, and we should learn from them. We should return to the Malaysia Incorporated concept.
“The economy is driven by business, and it is up to business people to be creative and innovative to push boundaries.” – Datuk Zarif Hashim

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