How Malaysia’s social security fund modernised itself

Malaysia’s Social Security Organisation chief strategy and transformation officer Edmund Cheong chose open source systems to modernise its IT infrastructure.

edmund cheong SOCSO 2020

For more than 30 years, Cobol was the de facto standard for programming in enterprise computing—and for good reason: It was designed specifically to do data and transaction processing, which meant that it was optimised for use in finance, administrative, and general business to accomplish some level of workflow automation.

But while Cobol undoubtedly served its purpose for decades, it also presented Edmund Cheong, the chief strategy and transformation officer at Malaysia’s Social Security Organisation (SocSO), a Catch-22 situation: “You don’t find Cobol programmers on the street these days,” he says. “Yet you can’t not modernise in today’s world. But to do so, you need more Cobol programmers.”

SocSO was formed in 1971 and, like many other national social security funds, its mandate is to protect the interest of employees and their dependents in the event of job loss or inability to work. The organisation has 3,400 employees, of which 113 work in the IT department.

Cheong says SocSO had always depended on automation and had been using Cobol to automate many of its processes since its early days. But as technology progressed, Cobol had begun to lose its edge as it was difficult to innovate and add new features to legacy systems with it. As years passed and with newer, modern programming languages coming to the fore, the number of programmers proficient in Cobol also became few and far between.

As a result, SocSO began shunning IT infrastructure development in favour of introducing manual forms and processes to cope with changes—all because it was just too difficult to update legacy IT systems. Cheong recalls that just about 10 years ago, SocSO was still employing data entry clerks to manually enter data from forms submitted by members. “It was quite a loud and scary place to come to as many typewriters were going off in the office,” Cheong quips.

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