JCI Awards Ceremony

Addressed by Tan Sri Lim at JCI Awards Ceremony , Penang
17 August 2008

May I begin by thanking the Organising Committee their kind invitation to be this year′s honorary chair, and the opportunity to speak before some of the smartest and brightest in the country.

I have been asked to touch on "wealth creation through creativity". What I would like to do is to place the topic first on a global and then on a national scale instead of confining it to wealth creation for the individual. Because wealth creation has to do with poverty eradication as much as societal transformation.

Consider the fact that 6 billion people share this planet.

Half the world – nearly three billion people – live in poverty.

  • 1.3 billion live on less than a meal a day.
  • 1.5 billion have no access to clean water.
  • 1.5 billion have no access to medical care.
  • 3 billion have no access to electricity.
  • 3 billion have no access to sanitation.
  • 4 billion have never heard a telephone dial tone.
  • One billion are illiterate. Unable to read or write even their own names.
  • Hunger kills 30,000 children a day, everyday.

The poorest 40 percent of the world′s population account for only 5 percent of global income.

According to UNICEF, 30,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.

Now consider the other side of the story.

The richest 20 percent of the world′s population account for 75 percent of world income.

Wealth is heavily concentrated in North America, Europe and some countries in the Asia Pacific region, such as Japan and Australia. These countries account for 90 percent of household wealth in the world.

100 of the world′s best selling brands earned more than the combined GDP of 100 of the world′s poorest nations.

The richest 50 million people in Europe and North America have the combined income of 3 billion poor people living in the Third World.

In 1960, 20% of the world′s richest had income 30 times higher than the poorest. By 1980, the gap had widened to 80 times.

It is the innovation gap divides the rich from poor countries.

It′s a divide between countries with the capacity to innovate and those without.

Innovation is the root cause of this divide.

If you like, the world is essentially divided into countries that innovate and progress and those that don′t, and they regress.

The picture is clear as to what happens when countries don′t engage in creative thinking that leads to innovation.

Creative thinking is really about innovation. Innovation in simple terms is about improving quality. It′s about making progress, enabling evolution and transformation as a result of discoveries and inventions that cut through traditional ways of doing things or perceiving things.

It′s not just about wealth creation. More importantly, it′s about societal development and national transformation. It′s about making changes that make every thing better. That is, simply put, the purpose and objective of vision 2020.

Creativity is always about making possible what seems impossible today.

It is always about pushing back boundaries and breaking down barriers.

The computer when it was first commercially introduced in the 50′s, was so bulky, it would take up the entire floor space of this hall.

Today, it is simply referred to as a note book. So light you can lift it with two fingers, so small it can slip into your hand bag, yet it is much faster and with memory storage much larger.

Soon it will be so small you can fold it into your wallet.

Creative people are those who never simply take things as they are handed down or look for the easy way out.

By not doing ordinary things they achieve extra-ordinary success.

Because of what they do, influence the lives of millions across the world.

To be sure, innovation can only take place in places where there is encouragement for creativity and new ideas.

It has to be part of the country′s culture and it must be woven into its educational system, its industrial infrastructure and its political leadership.

It is therefore natural for innovative countries to lead the world. It is also natural for these countries to attract the best talents, the best brains and so the innovation lead continues and the divide deepens between the rich and the poor of this world.

On the other hand, countries that still hold to out-dated and obsolete methods of governance will eventually be "taken over" by these highly competitive countries through economic power play or straightforward domination.

This simply means that countries with the right conditions stand a better chance of moving ahead through creativity and innovation than those countries that do not.

Right conditions therefore are the key to economic transformation. Without the right conditions the most talented and most creative brains will migrate to places where they are able to do their best work.

As an example, since 1990, Africa has been losing 20,000 professionals annually to countries in other continents.

It may be hard to believe this, but there are more African scientists and engineers working in the United States than in the entire African continent.

The brain drain has placed Africa at risk of becoming home to even greater mass poverty. It therefore should not come as a surprise that in the US, one of the world′s most innovative nations, GDP per capita is close to USD50,000 while in the poorest countries in Africa it is less than USD200.

The most advanced nations are also the world′s most creative, most inventive, most innovative. They also are the world′s wealthiest and most powerful.

Without exception, all have well developed creative industries which provide effective on-going R&D support to their industries.

Without exception, all consider creativity and innovation a strategic driver of national competitiveness.

Without exception, all these countries are driven by highly sophisticated innovation.

Without exception, the governments of these countries have built economic and social infrastructures that encourage and promote creativity and innovation.

Without exception, they have created the world′s best-selling products and services.

For us to move forward, pervasive innovative thinking must take hold throughout our society, and right through our Government and management machinery.

As I see it, to make this happen, we need to bring about a major shift in the mindset of our people – starting from children to parents, from teachers to Government leaders, from farmers to corporate leaders.

It may have to start with the redesigning of the Malaysian mind, which has remained largely conservative. Creativity is still perceived as something frivolous by many.

