Investment opportunities in the Bioeconomy/ Peluang Pelaburan dalam Bioekonomi

Klik sini untuk versi Bahasa Malaysia: 21.3.18 Peluang Pelaburan Dalam Bioekonomi

The Sabah Development Corridor (SDC) has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Launched in 2008, Chief Minister Tan Sri Musa Aman announced that this project has recorded RM 165 billion in cumulative investment as of January this year. He also said that Sabah has already achieved its target for GDP and GDP per capita back in 2016 under the SDC, at RM 63.2 billion and RM 14,784 respectively.

 

Sabah’s GDP growth was at 4.7 per cent in 2016 compared to the national average of 4.2 per cent, in contrast with only 2.1 per cent growth in 2011 as compared to a 5.3 per cent national GDP growth. Poverty incidences have declined from a whopping 19.7 per cent in 2009 to just 2.9 per cent in 2016. SDC’s 2008 – 2025 blueprint has also actualised almost 600,000 jobs out of the targeted 900,000 by the end of its 18-year implementation.

 

Some of the priority investment areas for the SDC are in tourism, creativity, agro-industry, palm oil downstream activities, oil and gas, education and marine products.

 

Perhaps in the remaining eight years, Sabah and the country could explore great investment opportunities in the bioeconomy.

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At the 10th anniversary of SDC. Photo by Rayner.
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At the 10th anniversary of SDC. Photo by Rayner.

Bioeconomy refers to all economic activities that result from the commercial application of biotechnology. To evaluate this industry in the country, BioEconomy Corporation, an agency tasked to drive this field through the National Biotechnology Policy, has devised the Bioeconomy Contribution Index, which considers five components – bioeconomy value-added, bio-based exports, invesments, employment and productivity in the industry.

 

A very encouraging achievement is its value-added that contributed RM 141.8 billion to our economy or 11.5 per cent of GDP. RM 18.8 billion of investments in the bioeconomy was recorded, reflecting a 11.8 per cent growth from the previous year.

 

I have observed several areas of high potential bioeconomy investment areas. One promising area is the production of bioplastics. Bioplastics are bio-based materials, meant to be environmentally sustainable by being derived from renewable biomass sources such as vegetable oil or starch, instead of fossil fuels.

 

Plastics usage has been increasingly setting off alarm bells due to the harm plastic wastes pose to the environment, marine lives and eventually to ourselves. At the landfill, fossil fuel plastics would release toxic chemicals to the soil as it breaks down. Bioplastics is supposed to decompose naturally and cause less harm to the environment.

 

Due to this concern, I have initiated an Innovators Dynamic roundtable late last year to identify how technology can help expedite the application of bioplastics. BioEconomy Corp is facilitating industry players to adopt bioplastics technologies to produce bio-based and biodegradable materials.

 

SIRIM also offers certification for environmentally-friendly products to businesses. Under the SIRIM Eco-Labeling Certification Scheme (SIRIM ECO 001:2016 for Degradable and Compostable plastic packaging materials, and SIRIM ECO 009:2016 for Biomass based products for food-contact applications as the standard for the implementation of bioplastic and biodegradable initiatives), a number of conventional plastic companies had successfully adopted bioplastics technologies and have their products certified.

 

An interesting proposal I have heard of is using crude palm oil to produce polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA). PHA is a type of polymer that would be produced when mircoorganisms ferment sugar or vegetable oils, in this case, palm oil. Current economic focus of the palm oil industry is in its downstream value-add, such as oleochemicals, biofuel and transfree food products. Could its potential of producing biodegradable plastics be even higher value-add?

 

 

Another promising industry in bioeconomy is in biopharmaceuticals. One form of biopharmaceuticals is biologics, of which production active substances are from a biological source, for example proteins. Biosimilars, on the other hand, are highly similar to their reference biologics thus avoid having to repeat clinical trials unnecessarily and used only after the biologic’s patent has expired.

