If you are asked to imagine the Antarctic, you might picture thick layers of ice sheets.
Antarctica is in fact a desert; the coldest, windiest, driest and most isolated continent, with the South Pole located 10,500 km from Malaysia.
It is these highly reflective surfaces of ice sheets that play a large role in regulating global climate by reflecting 80 per cent of incoming solar radiation back to space.
Global warming that resulted in the rise of Earth’s temperature would melt these ice sheets.
This melting in turn indicates climatic changes taking place and is expected to escalate, eventually arriving at our shores when the seasonal droughts and floods are exacerbated.
Malaysia is one of the 195 countries that have adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal through the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
This is an ambitious endeavour and only achievable by leveraging on scientific networks and through science diplomacy.
This brings us to an international function I attended last week – the prestigious 34th Scientific Committee on Antarctica Research (SCAR) Biennial Meetings including the 2016 Open Science Conference.
Being a relatively new player in Antarctic research, Malaysia is honored to have hosted close to 1,000 delegates that flew in from a whopping 43 countries, attracting leading Antarctic researchers and policy makers across the globe to exchange knowledge and insights.
Our scientists took this unique opportunity to showcase their work and put Malaysia on the scientific world map.
Malaysia’s journey in Antarctic research dated back to 1983. That year, during the United Nations General Assembly, together with Antigua, we tabled the “Question of Antarctica” which advocated the need of making Antarctic continent as a common heritage for humankind.
Interestingly, this petition was submitted at a time where scientific explorations were not common, and you may wonder about the relevance of Antarctic to Malaysia.
To understand why we conduct Antarctic-related research, we need to know a little more about the science bit.
As a consequence of climate change, the melting of Antarctic ice would also disrupt global ocean circulation, subsequently interfering the channeling of nutrient-rich cold “deep” water from the Antarctic to the tropics.
Excessive freshwater from the melting ice would make the ocean more acidic and cause a rise in sea levels.
Regions with substantial coastal populations in Malaysia would be impacted, especially the fishing and farming activities.
The icy landscape of Antarctica may seem distant but scientific research in this continent could yield significant insights on changes relevant to the entire Earth.
It is more than thick layers of ice sheets. “An archive of living things” as it is often described as, the ice and sediment records hold clues to the Earth’s history, and its living organisms hold genetic secrets to surviving in extreme conditions.
Recognising the importance of understanding the environmental impact and biodiversity of Antarctica, the government approved the setting up of the Malaysian Antarctic research prorgamme in 1997.
A taskforce under the Academy of Sciences Malaysia was established to coordinate Malaysia’s research activities in the Antarctic.
Within two years, the first Malaysian scientific expedition was organised for four scientists to visit Scott Base under New Zealand Antarctic Programme, followed by the establishment of the National Antarctic Research Center in 2002.
The research programme had since then successfully coordinated more than 60 Antarctic expeditions, collaborating with strategic counterparts from Argentina, Australia, Chile, Ecuador, India, South Korea, South Africa, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
We produced various polar scientists with expertise in polar terrestrial and marine microbiology, geographic information system, meteorology and Antarctic policy.
MOSTI had been supportive by dedicating about RM25 million for Antarctic research since the Eighth Malaysia Plan in 2001.
Acknowledging that Malaysia had an active research programme and a friendly network with other national programmes, we were invited as “observer” in the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in 2002. In 2011, Malaysia finally acceded to the Antarctic Treaty System as a non-consultative party.
To sustain Malaysia’s presence in Antarctica, Sultan Mizan Antarctic Research Foundation or the Yayasan Penyelidikan Antartika Sultan Mizan (YPASM) was established under the patronage of His Royal Highness the Sultan of Terengganu, Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin.
The foundation had since then provided various supports to the Malaysian Antarctic Research Programme in the forms of research grants, fellowships, and facilitating with the complex logistical arrangements for the expeditions.
YPASAM is under the purview of MOSTI and to further pursue Malaysia’s stance and direction in Antarctic research, governance and conservation, we have taken a leading role in providing the policy framework including the preparation of Antarctic Act and Polar Roadmap.
During my opening address at the conference, I announced Malaysia’s accession to the Madrid Protocol, signifying the country’s commitment to the protection of Antarctic ecosystem and biodiversity.
The protocol, which was adopted in 1991, designates Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science.
While the contribution of Malaysia to Antarctic governance and protection at the moment might be small in comparison to the historically prominent SCAR nations, I see the accession of Malaysia to Antarctic Treaty System and Madrid protocol as a positive start of a truly global effort for the protection of Antarctica, one of the last great wilderness.
Indeed, as “success is the sum of small efforts”, I hope that Malaysia’s achievements as a proactive global player in science would inspire more nations to join the wagon, and ensure a bright future of Antarctic ecosystems for many generations to come.
I quote Carlos Moedas, the European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation who said in 2015, “science diplomacy is the torch that can light the way, the torch that brightens a doorway to cooperation and communication that is never closed.”
I am heartened to observe that Malaysia is playing a proactive role in science diplomacy. For if conventional diplomacy disappoints, we still could count on science diplomacy.