Malaysia is centrally located within Southeast Asia, and is striving to make a name for itself and gain attention as an emerging economic and technological power. The assets Malaysia has at its disposal to achieve this goal include an affordable and talented labor force, an impressive multiculturalism, and a supportive government.
With the economic progress Malaysia has made to date, it can be easy to overlook that the country is still in the early stages of developing its startup ecosystem. As Wan Imran, founder of Paper + Toast, the first co-working space in Malaysia, explained, Malaysia’s working population is transitioning from an older post-war generation to a younger millennial generation. The older generation in Malaysia lived through the final days of British rule and a Japanese invasion leading up to Malaysia’s independence in 1957, and emerged from these experiences with a hardened post-war mentality focused on personal and familial security. Many from this post-war generation had large families–the total fertility rate in Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s hovered around 6 children per woman as opposed to the current rate of 2 children per woman–and were primarily concerned with providing for their families.
This generation was and is incredibly hardworking, as memories of the hardships of pre-independence were constant reminders and motivators pushing them to create a better life for their children. Given the emphasis placed on security and stability, the post-war generation did not feel they could or should afford to take on real professional risk, and consequently very few pursued entrepreneurial careers.
This attitude has changed as a new, younger generation of millennial Malaysians has grown up surrounded by stability and opportunity (thanks in large part to the successful efforts of their parents). The new generation is ambitious and has a higher risk tolerance than its predecessor. However, generally speaking, its members do not have the same hustle-mentality or tenacity, a trend emerging just as much in Western countries as in Eastern countries. The attitudinal shift has had meaningful implications for young Malaysian entrepreneurs, as they, however ambitious, oftentimes do not have a material purpose or motivation driving them.
Adding to this dynamic is the willingness of the government to provide support and grants to local entrepreneurs, which propagates a reliance on the government to drive startup growth. Indeed, a unique aspect of how Malaysia’s startup ecosystem operates is the heavy involvement of the government in supporting entrepreneurship and local startup development, and the corresponding dependence of entrepreneurs on government support. For young Malaysian entrepreneurs to build successful startup companies and shake up the local economy, they must embody not only the ambition and risk-taking of their peers, but also the mettle of their parents’ generation.