 

 

The value of the global biopharmaceutical market reached approximately USD 230 billion in 2014 and is expected to grow to nearly USD 390 billion by the end of 2019. Of this biosimilars accounted for nearly USD 2 billion in 2014, and that number is predicted to double by the end of 2019, growing at a compound annual growth rate (the mean annual growth rate of an investment over a period) of 15%. By 2020, the patents for biologic medicines with an estimated worth of USD 81 billion are expected to expire, paving the way for the next generation of biosimilars.

 

Malaysia was one of the earliest countries to develop the biosimilars guideline and supports the development of the biosimilars ecosystem. However, it is still at the very nascent phase of developing its own biosimilars industry. We need to attract more global biotech companies to strengthen Malaysia’s position as a biomedical hub in the region. From the regulatory perspective, Malaysia has amended its regulatory guidelines mainly in accordance with the European Medicines Agency.

 

Malaysia can certainly leverage and tap into the abundance of biological resources and to have a more significant share of the regional and global wellness market. With over 15,000 estimated known plant species and over 2,000 species with medicinal values, plant or herbal produce provided the starting raw materials for many perfumery, cosmeceuticals, nutraceuticals and health supplement products. With the cultivation of high value crops, for instance high value herbs and bio-aromatic plants such as lavender, rosemary, Japanese horseradish, Goji berry, and Tongkat Ali etc, the wellness industry in Malaysia will demonstrate further growth in the coming years.

 

One novel discovery is our well-known local herb Tongkat Ali or scientifically known as Eurycoma longifolia. Apart from being traditional remedy for the treatment of malaria, high blood pressure, fevers, fatigue, loss of sexual desire, and impotence, Tongkat Ali is also useful in managing stress by reducing the level of the hormone Cortisol leading to greater energy, improved mood and psychological well-being.

 

The global wellness industry is now a market totaling USD3.4 trillion, according to the latest figure obtained from the Global Wellness Summit Industry Statistics and Facts 2014. This is approximately 3.4 times larger than the worldwide pharmaceutical industry! The beauty and anti-aging segment of the wellness industry was by far the largest with a market size of more than one trillion US dollars. He

 

I believe that relevant government agencies, the industry and research institutions can do a lot more to identify the ginormous potential in the domestic bioeconomy. MOSTI through BioEconomy Corp will provide the policy direction, infrastructure development and industry support through fiscal and non-fiscal incentives to entice more investments in the bioeconomy. We highly welcome collaboration with state governments such as through the Sabah Development Corridor.

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Huge potential in the bioeconomy: Commercial mushroom farming in Negeri Sembilan. Photo by  Mustafa.
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Tiram mushrooms. Photo by Mustafa.

 

Special thanks goes to BioEconomy Corp (especially the editorial team Mr Adnan Baharum, Mr Azlan Kadir, Mr Brian Chow)  for their contribution towards this article.

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From Raw to Treated – Water a Precious Commodity

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As a people’s representative, an issue very close to my heart is the accessibility of treated water to domestic consumers especially in the outbacks. World Water Day, designated by the United Nations, is celebrated every 22nd March to promote water related issues – universal access to clean water, and managing freshwater resources sustainably.

 

According to a 2017 joint report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF, three in 10 people globally, or 2.1 billion, lack access to safe water that is readily available at home. Malaysia has come a long way; but accessibility to treated water is not yet at 100 per cent.

 

The National Water Services Commission (Suruhanjaya Perkhidmatan Air Negara or SPAN) indicated that today, the national water supply coverage is at 95.7 per cent, the least being Kelantan (64.7), followed by Sabah (89.4) and Sarawak (94.5).

 

Therefore it is estimated that about 1.4 million people in the country, out of a population of 32.05 million, still do not obtain treated water supply. Around 400,000 residents in Sabah based on a population of 3.8 million are without treated water supply.

 

As a Member of Parliament overlooking more than 200 villages, I observed that there are many challenges in delivering treated water in the outbacks.  Some common problems are water treatment plants located too far away from consumers, low water catchment areas thus requiring additional booster pumps and undesired climatic conditions such as droughts and floods.

