More than a decade ago before the National Biotechnology Policy was launched by the then-Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2005, “biotechnology” was not much of a buzzword as it is now.
When Malaysia was a much younger nation in the 1960s to the 1980s, the agricultural sector, mostly commercial crops, contributed about 20 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employed 30 per cent of the workforce. In 2016, agriculture contributed 8.1 per cent (RM 89.5 billion) to our GDP, a decline typical of developed countries such as United States and South Korea.
We are a land of milk and honey; we have flourished in the commodity sector and are rich in biodiversity. However to sustain this economy we need to identify and develop our competitive advantage. Hence we embarked on a national bioeconomy development strategy, making us the first in ASEAN and the second in Asia to have a comprehensive bioeconomy plan.
The Communiqué of Global Bioeconomy Summit 2015 defined bioeconomy as “knowledge-based production and utilisation of biological resources, innovative biological processes and principles to sustainably provide goods and services across all economic sectors”. To put it simply, it is about applying our knowledge in the bio-based sector, with sustainability in mind. This is how we transform from a commodity-based economy to a knowledge-based one – through value-add.
With every policy made there must be an action plan. A dedicated agency, Bioeconomy Corporation, was mandated to implement the 15-year policy through the Bioeconomy Transfromation Programme. Three years left till we need to achieve cumulative approved investments of over RM 17 billion and to provide at least 26,700 employment opportunities.
To facilitate the private sector in driving bioeconomy, a special status, the BioNexus Status, would be awarded to qualified companies undertaking value-added biotechnology or life-sciences activities. BioNexus Status companies are given attractive tax incentives as listed in the BioNexus Bill of Guarantees. As of 2017 the 283 BioNexus Companies have recorded total approved investments of RM 6.81 billion and created 10,665 jobs. Some areas explored by new BioNexus Status companies are the commercialisation of veterinary vaccines, moringa extract and tissue engineered human skin.
To me the soul of bioeconomy is the Bioeconomy Community Development Programme (BCDP), where rural farms are fully harvested to supply raw materials to bio-based companies. BCDP projects in Sabah involve shrimp agriculture, shiitake mushroom farming, honey and royal jelly, seeds production, biogas power generation plant and stevia farming. As of 2017, there have been more than 2,800 participants and the impact is estimated to have spill over to more than 13,000 residents around the project areas.
Our goal for BCDP this year is to engage 500 farmers particularly in the following sectors: high-value herbs, seeds production, aquaculture, mushroom farming, bee farming, pineapple farming, biomass waste and horticulture.
In a recent National Transformation 2050 (TN50) dialogue with 300 participants in Kampung Simpang, Entilibon, many expressed very positive and ambitious aspirations for their homeland. “Uninterruptible clean power supply, world class universities and state of the art libraries to nurture our young ones” – these were some of their proposals.
However many also asserted very high expectations that the government has to provide more employment opportunities. My approach in increasing jobs has always been consistent. I encourage the people, especially our young ones with their fertile and innovative minds, to create those opportunities instead.
In the case of bioeconomy, the government through Bioeconomy Corporation is a facilitator in creating a new engine of growth for the economy. We have provided the key to new doors but it still boils down to the people, the individual, in grabbing the key and paving new paths.
Although we have entered the third and final phase of the policy plan toward 2020, we have never ceased in investing in talents. Bioeconomy Corp has initiated the Bioeconomy Entrepreneurship Special Training Programme and an MBA with specialisation in bioeconomy. We need to continue to develop home-grown capacities in the technology and business, for example through the National Institutes of Biotechnology Malaysia (NIBM).
Our current focus is to help businesses in the bioeconomy to go global. We would help them to obtain certification to ensure that Malaysia’s bio-based products meet industry and global standards. At the same time we need to be confident with our homegrown labels. It would be a shame if we let our higher regards for international brands over local ones hinder progress in the bioeconomy.
Even Sri Lanka has entrusted Malaysia to help them develop a framework for bioeconomy. Last month, Bioeconomy Corp and Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation of Sri Lanka have exchanged a memorandum of collaboration, witnessed by our Prime Minister Datuk Sei Najib Razak and Sri Lanka president Maithripala Sirisena.
As Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid, Chairman of Bioeconomy Corp has aptly said during the first Bioeconomy Day of the year on Thursday, where participants are briefed about opportunities in bioeconomy based on Budget 2018, “We are still pursuing the bioeconomy dream.”
We have put our heart and soul in building this new economy. Yet it is only the beginning. In three years’ time I am hopeful that the Malaysian bioeconomy landscape would mature, and it would be time for us to review the policy.
Bioeconomy Corp would be organising a similar Bioeconomy Day in Sabah in the near future. Do look out for it and other bioeconomy opportunities on their website (http://www.bioeconomycorporation.my/).