The Covid-19 pandemic which destroyed economies and livelihoods across the globe has had an unexpected silver lining for Malaysians, accelerating the digital transformation of even the most unlikely of candidates.
What experts predicted would take five years has taken less than a year as the stress of pandemic job-losses has forced ordinary people to grasp internet selling with both hands on their keyboards.
From uncles and aunties in their 70s hosting Zoom conferences, to nasi lemak hawkers taking orders on WhatsApp, Malaysians are showing a surprising new-found agility in transforming into a tech-savvy bunch.
A study by Facebook reports that Malaysia has the highest number of digital consumers in Southeast Asia. Digital Malaysians aged 15 and above make up a staggering 83% of the population.
What experts predicted would take five years has taken less than a year.
Technology guru Lilyana Latiff, however, contests the five-year estimate. “I think what was expected to take more like 15 years in Malaysia has actually taken six months because of the pandemic,” the CEO of Beta Foundation tells MalaysiaNow.
Lilyana, who has spent 23 years in high tech, clearly remembers the high hopes of Malaysia’s Mahathir-led administration in the late 90s which led to the creation of the Multimedia Super Corridor, which turned out to be a corridor to nowhere for millions of ordinary citizens.
She began as an entrepreneur trying to promote e-learning in the early 2000s, so she understands well the Malaysian sluggishness to embrace technology.
However, the 2020 global coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdowns have changed the nation’s relationship with tech in just six months, from indifference to complete dependence.
“It wasn’t until Facebook landed in Malaysia in 2007 that people started to realise how much they could do with online consumer technology,” she says.
“They started selling baby clothes and such to each other, and that’s when you saw bank clerks and hospital nurses beginning to have secondary incomes.”
Traditional Malaysian businesses are now having to rethink after their leisurely approach to adapting their brick-and-mortar operations to digital storefronts left them lagging behind the uncle and auntie entrepreneurs.
“Malaysians of all ages are realising that selling on Facebook or Instagram is cheap and we don’t need to pay for payment gateways or form a company. All we need is a bank account.”
As people lost their jobs or had their salaries cut, many were quick to realise that online platforms are their big business opportunities. Social media is allowing enterprising Malaysians to bypass the need to build a website to market their goods.
In 2015, online marketplace Lazada opened its office in Malaysia as a testbed, thanks to the country’s 30 million-plus educated and diverse multilingual population.
Lazada’s rapid success inspired others such as FashionValet and Shopee to follow suit, Lilyana says.
“This year, these companies have found their fortunes boosted by the pandemic which has shuttered malls, hypermarkets and boutiques across the region.”
Social media is allowing enterprising Malaysians to bypass the need to build a website to market their goods.
However, Lilyana points out that the most dramatic change is that of Malaysian micro-enterprises: traders and sellers who originally built and plied their modest businesses on the busy streets of Malaysian cities – the rendang seller, the makcik selling kuih, the father and son hawking lauk off the back of their pickup.
These Malaysians, says Lilyana, are the ones who were least expected to take advantage of the power of social media, but the pandemic has inspired them to confound expert expectations, with a little help from their grandchildren.
“What we saw between 2015 and 2019 was Malaysians growing more comfortable with buying online,” Lilyana explains. “But what we are seeing in 2020 because of the pandemic is Malaysians selling online.”
Competing delivery services such as Grab, Foodpanda and Lalamove are helping these new e-sellers enormously at a time when consumers are not allowed to or don’t want to step out of their houses to go to the shops.
This shift to e-selling is being encouraged by the government’s second Penjana programme thrust, designed to provide financial support for small and emerging businesses.
Highlights of Penjana include a provision for eligible micro-enterprises to evolve into e-commerce by providing subsidies and incentives.
Is this explosion of digital micro-enterprises expected to last beyond the pandemic?
“Oh, yes,” Lilyana tells MalaysiaNow. “Once e-sellers get a taste of how easy it is, they aren’t in any hurry to stop. Especially those who are doing it to survive.”