 

However I have also come across instances where the people are not sufficiently aware of the importance of consuming and using treated water. Some have cited the additional cost of applying for treated water as a hindrance to using it. This is where science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) knowledge can play a role.

 

STEM can help us understand the process of raw water treatment, its importance and help us appreciate treated water even more. To begin with, there are several sources of raw water such as ground water from wells, surface water from lakes and rivers, ocean water and spring water.

 

It is interesting to note that raw water originating from different sources would require different water treatment plants or processes. Although the raw water treatment process is lengthy, there are five main steps.

 

After allowing sand and large debris to settle, the raw water would undergo chemical coagulation to clump very small particles together large enough to be removed later. Next is flocculation, where the coagulated particles further form floc (clumps). The process that follows would let gravity do its job. The flocculated water now contains suspended solids that are denser than water, allowing them to sink to the bottom, a processed known as sedimentation.

 

The fourth main process is filtration. The water undergoes filtration by passing through gravity filter beds to remove the remaining impurities. Lastly the water is disinfected. Chlorine and other chemical disinfectants are added to the water to ensure that it is safe from microorganisms, especially those that could cause water borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever and salmonellosis. Fluoride is also added to drinking water at the plant to help strengthen our teeth.

 

A number of government bodies are involved in the pursuit of safe drinking water. SPAN regulates water supply and sewerage services; the Department of Environment regulates wastewater effluent quality through the Environmental Quality Act 1974 whereas the Ministry of Health regulates food safety, including drinking water through Food Act 1983 and Food Regulations 1985.

 

MOSTI through the Department of Chemistry Malaysia would analyse water samples, both raw and treated, to ensure that it complies with the National Standard for Drinking Water Quality, which is also in accordance with the WHO Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality. They have to test for almost 120 parameters (substances) in the water samples! Not to mention that the department tests about 150,000 samples annually in its chemistry or microbiology laboratories around the country.

 

And thankfully, as testified by Puan Zaiton Ariffin who is currently supervising the Environmental Health Division of Environmental Health Division of the department, in most cases the water supply in Malaysia has been of excellent quality, as demonstrated by their analytical reports. We are also blessed that treated water is very affordable in this country.

 

We might not lack sources for raw water at the moment except during dry spells, but we need to pay more attention to wastewater treatment for two main reasons. As suggested by the Mega Science 1.0 study on Water through the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, the most obvious reason is to conserve and protect our environment, by ensuring that wastewater is treated properly before channelling them back to nature.

 

The full report is available online for the public’s reference.

 

Secondly, due to a number of water related challenges such as increasing demand for its supply toward 2050, climate change and pollution, we need to be technologically geared up to overcome them.  The emergence of new pollutants such as the endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) found in pesticides, metals, additives or contaminants in food, pharmaceuticals and personal care products for example, is a growing concern.

 

According to WHO, EDCs could affect reproductive function in both males and females; increase incidence of breast cancer, cause abnormal growth patterns, neurodevelopmental delays in children and changes in our immune function. Therefore advanced technology is required to filter out contaminants from wastewater such as EDCs.

 

In the near future might we recycle wastewater for our own consumption? Would this water be safe enough? This is where evidence-based policymaking plays a role.  The Chemistry Department, National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia (NAHRIM) and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) would join forces to investigate these pharmaceuticals found in the Langat River, Selangor.

 

 

I have always said that we need to innovate to solve problems. Take Singapore for instance. They are known as a water technology hub, precisely due to the water problems they are facing.

 

For a more sustainable solution, our neighbour in the south has invested to come up with advanced technologies to purify reclaimed water. Branded as NEWater, they aim to meet 55 per cent of the city-state’s water needs with this treated wastewater in 40 years’ time, in contrast with the current 40 per cent.

 

In Chinese there is a saying, “yin shui si yuan”, which literally translates to “when you drink water, think about its source”. It means remembering your source of blessings, urging us to be grateful. As a people’s representative and Minister, I hope more would now be aware of the importance of using and consuming treated water and at the same time, do appreciate how water reaches our taps the next time we quench our thirst!

