“A retreat to Nasi Lemak” is defined as an economic phenomenon which see someone lose their job and in response “retreats” to making nasi lemak in the interim, as a way to generate income.  Another aspect in this phenomenon, sees another individual lose their job and instead of dining out at a restaurant near the office picks up cheaper nasi lemak near the house.  The velocity of money still continues just a lower level and within the cultural tapestry that is nasi lemak.

This snapshot of the grey economy keeps many people from falling below the poverty line, but it is hard to measure its full contribution to gross domestic product (GDP).  Of late there have been too many stories of highly skilled professionals in this position; while heart-warming it is not the best return on investment for those trained to operate in the global knowledge economy.  And from the government’s perspective it is increasingly difficult to monitor or generate revenue from these activities.

There are three parallel policy opportunities emerging to address this and to ensure the implementation of a sustainable future.  Namely, integrating the informal economy into the formal sector in a meaningful way, gearing up high value individuals to participate in the global gig economy, and attracting more foreign direct investment onshore.

Recent years have seen the digitisation of certain services, in particular ride sharing, which is effective digitisation that has led to a corresponding revenue model for the government. This improves domestic business conditions but does not expand the economic pie with new money into the system and still represents a low value activity for highly qualified labour.

What about the global gig economy?  Malaysia has a long history of achieving results in this field, the business process outsourcing (BPO) has seen billions flow into the country; in the context of the global gig economy it just needs to be done in a more granular way to benefit those now available in the knowledge worker pool.  More importantly this will lead to foreign cash flowing directly to those experts.

The International Data Corporation (IDC) forecasted that BPO will deliver some USD1.4 billion or RM5.8 billion in direct revenue in 2021 to the country.  This on the back of mature telecommunications infrastructure and affordable high-speed internet services.  Professionals in the sector routinely deal with high levels of e-commerce, big data analytics, internet of things and smart technologies.  The skills are there, the infrastructure is there; the question is can individual Malaysians turn around being one of the most interconnected social media nations into a marketplace for direct high-value services in the global gig economy?

The investment pathway is by far the most desired on many levels, it expands the economic base and addresses an identified gap.  The post-COVID-19 recovery will need to focus on investment opportunities in critical global supply chains to create a comparative advantage to regional competitors.

As MCO 3.0 enters a second stanza, the answer lies at the convergence of “the fierce urgency of now” and the “law of the vital few”. Starting with dusting off the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule, which dictates that 80 per cent of production comes from 20 per cent of the population.  Coupled with words of Martin Luther King Jr., “In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

During any crisis there is always opportunity. To grasp that opportunity, it will take a strategic shift in thinking, a succinct recovery plan and rapid action by all.

Moving towards a sustainable future, the only time we should be talking about nasi lemak should be at a lunch break in international food security conference as we share it with delegates from across the world as a cultural export.  After all, the diversity of products used in nasi lemak is quite extensive with a value chain potentially involving hundreds of suppliers. A conversation for another day, post-COVID-19.

Nordin Abdullah
Founding Chairman
Malaysia Global Business Forum

Comments on this subject were also featured in the following media:

Proper time to talk about nasi lemak – The Star

A Retreat to Nasi Lemak – Free Malaysia Today

Work beyond that “retreat to nasi lemak” to push the economy, Malaysians told – The Mole

A Retreat to Nasi Lemak – Asia News Today

A Retreat to Nasi Lemak – News Hub Asia

A Retreat to Nasi Lemak – Glenreagh



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