It is even suggested that being creative is not part of the Malaysian culture.

It is said that the Asian tradition of subservience and conformity is incompatible with the culture of creative thinking, which often is about changing and breaking away from conventional thinking.

It is also said that as people who adhere strictly to religious teaching, thinking creatively goes against the grain.

It is said that, as Asians, we have a cultural inclination to blend in and not to stand out.

Now could this be our problem? Let′s all think about it.

First, let′s now think about this.

The Muslim world gave us something we continue to use to this day – soap – because of the religion′s emphasis on hygiene.

Soap was manufactured in the Middle East for centuries before the West knew about it.

Muslims invented algebra and worked out the angle of the tilt of the earth. They built the first windmill, pioneered the concept of the crank rod and designed the first ever torpedo.

Muslim creativity also led to numerous other inventions that are still in use today, hundreds and thousands of years later.

Their pursuit of knowledge led them to build the world′s largest libraries which they simply called "houses of wisdom".

From Egypt came the mysterious Pyramids that until today baffle scientists and engineers – a feat that cannot even be copied today. The Egyptians also built the first dam.

The Chinese invented paper around the year 105.

Gutenberg is officially credited with inventing the printing press in the 1440′s. But the Chinese created a type of printing press long before that – around 200 B.C. By 1000 A.D., the Chinese had introduced books to replace scrolls – a good 450 years ahead of Gutenberg.

When the tsunami hit in 2004, we all learned of its power based on the Richter scale, which was invented in 1935. But in the 132 A.D., the Chinese developed the first earthquake sensor, 600 years ahead of the first western sensor from France.

As you know, the Chinese also invented the suspension bridge, gun powder and the first steam propelled cart hundreds of years before the first steam-propelled engine car was built in the West.

And well before Texas Instruments, China had developed the first calculator, the abacus.

The Indians were weaving cotton and wearing comfortable cotton attires 3,500 years before the West got to know about it. The Indians invented the spinning wheel of course – something the Europeans did not catch up with until the Middle Ages.

The world′s first planned cities were found in India. Every house had its own bathroom and toilet 5,000 years ago!

This list goes on.

The East and the Middle East were centres of ancient inventions; they were leaders of innovative thinking and inventive creativity for a thousand years.

So all these excuses that being Asian make us incapable of creative thinking can only come from people who do not do much thinking.

Whether we like it or not, today, it′s all about the power of creative thinking. Last decade was all about technology.

Advanced economies have move from "knowledge economy" to "creative economy".

The good thing is that creativity has no boundaries, and it respects no borders.

It can come from the slums of Africa, or from the most sophisticated labs in America. It certainly can come from Malaysia.

So what is holding us back? Why are we still talking about it and not doing enough about it?

Going forward, we need our people to think and live outside of the box, people who are prepared to challenge the norm and rearrange the rules if the rules have become stumbling blocks.

We must develop a culture in all our institutions that recognise and celebrate creativity, and promote a culture in our education system that encourages innovative thinking.

Creative thinking is about changing. Innovation is about breaking the norm, and seeking better and more practical solutions and options.

To be better at wealth creation, it stands to reason that we must build an ecosystem that promotes creativity and supports innovation.

Rules and regulations that encourage people to concentrate on not making mistakes will lead to conformity and blind compliance; that stifles creativity and inhibits innovative thinking.

Rules and regulations that attempt to impose a one-size-fits-all structure will hamper the efforts of individuals and institutions to become better.

If we keep doing the same thing over long periods of time, we will be, out of step, out of sync, out of touch and out of the loop with what′s happening around us.

In business, to be sure, innovation must be industry-led and driven. This is because industry knows what the market wants, and how to drive the market to open up new avenues.

But, to be certain, the process of innovative development must also involve the approval systems. Government ministries agencies should work hand-in-hand with the private sector to enable industry to operate at its competitive best. The bureaucracy must become facilitating partners, not just administrators.

Everyone involved must understand the competitive nature of today′s globalised environment, and the speed at which the private sector must move in order to remain in competition.

Everyone should know that if our private sector loses an external battle, it is the country that loses the battle.

Cultivating and training everyone in the systems to think innovatively, to think competitively, I believe will be a challenge we need to overcome.

Events such as this will contribute well to the thinking that must be put in place.

We must now focus on creating a more vibrant and productive innovation system that will pull together all our resources, our cultural diversity and creativity.

We must now build for our nation a big passion for innovation.

We must now make the effort to become a truly innovative nation.

Now is the time to push forward, and time is not really on our side.

Unless we get really serious about cultivating creativity and promoting innovation, the trans-formation to a creativity-driven economy will not readily happen. And unless that transformation happens, our drive towards a fully-developed nation will not happen.

I shall leave you now with that to ponder.

Once again, I thank you for the opportunity to share with you some of my thoughts on creativity and the role it plays, and wish you all the best in all that you do.