 

Special thanks goes to the following experts and agencies for their contribution toward this write-up:

Puan Zaiton bt Ariffin, Senior Director of the Research and Quality Assurance Division covering for the Environmental Health Division, Jabatan Kimia Malaysia

Tan Sri Dato’ Ir Syed Muhammad Shahabudin FASc, Chairman of ASM Water Demand Management Task Force

Ir. Dr. Salmah Zakaria FASc, Chairperson of ASM Water Committee

Academician Datuk Fateh Chand FASc, Chairman of ASM Integrated Aquifer System Management

Professor Dr Yang Farina Abdul Aziz FASc, ASM Water Committee Member

Academy of Sciences Malaysia

 

Can STEM Help Tackle Obesity?

Just a few days into the New Year, I was heading home to Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Traveling back and forth has long been a routine. If I have time to kill at the airport, I would habitually visit the book store and pick up interesting titles.

 

This time an extraordinary book cover caught my eye. It featured a determined-looking chap; half of him was barrel-chested, another half was dressed smartly in a business suit. The alluring title spells, “Fit in Five: Better Health in Just 5 Minutes A Day”.

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The book that caught my eyes at a KLIA bookstore.

Can one look like him by just working out five minutes a day? It was a season of setting “New Year resolutions”; I could safely attribute my keenness in the book to my goal of being in the pink of health this year.

 

On a more serious note, the issue of overweight and obesity has been a top concern for the Cabinet and government. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), overweight is a body mass index (BMI) greater than or equal to 25, whereas obesity is when a BMI is greater or equal to 30.

 

The National Health and Morbidity Survey 2015 conducted by the Institute of Public Health, Ministry of Health, reported that 30 per cent of the Malaysian population are overweight and another 17.7 per cent are obese. This in total accounts for close to half of us showing unhealthy readings on the weighing scale!

 

Therefore it is no surprise when Malaysia was announced as the title-holder for “Asia’s Most Obese Country” by British medical journal The Lancet in 2014 and among ASEAN’s fattest, as report by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit in “Tackling Obesity in ASEAN”, a 2017 study conducted in six ASEAN countries including ours.

 

Even we were to present the causes of obesity, the interventions that have been carried out and their success rates as articulately as we can through diagrams, I can imagine one could get entangled in a web of complex links between them with non-conclusive outcomes, which also by no means is the point of my writing.

 

But there are some useful pointers from this report that would raise the alarm that Malaysians need to immediately tackle obesity. Besides notoriously being at the helm for among the fattest nations in the region, it is costing precious lives and also negatively impacts our economy. Obesity has a strong correlation with a range of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as a 24 per cent chance of hypertension compared to 10 per cent among the non-obese, a seven per cent chance of diabetes compared to only three per cent among their healthier peers.

 

Economically, the report furthermore stated that in 2016, Malaysia was estimated to have lost between RM 4.26 billion to RM 8.53 billion to the condition, equivalent to a whopping 10 to 19 per cent of our country’s healthcare spending. Between seven and 12 productive years were lost in females due to obesity, while among males it was between six and 11 years.

 

Many forms of intervention strategies to tackle obesity have been implemented, driven by the Ministry of Health, including a consideration for a sugar-sweetened beverage tax. As the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, like in all other cases of problem-solving, I have been exploring if technology can help tackle this condition.

 

With that I chaired a roundtable, a series named Innovators Dynamic, which I initiated to solve national problems through innovation. Besides experts from the Ministry of Health and technologists from MIMOS, our national ICT research centre, we also invited Mr Wong Yu Jin, the chap featured on the book I picked up at the airport earlier, author of “Fit in Five”.

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Innovators Dynamic Roundtable on “Tackling Obesity”.

At the roundtable, we approached the topic in two ways. Firstly, to what extend can technology tackle obesity effectively? With the ubiquitous usage of smartphones, most of us would turn to fitness apps as the most widely available, convenient and cost-effective mode of technology to help us to lose those extra kilograms.

