Leap of Faith: From The Big Apple to Cyberjaya

It was the early autumn of 2018, and the S&P 500 had just lost 6.9% in its biggest one-month slide in seven years. The New York Times splashed a cover picture of migrants to the US trapped by Trump’s immigration policies. A lot was happening… 

Malaysia-born Surina Shukri finished her tenure as head of Strategy Commercial Banking at JPMorgan Chase & Co earlier that year, and was strolling back to her apartment after a long walk in Central Park. New York had been her home for 18 years, and she was at the epicentre of the global business universe. 

At 10am sharp the phone rang. It was the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office on the line. The call lasted 6 mins 11 seconds. At the end of it, she was asked to write a vision paper – what she would do with MDEC if she were to helm it. And she had 36 hours to complete it.

Surina cancelled all appointments and started working immediately. She wrapped up the paper before midnight the next day, and hit Send to the PM’s Office. And that was it.

She worried about uprooting herself and her entire family back to Malaysia, but she thought to herself – this was National Service. Two months later, she was asked to return to KL for interviews.

The rest is the story of one woman who broke the glass ceiling in a 30-month career that spanned two Prime Ministers and a global pandemic while firmly focussing on the nation’s Digital Agenda….

Image courtesy of Tatler Malaysia

Surina Shukri powers Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) by leading from the front.

Having been a breast cancer survivor, her resilient never-say-die attitude was just what was needed at a time when the Pakatan Harapan government had won power and was finding its footing.

Surina is a woman of many talents and being enterprising is topon the list.

She is an angel investor, as part of the 37 Angels network, where she helps screen and invest into startups via SheNovation Ventures, a NY-based company she founded that focuses on the blockchain sector.

“I was investing in companies, learning as much as I could particularly about crypto and blockchain before I got the call to come back and serve the country.”

“I recognize that people like me, don’t usually work for the government. So me being in MDEC changes the status quo.”

… Her task was clear: to build Malaysia’s digital economy on three strategic pillars – digitally skilled Malaysians, digitally powered businesses and digital investments…

Top 50

Six months ago, for her efforts in spearheading the #DigitalvsCovid campaign, Surina was named the World’s 50 Most Influential People Revolutionising Governance in the Agile 50 list.

The list is a joint initiative by Apolitical and the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Agile Governance and was created from over 300 nominations from governments, international organisations, NGOs and companies across the globe.

Since we got word that Surina may be leaving MDEC, we thought this story would be timely….

It began on January 16, 2019…

Her first day at work was also a massive townhall with all staff from the get-go.

And she continues to show people what the art of the possible actually is.

Her task was clear: to build Malaysia’s digital economy on three strategic pillars – digitally skilled Malaysians, digitally powered businesses and digital investments.

Just three weeks into her job, Surina (a seasoned investment banker) hit the ground with an investment mission for Data Centre investments with the likes of Microsoft, Google, Amazon.

“2021 is the year of execution which can coalesce expertise from business and government to drive regulatory reform that triggers innovation and rekindles economic growth,”

“For the first seven months, I lived away from my husband and kids, out of a suitcase, working 16-hour days seven days a week to help build a robust digital economy for Malaysia.”

Once, on a long-haul flight, she was restless and penned her thoughts into a PowerPoint video that was eventually finished up as a corporate video. Here’s the original video she edited and wrote herself. Click here.

Last year, 45 MSC-status projects were approved with investments totaling almost RM4 billion and 3,800 jobs.

This year, Juwai IQI, a China digital real estate and media company chose to build their 1,000-person technology and data team in Kuala Lumpur.

“2021 is the year of execution which can coalesce expertise from business and government to drive regulatory reform that triggers innovation and rekindles economic growth,” she declares.

Doing the right thing

Resolve: Surina has always fought for her place in the sun. In secondary school she wrote a letter to her principal who decided to replace her on the debate team with another schoolmate.

She got her way in the end.

“In 2020, we helped facilitate USD140million of Series A and above funding for startups.”

On Talent, Training, Tenacity….

People and the economy are our priority. Digital jobs and skills will continue to take centrestage.

Our recent analysis among various job search sites, namely LinkedIn, Jobstreet, Monster, Indeed and Jobstore, show an increasing demand for digital jobs and a total of 47,000 tech-related jobs were advertised in all five portals up to February 2021.

Do not forget that “digital talents” also refer to skills like problem-solving, communication and emotional intelligence.

It is not limited to just technical expertise.

Also constantly ask yourself, “What superpowers do I possess?”

It is time to acknowledge your awesomeness and let others know about it.

We learned that businesses are now asking “how” to go digital, instead of “why”.

Reflections pre-MDEC

“I paused for a moment to think why 2018 – the year I left JPMorgan Chase – was a pivotal year for me.

It forced me to be comfortable with the uncomfortable, with disruption and with uncertainty.

Not only did I find answers to the questions I sought out, I also feel like I am living my best life.

I am proud to say I am a Woman In Progress and will always be.”

On Power Structures….

I’m at peace with what I’m doing and who I am.

Our issues have always been in execution.

There’s always a risk in taking up government positions given the shifting sands in the political landscape and many things beyond my control.

I don’t wish to get into the technocrats vs bureaucrats vs politicians debate, as my mandate from Day One has been very clear: to serve the industry and the people.

I am grateful I have a very supportive independent Board of Directors.

While our primary focus is on capacity and capability building, which we shoulder quite a bit as a government developmental agency, it’s like a spartan race.

So our sustainability mechanism is to inspire the private sector to keep the momentum going. Partnerships with big digital companies like Mastercard, Visa, Australia Trade help us scale up.

I have always seen the democratization of digital through a national lens…. as a right of every Malaysian.

We believe in building an inclusive society that’s integrated with technology. Human-centric….similar to what Japan has. Society 5.0.

We call it Malaysia 5.0.

If one were to highlight Surina’s achievements at MDEC, it’ll probably stretch a few pages, so here are some highlights over the last 12 months.

  • Engaged more than 1 million people, provided training to ~120K Malaysians, Helped upskill more than 5K people, trained 10K digital freelancers and provided free digital courses via #LetsLearnDigital campaign, launched MyDigitalWorkForce Work In Tech (MYWiT) as an extension of the #MyDigitalWorkforce Movement to re-skill and up-skill Malaysians in line with the government’s Malaysia Digital Economy Blueprint which aims to create 500,000 jobs by 2025.
  • Steered MDEC’s delivery of government’s Penjana economic stimulus programs which benefited 210K MSME in ecommerce and catalyzed RM 1.87 billion in sales for Malaysian businesses
  • Launched 100 Go Digital, designed to fast track SME digital adoption
  • Drove Digital thought leadership through #SayaDigitalMonth – national conferences including SME Digital Summit, MyDigitalWorkforce, Gig & Freelancer Summit and Young Creators Summit with 1.5mm reach
  • Won bid for Malaysia to host RISE in 2022-2025, the largest technology conference in Asia
  • Drew visibility to the best of Malaysia’s tech ecosystem through #MalaysiaTechMonth umbrella campaign uniting disparate tech industry events and engagements
  • Galvanized digital as a national agenda with Digital Economy Task Force as precursor for National Digital Economy & 4IR Council chaired by Prime Minister

What’s on the horizon for you?

The lessons I learned from being in government are that it’s a lot more complex than we think, we need more people who understand execution and run programmes like a business.

When the time comes for me to go, the saddest part will be in leaving the senior team I built who joined MDEC for its mission and the chance to serve the country.

At the end of the day, Malaysia’s digital future lies in the hands of her people.

No official announcement has been made as yet on the tenure of Surina’s contract.

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