Although social innovation examples often come from developing countries, for instance, Muhammad Yunus on microcredit and Akhtar Hameed Khan on Orangi Pilot Project, much of academic literature tend to be westernised. While considerable attention has been devoted to the meaning of social innovation in the United States and Europe, this raises the question of how social innovation is understood in developing countries. Drawing upon an example of Malaysia, a developing country, an empirical phase involving 18 practitioners of social innovation has been conducted. The findings present an empirically informed conceptual framework, which shows that the usage of social innovation focuses on the socio-economic wellbeing.

In recent years, developing countries such as India, China, and even Malaysia have shown a growing interest in social innovation, which serves as a way to combat social problems as varied as literacy, mentally disable and drug use (Tucker, 2014). By way of example, Malaysia has recently begun to move away from social protectionism and instead moved towards social innovation that seizes the strength of public, private and social sector partnerships (Eleventh Malaysia Plan, 2015). The former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Tun Razak, emphasised the importance of social innovation and described the most effective ways to encourage social innovation, as follows:

“When we say innovation, many will see it as innovating products or for commercialisation. But social innovation directly affects the people. It is important to firstly, explore social innovation through experiments and secondly, widen channels and accessibility for the people to state their wants and expectations of government services” (Arukesamy, 2014).

In particular, it appears that the development of social innovation in Malaysia is subsequent to the United States White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation and European Commission Initiatives through Horizon 2020, in 2009 and 2010 respectively. The Malaysian move is also supported by some recent major programmes that have carried out social innovation over the last five years there (see Table 4.1).

Year Major programme/ activities
2012 Social Innovation Lab
2013 Global Social Business Summit was held for the first time outside Europe in Malaysia
2014 Malaysian Global Innovation & Creativity Centre (MAGIC) was established
2015 Social Innovation was incorporated into the Eleventh Malaysia Plan (2016-2020)
Table 4.1: Some recent major social Innovation programmes in Malaysia

A strong tie existed between Malaysia and United States during Najib Tun Razak’s tenure (Mukhtaruddin, 2016). It was at a peak when President Obama visited Malaysia to form strategic relations, five decades after Lyndon Johnson had paid a visit in 1966 (Alagappa, 2014). Subsequent to the Global Social Business Summit, which was held for the first time outside Europe, Najib announced the establishment of Malaysian Global Innovation and Creativity Centre (MaGIC) to spearhead the development of entrepreneurs, which was then launched by President Obama (Goh, 2014). This significantly shaped the bilateral relations between the two countries. Since then, government agencies have engaged in social innovation, as can be seen in public funding allocation and policy enthusiasm in the recent Eleventh Malaysia Plan (2016-2020) (Economic Planning Unit, 2015). There is a possibility that social innovation discourse is being shaped by government institutions.

The interview findings have been presented thematically in this chapter. A new conceptual model is presented in figure 1, below, based on the empirical results. The figure suggests that social innovation is being used by policy makers to nudge citizens into developing their own responses to social problems. A strong government role is seen in enabling social innovation, which is being generated by and for citizens to fulfil a wide range of socio-economic welfare needs.

Figure 1: Social innovation pathway in Malaysia

Social innovation in Malaysia contains a new form of social relations that sees public, private and third sector organisations as well as individuals collaborate together, so that unique roles are provided in delivering programmes. Here, different actors work collectively, taking shared responsibility for advancing social change. This relationship allows support in many forms of services and resources, such as expertise, knowledge, finances, and technology.

These new forms of social relations were presented by the participants as facilitating innovation. The innovation concept refers to the new ideas or solutions which emerge that are closely aligned to gradual or incremental improvements rather than invention. The ‘innovation’ involved relates to the newness of these ideas or the newness of the collaborative form of social relations in the generation, selection and implementation of new ideas in Malaysia. This innovation then leads to a positive societal impact through an increase in aggregate individual utility.
Social innovation in Malaysia involves three plausible routes. First, new forms of social relations lead to innovation; second, innovation leads to utilitarian social value; and third, new forms of social relations lead to innovation, which creates utilitarian social value (and thus societal impact) (see Figure 1). Therefore, the participants’ conceptions of social innovation were consistent with previous academic discourses, particularly the weak tradition (see Ayob et al., 2016; Pol & Ville 2009; Phills et al., 2008 and Mulgan, 2006, 2007).

While they talked about involving different groups in the innovation process, the end goal was to make them (or their society / economy / service users) better off rather than to reshape society through reframing its power relations. The findings also suggest that practitioners in Malaysia use the term social innovation partly as a way of attracting resources (usually from the government). The ways in which they use the term are consistent with international understandings of the concept. For that reason, it is evident that social innovation in Malaysia is broadly understood in ways that are consistent with Western understanding. It is a western concept that has been brought into Malaysia. The interviewees interpreted social innovation in ways that are consistent with their own personal and organisational practises.