 

These apps could keep a record of our diet. Wearables like smart watch and Fitbit help users to keep track of users’ health – for example, how many steps taken every day, sleep quantity and quality and heart rate.

 

However “a tool is only as good as the person using it.” A 2017 research by Flurry Analytics showed that the usage of health and fitness apps have shot up by 330 per cent in the past three years, yet obesity has always been on the rise globally. Technology is a double-edged sword. Addiction to it at the same time could distract us from real-life, physical activities. Is it not ironic to be on our phones throughout our workout?

 

Next at the roundtable, we agreed that it is about mindset change and taking baby steps. Yu Jin shared his story of how he became health conscious and now a highly sought after fitness coach. He was rising the corporate ranks until a heart attack struck one of his bosses. It was a wake-up call for him.

 

He told the roundtable audience that by just doing at least five minutes of a workout routine to kickstart, in a week one would accumulate 35 minutes of exercise and of course we are encouraged to step this up. The idea was to just get moving without giving the excuse of having “no time”.

 

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Exchanging books with Mr Wong Yu Jin, author of “Fit in Five: Better Health in Just 5 Minutes A Day” during Innovators Dynamic on 13th February.

 

You can watch the speakers’ presentations at the roundtable including Yu Jin’s on MOSTI’s official Facebook page.

 

As an advocate of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), I see the great opportunity and potential of educating the young and the public about health and fitness through STEM. STEM should not be seen as merely an academic stream for students at schools. Instead it is an effective mean to learn the science about ourselves and the world, and eventually apply our scientific knowledge to enhance the quality of life for public good.

 

In this case, through STEM education, we learn about the science behind obesity – nutrition, exercising, the biology of our body – to keep ourselves healthy. STEM really does not just stay in school. It is useful for a lifetime.

 

Finally, I concur with Dr Lim Hin Fui, a Fellow at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), who was one of the speakers at Innovators Dynamic, that being clear of why we want a healthy weight will go a long way. He said that we need to stay away from obesity “for ourselves, our family, our society and our country”.

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With Mr Lim Hin Fui.

Have you identified your motivation for losing those extra pounds? Make it your New Year resolution and commit to it, for yourself, your family and Malaysia!

 

END

Bringing Science Down to Earth

On one dark, overcast night, more than three thousand souls gathered in the heart of Kuala Lumpur under the glow of a full moon. An intimidating blood-coloured moon, like that of the eye of the devil, would illuminate the Earthly terrain beneath it.

 

Fear not, nobody was transformed into werewolves that night. Far from being a folkloric fiction, these National Planetarium visitors were expecting a lunar phenomenon – the Super Blue Blood Moon.

 

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Photos of the moon were taken by brothers Alif dan Anif Abdul Fatah who live in Putatan, Sabah, through their own telescopes.

Looming again since 152 years ago, three lunar episodes concurred on 31st of January. Firstly, a supermoon, where the Moon is unusually closer to the Earth, making it appear extraordinarily larger and brighter. This occurs three to four times a year. The second event is a blue moon, signifying the second full moon of the month. A blue moon occurs once every 2.7 years.

 

Third was the fiery, blood-colour appearance of the moon during a total lunar eclipse because of how the Earth atmosphere bends its light.

 

Unfortunately, the supermoon ensconced itself behind the gray clouds on the night of Thaipusam, depriving astronomy enthusiasts at the National Planetarium of the opportunity to witness the rare lunatic “feast” themselves.

 

Nevertheless our National Planetarium was prepared for any undesired possibilities. The staff set up five astronomical telescopes at the entrance for public visitors. Several more were brought in by the visitors themselves of which they generously shared with others.

 

If the weather was not permitting, they would still be able to watch a stimulated eclipse performed by the Sky Stimulation Dome in the Space Theatre. Those who are not physically present would be able to stream it live from the planetarium’s Facebook page. Almost a million netizens enjoyed this facility, including a live stream from the Langkawi National Observatory where the sky is relatively free from light pollution in contrast with the cities, and NASA TV webpage.

