In his 2012 Budget Speech, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib designated next year as National Innovation Year and allocated RM100 million for several strategic initiatives. This announcement raises one underlying issue – does Malaysia offer a nurturing environment for innovators? An examination of Steve Job’s life highlights several factors that contributed to his innovative successes but militate against nurturing a Malaysian wannabe.

First are laidback parents. Obsessed with ensuring their children’s education, many Malaysian parents are unlikely to allow their offspring to drop out of university or to study arcane subjects. In 1972, Jobs enrolled in Reed College in Portland, Oregon but left after one semester because he didn’t see the value of depleting the savings of his adoptive working-class parents on tuition fees. However, the biological son of a Syrian father and an American mother continued attending classes that interested him, including one in calligraphy. “If I had never dropped in on that single [calligraphy] course in college, the [Macintosh] would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionately spaced fonts,” Jobs told an interviewer.

Second is Malaysia’s corporate set-up. Would a college dropout habitually garbed in faded blue jeans and sneakers like Jobs be considered a “fit and proper” person to become a CEO of a public listed company? Even in the US, Jobs’ unconventional behaviour contributed to setbacks in his career. Partly because new computer models like Lisa failed and early Macintosh sales were disappointing, Apple directors stripped Jobs of his operational role. Jobs offered another reason for his ouster. “I don’t wear the right kind of pants to run this company,” Jobs told some Apple employees before leaving in 1985 the company he had co-founded with Steven Wozniak. Eleven years later, failure to develop the next-generation operating systems prompted Apple’s then CEO Gilbert Amelio to acquire Job’s NeXT for US$430 million (RM1.36 billion) and to invite the latter to return as an adviser. In July 1997, Jobs organised a board coup that ousted Amelio. He was later named Apple’s interim CEO, prompting jokes that Jobs was the iCEO. Could such a sequence of events happen in Malaysia?

Third is Malaysian society which venerates both success and conformism. Getting fired from Apple, however, inspired Jobs’ subsequent burst of innovation. “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life,” Jobs said in his commencement speech to Stanford University in 2005. In 1986, Jobs bought Pixar, a computer graphics studio, for US$10 million (RM31.7 million). Successful computer-animated films like Toy Story and A Bug’s Life enabled Pixar to be sold to Disney for US$7.4 billion (RM23.5 billion) in stock in a deal that made Jobs a billionaire. On his return to Apple, Jobs rolled out a string of innovative products – iMac, iPod, iPhone and iPad – that were mega successes as well as game changers in the personal computers, music and mobile telecommunications industries.

In Malaysia, whenever an individual espouses an unconventional view of an historical event, expresses a different opinion on the role of the monarchy or composes a song that adopts a satirical attitude towards the national anthem, many are quick to suggest the individual should be charged for criminal defamation, prosecuted for sedition or stripped of his citizenship. But innovators like Steve Jobs are rebels, not conformists. In an interview, Jobs singled out taking a drug like LSD as one of the most important things he had done in his life. When Jobs assembled a group of young, talented engineers in his Macintosh team, he called them “pirates” while the rest of the company was nicknamed “the Navy”. Jobs realised only those who dare to defy societal norms and break perceptions of what is do-able will be truly innovative.

In his Stanford commencement address, Jobs said a 1960s counterculture book titled The Whole Earth Catalog which deeply influenced him as a young man ends with this phrase “Stay hungry, stay foolish”. “I have always wished that for myself,” he added. Would parents, corporate chieftains and political leaders in this country allow such individuals to flourish? An environment that cherishes its non-conformists – rather than government support and the millions of dollars in funding – is the key to ensuring Malaysia will one day produce its own Steven Jobs.

Posted in the Malaysian daily The Sun 17 October 2011  by Tan Siok Choo