Bracing for the ‘new normal’ when 4IR kicks in


WE’RE on the verge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), where we will be embracing a range of new technologies that combine physical, digital and biological worlds.
Computer vision, deep learning, quantum computing, precision farming, self-driving cars and gene editing. These fascinating technologies will become the “new normal” in the near future.

This revolution brings mind-blowing possibilities, new solutions to global challenges, and employment opportunities for jobs that have yet existed. At the same time, it comes with the peril of unemployment for jobs and skills that will be obsolete.

Speaking to The Petri Dish at his Office in Petaling Jaya recently, Prof Mahendhiran Nair, Vice President (Research and Development) of Monash University Malaysia says workplaces and organisations are becoming “smarter” and more efficient while repetitive jobs will be replaced by intelligent systems.

He also said that retail and trade, banking, transportation, agriculture, accommodation and food services as well as production and manufacturing industries and all sectors will be transformed by this new revolution.”

He said: “In the new revolution, economies will be driven by data, ideas, and innovation and will be enabled by cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things, and the Internet of Systems and no longer will depend on land, labour and capital.”

According to Mahendhiran, to adapt to the changing global economic landscape, a dynamic national innovation ecosystem must have the “7I” elements:

1. Infrastructure – transportation, eco-friendly building, and physical facilities that are essential for an innovation-driven economy
2. Infostructure to connect with the global community
3. Intellectual capital development– continuous knowledge creation and knowledge transfer
4. Interaction – developing smart partnerships and linkages that create value to organisation and others in the ecosystem
5. Incentives – both fiscal and non-fiscal incentives that foster creative endeavours and
6. Integrity – good governance in managing resources for the benefit of all stakeholders in the economy
7. Institutionalisations that promote a knowledge culture and adherence to global best practicesthat leads to Internationalisation and building global brands

According to him: “Countries and organisations with highly developed blueprints of the national innovation ecosystem are able to adjust to the exponential changes in the global economy. In fact, some of them are becoming global pacesetters and initiating changes to every facet of our life.

He said for countries or corporations that are at an infancy state, they must be able to learn from the pacesetters, integrate and innovate by possessing three dynamic capabilities:

1. Adsorptive capability
2. Adaptive capability
3. Innovative capability

He said Malaysia is now at the integration phase, where major of firms are highly adsorptive starting to adapt new technology for addressing local problems and challenges. Some are leaders in certain sectors such as islamic banking, plantation management, palm oil and a number of other service sectors.

“While we are evolving, we have to move fast to be on the higher end of the value chain and be highly innovative.” said Mahendhiran. However, he said Malaysia needs to improve on the 7Is to achieve that.

He also noted that current budget for R&D in the country (GERD) — 1.44 per cent of GDP is relatively low. He said the ideal budget for R&D per GDP must be between 2- 2.5 per cent.
In a developed country, the funding from the government and corporate sector are almost equal.

“Whereas in Malaysia, our funding mostly come from the government.

“The corporate sector must invest heavily in research and utilise the R&D facilities available in universities and government research institute to become more competitive,” said Mahendhiran.

He also said there must be a balance between fundamental research and translational research.

“The research universities should focus a lot on fundamental research because it lays a good foundation for major innovations and applications that will contribute to nation building.

“Government research institutes must do a lot more translational research that are relevant to the economy and should be working closely with research universities to leverage on each other’s strength to boost economic growth.”

He also said when it comes to research and development, it is important to connect to the communities and find solutions that improve their quality of life.

“When you connect to the communities, commercialisation will happen naturally,” he noted.


In 2016, Monash Malaysia R&D Sdn Bhd (MMR&D) was established to encourage industries in Malaysia to invest in R&D activities undertaken by researchers at Monash University Malaysia.

Mahendhiran, who is also the Chief Executive Officer of MMR&D said: “The strategic research partnerships will enable researchers at Monash University Malaysia to work on research projects that will lead to the discovery of new solutions for industry and other external stakeholders.

“These new discoveries and innovations are envisaged to assist industry in Malaysia and the region to enhance their competitiveness and move up the global innovation value chain.

MMR&D has access to close to 700 researchers, state-of-the-art research facilities and support services at Monash University Malaysia.

“Our ‘explorers’ who are pushing the boundaries of the technology and knowledge frontiers, will provide you with the best solutions to enable your organisation to achieve sustainable development and enhance their competitiveness in an increasingly knowledge-intensive and globally inter-networked world,” said Mahendhiran.

He also said university-industry collaboration is vital enhancing the national innovation ecosystems, and enabling Malaysia and countries in the region to “leap-frog” to a higher stage of socioeconomic development.

Universities – The Key Driver

While retaining the core mission of educating the next generation, Mahendhiran said it is vital that universities, too, need to transform themselves by embracing their ever-expanding role in driving innovation and catalysing economic development.
“In many developed countries, universities are the key driver of development. These universities drive innovation by partnering with industry and other stakeholders in the country.

“Universities are not only provisioners of talent for the workforce but are at the forefront of solving problems for industry and the community – they set the tone for sustainable development of nations and the global community.

“The academics are not just teachers, but creators of new knowledge,” he added.

“They have to be explorers themselves to inspire, nurture, upskill, and prepare graduates to meet sophisticated workforce needs and address some of the global challenges.

“It is important that they push the students to think beyond the realm of what is out there and expose them to the new cutting edge knowledge that enable them to solve problems and create new systems to improve socioeconomic well-being of people globally,” said Mahendhiran.

But being prepared for the future is about more than just technical know-how. Mahendhiran said creative workers must acquire these 10 skills:

1. Critical thinking – to challenge the norm of doing things, and work
under constraints that lead to more efficient solutions
2. ICT literacy – not only to use ICT systems but also analyse the strengths and weaknesses of existing systems
3. Good Technical skills – to operate across multiple systems and diverse industrial sectors
4. Communication skills – to articulate creative ideas clearly and persuasively
5. Sound multidisciplinary skillset – to have depth within a discipline and also breadth of knowledge in other disciplines
6. Learnability – ability to troubleshoot and pick up new skills quickly
7. Strong power of association – understand problems at microlevel and translate into
macro-level and vice versa
8. Opportunities for experimentation – try different things and troubleshoot current practices
9. Fostering problem – solving and observation skills – ability to learn from those around us and nature
10. Leadership skills – acquire the skills to be a dynamic leader who can push the frontier of knowledge and development

Multi-disciplinary Research Platforms

Mahendhiran said Monash University Malaysia has multi-disciplinary research platforms in six key areas – each is strategic to the development of the country and the region.
These platforms include the Tropical Medicine and Biology (TMB), Advanced Engineering (AEP), Global Asia in the 21st Century (GA21), Brain Research Institute Monash Sunway (BRIMS), Monash Industry Palm Oil Education and Research (MIPO), and a multi-disciplinary health and demographic surveillance site, the South East Asian Community Observatory (SEACO).

“We continuously refine the platforms to ensure each is aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and contributed to the strategic development of Malaysia and regional economies.

The platforms work on the UN’s 17 development goals, tackling issues related to inclusive economic development in the region, while ensuring policies and strategies implemented contribute to the development of a just, environmental-friendly and economically sustainable society.

“We work with industries on a number of areas in all the six platforms. These include industries in the life science areas, engineering and manufacturing, pharmaceutical companies and individuals in community organisations, among others,” he said.