 

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An infograogif of the Super Blue Blood Moon phenomenon by ANGKASA Malaysia.

Besides the National Planetarium in Kuala Lumpur and the National Observatory in Langkawi, around the country, other main observation sites for this phenomenon include but not limited to the Teluk Kemang Observatory in Negeri Sembilan, Masjid Putra in Putrajaya, Selangor Observatory in Selangor, Pantai Tok Jembal in Terengganu, Sultan Iskandar Planetarium in Sarawak and Menara Tun Mustapha in Sabah.

 

It was indeed an astronomical event for residents in Asia, Australia, United States and Russia. The Super Blue Blood Moon is not only a historic lunatic event; it was also historic for our National Planetarium.

 

More than 3,000 visitors were recorded that evening, filling every nook and cranny of the centre, spilling out from the 200-seat capacity dome. It was one of the planetarium’s most popular events since opening its doors in 1994! The next one is expected to take place in 2037 so most of us probably would not want to miss the 2018.

 

But an even more interesting observation was how much interest and excitement this phenomenon has generated among Malaysians. Overcrowding at football stadiums, concerts and shopping malls are all too often being heard of. But overcrowding at a planetarium?

 

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Some visitors brought their own telescope to the National Planetarium. Photo credit: Bernama Online.
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Visitors could observe the phenomenon from the Sky Stimulation Dome. Photo credit: National Planetarium.

Human beings throughout the ages have been very curious about the abnormal happenings in the heavens. They consider them harbingers of momentous events on earth, as evident in many instances in history and folklore in both the East and West.

 

But far from having superstitious beliefs, the world now turn to scientific explanations for the natural observations around us. I am reminded of the inquisitive spirit of Galileo Galilei, an Italian astronomer born in the age of Renaissance. He was well known for investigating the laws of motion and improving the telescope of which he eventually used to discover heavenly bodies in our galaxy.

 

An excerpt from In Galileo’s book “Starry Messenger” published in 1610 demonstrated how his curiosity and an eye for detail led him to conclude that there were three stars revolving around planet Jupiter:

 

“On the 7th day of January in the present year, 1610, in the first hour of the following night, when I was viewing the constellations of the heavens through a telescope, the planet Jupiter presented itself to my view, and as I had prepared for myself a very excellent instrument, I noticed a circumstance which I had never been able to notice before, namely that three little stars, small but very bright, were near the planet; and although I believed them to belong to a number of the fixed stars, yet they made me somewhat wonder, because they seemed to be arranged exactly in a straight line, parallel to the ecliptic, and to be brighter than the rest of the stars, equal to them in magnitude…”

 

The National Planetarium has “brought science down to earth” for our understanding. The Super Blue Blood Moon event could be seen as an appetiser for us to know our celestial world further and even other phenomenon. We need to relearn to give ourselves free rein in our intrinsic imagination and curiosity.

 

On a lighter note, what is the portent of the bloody red moon for 2018? More bloodshed in wars around the world?

 

How fortunate Malaysia is : An oasis of peace and harmony!

Precision Agri Way of the Future

For every hectare of field in Malaysia, more than 2,000 kilograms of fertiliser are consumed every year. In 2016, the production of staple food, mainly rice, increased by 28.2 per cent or 768.9 thousand tonnes compared to 2015. It is the livelihood of more than 300,000 rice farmers in the country.

 

While fertiliser is understandably important to increase crop yields, its overuse has long been an environmental problem. It causes water pollution, emits greenhouse gases during its manufacture and when applied to the soil, and acidifying soil and water. The trend for fertiliser consumption has been increasing for the past two decades and is not expected to diminish.

 

Scientists have showed that a balance between global food security and environmental consequences is possible – by up to 30 per cent reduction of fertiliser consumption. This is where precision agriculture comes into play. Precision agriculture is about managing and responding to various factors at the agriculture site such as weather patterns, soil condition, temperature and humidity, by using fewer resources, reducing production costs yet growing more crops.

