Monday, August 13, 2007

Silver Lining in 'Golden Crop'

Silver Lining in 'Golden Crop'

If you ask anyone on the street where Malaysia stands as a producer of quality information and communications technology (ICT), or which company comes to mind when they think of ICT and Malaysia, chances are they will draw a blank. It'd be the same thing if you did this with the subject of biotechnology even though there are 25 listed ICT companies on the Main and Second Boards on Bursa Malaysia, and 100 more on the Mesdaq Board.

To put this into perspective however, ICT and biotech were not on the national agenda till 1984 when Tan Sri Dr Omar Abdul Rahman was appointed science adviser in the Prime Minister's Department.

It was only then that the government slowly started emphasising on ICT but even then, things moved at a snail's pace as heavy industry and industrialisation dominated the development agenda. Any focus on ICT then was strictly about getting the Intels and Motorolas of the world to Malaysia to build their large factories and employ locals.

The few times Malaysia tried to fast track its ICT agenda by hiring foreign scientists to help spur local innovations, proved unsuccessful.

Many will remember the InventQjaya case where a Libyan-born US scientist, Dr Sadeg Mustaffa Faris, was wooed to Malaysia in 2003. Faris promised revolutionary breakthroughs but two years later and with little to show for it, the cost to taxpayers was an estimated RM300 million.

It was only in 1996 with the July groundbreaking of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) initiative that the domestic ICT agenda started gaining a toehold in the national consciousness.

The MSC is located in what used to be a vast oil palm plantation. It was an apt place to launch the catalyst for the nation's drive to become a technology developer, for it was in palm oil that Malaysia first gained global recognition for its efforts in research and development.

Even then the story of how Malaysia ventured down that path was almost accidental, recalled Tan Sri Dr Augustine Ong, former Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia director-general. "The first vice-chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia, Tan Sri Hamzah Sendut, told me in the early 70s to do something useful for the country and go into basic research, and so I said I would look into palm oil.

"Indonesia was starting to go into oil palm planting in a big way and Malaysia did not have any research institutes yet. Mardi (Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute) was doing some research but it had only a small oil and fats laboratory then."

As Ong had no special knowledge of the palm oil industry, he started by taking his family for a holiday to Singapore and along the way, visited oil palm estates and spoke to managers about the problems they faced.

"That is the best way to start. You ask the industry about the problems they face and conduct research to solve that problem," said Ong in an interview. The immediate problem then was an informal trade barrier by Japan and the US which barred entry of palm oil that had been separated using detergent.

Ong felt a technique to separate palm oil from the fruit using liquid could be developed and told Hamzah, who rightly asked, "If it is so simple, how come it has not been discovered?" A gleeful Ong recalled replying, "Your question presupposes that all simple ideas have been discovered!"

This proved to be quite a landmark in Ong's illustrious career as he went on to develop a technique which received a patent in the UK. "We did not have a patent office back in the 1970s and it had to be done in the UK, although [it was] very expensive."

The patent was for a Gradient Density Centrifugation method; the discovery was made in 1974 and the patent received a year later. But it was only in 1979 that the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia (Porim) was formed with the late Tan Sri B.C. Shekar as first chairman of the board.

Today, research in palm oil is labelled under the sexy heading of biotechnology but it used to be all about beakers, test tubes and centrifuges in the old days, powered by sweat and tears.

"I remember we used to devote our time and passion to palm oil research. Those were challenging times," said Ong, recalling that the private sector was initially sceptical that a government-funded research centre could offer any help. "They used to say, 'What can those eggheads do that we cannot?' but after a few years, we managed to convince them that we could offer solutions to their problems," he said.

One of Porim's strengths was that it adopted the right strategy for its research from the start. "We introduced a multi-disciplinary approach to research where we staffed the institute with people who had effluent treatment skills, who were microbiologists, chemists and even engineers. We were not brilliant. We just had the right strategy for conducting our research."

Another highlight for Ong was being part of the Malaysian delegation to the US in 1987 to help counter the aggressive anti-palm oil campaign waged by the soya bean industry. "It was just a scam! They claimed that palm oil acted like saturated fats and could harden the arteries. Before going on the tour, I actually wrote a will as I was quite scared for my life!" he recalled.

The team went on an eight-city tour to counter the claims. The trip culminated in an appearance at the US Congress which held a hearing on the matter.

The delegation had at first wanted a Westerner to represent the case but he was not available. This thrust Ong into the limelight. "We had only five minutes to present our case but there was no limit to the question time," he said.

Malaysia came out looking good as it also had the US Food and Drug Administration data that showed palm oil did not behave like saturated fat.

The lesson from Ong's experience over the years has led him to advise Malaysians to learn to think for themselves and not be influenced by foreign lobbyists, the latest being that virgin forest and peat swamps are being cut to grow oil palms.

"Palm oil is the golden crop of Malaysia. There is much more we can do to extract value from it," he noted.

Source: Karamjit Singh, TheSun, Monday, August 2007

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