 

Since the 1960s nuclear technology has been known to be a powerful tool in agricultural practices. It is becoming more popular now due to the increasing effects of climate change and environmental problems faced by both the farmers and consumers.

 

How is nuclear technology applied in precision agriculture? Since soil is a key factor in agriculture, any information on the soil – its chemical and physical properties – would also be key to success in precision agriculture. In fact a combination of complementary technologies is required.

 

Last year, the Malaysian Nuclear Agency (Nuclear Malaysia) collaborated with Ministry of Agriculture in a soil mapping programme. Nearly 1000 hectare of rice production areas were mapped for their fertility level using a nuclear technique called the ground electromagnetic measurement. Recommendation regarding precise input of fertiliser was then provided to the farmers, thus increasing productivity using minimal fertiliser.

 

Another nuclear method is by using isotopic techniques to track how much fertiliser the plant absorbs. As an active member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Nuclear Malaysia has conducted stable isotope research to enhance agricultural productivity and food safety in Malaysia.

 

In the case of detecting the absorption of fertilisers, a different form of nitrogen, produced through this technique, is incorporated into the fertiliser and hence is traceable by special devices. Farmers are now more informed. They would only add fertilisers to the soil when necessary. In a pilot project, farmers reported to have reduced fertiliser by a further 20 per cent.

 

Isotopic methods also help the planters determine the amount of nutrients and toxic in the soil. This is very useful information because they would then know how to improve soil fertility, how much neutralisation is required, along with the best time to do so. It is indeed all about “precision”.

 

In a pilot project, Nuclear Malaysia has offered an integrated approach called the “nuclear package” to help 25 farmers overcome low soil fertility and unpredictable weather patterns such as heavy rainfall and brief periods of drought.

 

Farmers from northern peninsular have seen their yields increased by 40 per cent, an increase also reflected in their incomes, in the last two crop seasons. A new rice variety, biofertiliser and plant growth promoters are part of the nuclear package. This rice variety called NMR152 is a survival. It can withstand periods of droughts and inundation for eight days.

 

Besides producing seedlings from mutation breeding, nuclear irradiation can also produce oligochitosan, an organic plant growth promoter that can be derived from household and agricultural wastes such as lobster, shrimps and crabs. Participants of this pilot project have reported a 30 per cent decrease in the application of pesticides and fertilisers.

 

Agriculture is perceived as a traditional sector, using traditional tools. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this new economy, the task of growing food would deploy talents from all spheres – digital, biological and physical. Precision agriculture would be the norm.

 

I envision a Malaysia with sufficient food supply, safe for consumption and a restored biodiversity, all without affecting livelihood of our planters.

 

This is an Era of Women

“Women play a very important role in the wellbeing of family and national development. Therefore, in recognising women’s contribution, the Government is pleased to announce 2018 as the Women Empowerment Year.”

 

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak declared this instrumental move in the 2018 Budget speech.

 

He also announced that GLCs, GLICs and statutory bodies should have at least 30 per cent participation of women a board of directors; urge the private sector to increase maternity leave from 60 to 90 days; a RM 20 million allocation that covers women entrepreneurship programmes; and a personal income tax exemption for women who return to the workforce after a career break.

 

Last Wednesday (17th January) after our weekly Cabinet Meeting, a ceremony was held to launch the logo for the Women’s Empowerment Year 2018. Three women were featured as icons – business woman Noor Neelofa, e-commerce entrepreneur Vivy Yusof an Selangor Princess Tengku Zatashah Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah who is known for her social work.

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At the launch of Year of Women Empowerment on 17th January.

 

But why the focus on women and why now?

In Malaysia, women are estimated to comprise almost half the population – 14.2 million out of 32 million. Firstly to achieve the progress we have set for the country, every contribution counts, including from this half of the population – the women. The Prime Minister himself has said that women will play an ever prominent role in the country’s development, therefore they must be empowered with every opportunity to participate in the economy.

 

According to the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, the public sector has achieved 35.8 per cent of women’s participation at the decision-making level, whereas the corporate sector lags at 29.9 per cent. Overall the labour force participation rate (LFPR) for women is currently only at 54.3 per cent, while for men it is at 80.2 per cent. LFPR is defined as the ratio of the labour force to the working age population (15 to 64 years), expressed as percentage.

 

While there various initiatives by the government to empower women, categorised into health, safety, economy, culture and education, MOSTI has several on-going efforts that encourage women’s participation in technology and entrepreneurship.

 

In fact it is stated in our National Policy on Science, Technology and Innovation that as one of eight measures in talent development in this area, we must “promote and enhance meaningful, effective and equitable female participation in STI at all levels and in all sectors”.

 

One commendable women-focused programme is “Cyberpreneur” by CyberSecurity Malaysia. 120 online women entrepreneurs from Sabah, Terengganu, Perlis and Sarawak have benefited from this training held in partnership with the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Association of Malaysia. They were guided in providing accurate and convenient information to customers, how to feature online business policies and the code of ethics.

 

Another seminar was held with the National Council of Women’s Organisations last October to educate 1000 participants including women and children to be “CyberSAFE”. In the digital economy entrepreneurs not only have to be equipped with the usual business skills, but also in managing challenges and threats in the cyberspace.

 

The International Science, Technology and Innovation Centre for South-South Cooperation (ISTIC) is also a constant advocate for women in science. In last September for example, 32 women delegates from 15 countries participated in their technopreneurship workshop, which focuses on technology-based entrepreneurship.

 

In conjunction with the Year of Women Empowerment, I have initiated a specialised focal point in MOSTI to facilitate women innovators, women technologists and women entrepreneurs, especially in commercialisation. MOSTI has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with MyIPO last year to identify intellectual properties which have commercialisation and patenting potentials.

 

My first women-focused engagement of the year will be held on the 3rd of February, Saturday, at Dewan Masyarakat Ranau. It will be a day-long programme in partnership with Majlis Penasihat Wanita Sabah, and inviting entities such as Yayasan Inovasi Malaysia (YIM), Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) and MARA to brief participants of the opportunities in innovation and entrepreneurship. All are welcome.

 

To promote women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), Yayasan Penyelidikan Antartika Sultan Mizan (YPASM) has a particular successful campaign called “Malaysia’s Journey to the Ice: Women in Antartica”. Malaysian women polar researchers would share their personal stories and Antarctic expeditions to school students. To date, 19 secondary schools have benefited from these motivational talks in STEM.

 

YPASM would gather feedback from the students after each talk. More than two-third of the respondents (70.1 per cent) informed about having a “strong or very strong interest” in science disciplines especially in polar science after the programme. Yet this is only the beginning; we certainly need more women icon in various STEM fields to motivate the young ones.

 

In women’s professional development, the Malaysian Board of Technologists (MBOT) that was launched in late 2016, has also aimed for 30 per cent women participation on its board. Eligible technologists and technicians who register with MBOT will be recognised as a Professional Technologist or Certified Technician. As of now, only 15 per cent of the registered members are women.

 

As MBOT eventually aims to expand to 250,000 members, why not achieve a 50-50 membership for men and women?

 

Quoting a well-known saying by a scholar from Ghana, Dr. James Emmanuel Kwegyir-Aggrey,

 

“If you educate a man you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family (nation).”

 

It is most timely to step up our efforts in empowering women, one of the distinct features of forward-thinking societies. The advancement of a nation should be inclusive both ways: Women should be equally involved in nation-building, and reaping the fruits of prosperity equally.

 

This is an era of women, yet only made possible with both men and women on board.

Heart and Soul in the Bioeconomy

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.

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Launching the Bioeconomy Corp Progress Report during Bioeconomy Day, 11th January 2018. Photo by Mustafa.
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With new participants of the Bioeconomy Transformation Programme. Photo by Mustafa.

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/).

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Bioeconomy Day 2018. Photo by Mustafa.