Malaysia moving with tech trend
New Straits Times - Mon, 02 December 2002
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By Matthew Mok

IN an interview with Business Computing, Science, Technology and the Environment Minister Datuk Seri Law Hieng Ding speaks about the country’s efforts to drive the local biotechnology industry.

BC: Biotechnology is not new in this country. Why the sudden surge of interest in this field?
Law: What is happening in Malaysia is part of a global trend. We are blessed with the rich biodiversity of resources. These resources need to be harnessed and harvested in a sustainable manner for the benefit of all Malaysians now and in the future.
If we do not move with the trend, we will be marginalised and our resources may be subjected to “biopiracy”. As we move towards a knowledge-based economy, biotechnology will play a very crucial role in the economic development of our country.
It will become the future engine of growth, particularly in pharmaceutical, environmental management, farming, and food production.

BC: Considering that Malaysia is relatively a late comer to modern biotechnology, how can we catch up with other countries?
Law: Being a late comer may not necessarily be disadvantageous. Rather, we can learn from other people’s mistake and hence, we can do things faster.
In fact, the setting up of BioValley Malaysia is one of the concrete measures taken to accelerate the industry.

BC: The lack of skilled local human resource in biotechnology is grave. One of the reasons cited is the unattractive salary package. Hence, how can we attract the brains (local and foreign skills) to come to Malaysia and grow this industry?
Law: Salaries is just one factor. We will be looking at the overall package, and we will be working closely with other Government agencies on this.
We acknowledge there is a shortage of human resource (HR), such as scientists, researchers, and laboratory assistants. And we are evaluating ways to increase the necessary workforce.
The Ministry has an allocated fund of RM300 million for HR development.
We offering it to whoever is interested to do postgraduate studies, master and Ph.D in biotechnology (as one area of Intensification of Research in Priority Areas – IRPA).
We are conducting road shows to all secondary schools to generate interest in biotechnology among students as well. To promote it further, we have also published a book on the introduction to biotechnology for the schools.
As the Government wants to make Malaysia a biotechnology hub, we feel scientists and researchers should focus more on the abundant opportunities available, like setting up their own biotechnology-related companies.
To this end, we are instituting action plans to create a conducive environ- ment for them to set up businesses. In fact, there are incentives for new hi-tech start-ups as mentioned in the Budget.
In addition, Malaysia is an Islamic country. As such, we have the added advantage, compared with other Asian countries, for closer collaborations with our peers.
Furthermore, the country has a healthy dose of facilities and technology infrastructure to attract foreign skills.

BC: Please share more details on BioValley Malaysia.
Law: More details of BioValley will be released in due course. For now, I would like to make reference to the Biotech Institutes and the Business Development Directorate (BDD). These will be developed in Phase One, which will start early next year, and hopefully be completed by the end of 8th Malaysia Plan (2005).
The setting up of the three national research institutes was based on strength, weaknesses, opportunity, threat analysis. We are slightly weaker in those three areas (agro-biotechnology, genomics and molecular biology, pharmaceutical and neutraceutical), and need to strengthen them. The institutes will function as national referral hubs, shared by all the research institutions in the country for collaboration works.

BC: Have you identified any experts to spearhead the three national research institutes?
Law: Yes, we have and that will be formalised very soon. They are mostly locals, pulled from different sources. They are already housed in the three institutes.
Temporary laboratories have been set up at the institutes – Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (genomics and neutraceutical), Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (agro-biotech), Universiti Putra Malaysia (pharmaceuticals).

BC: Who will be heading the BioValley Development Corporation and BDD – the two entities reported to manage BioValley Malaysia?
Law: We have not finalised that. BDD mainly deals with commercialisation, marketing, and foreign direct investment, while the Corporation may look after the physical development of BioValley itself.
Concept-wise, both entities will function differently, but complementary. We have not decided who will head both, but the Ministry is handling them at the moment.

BC: Will incentives like tax holidays and enhanced immigration approvals currently applicable to the MSC be extended to BioValley Malaysia as well?
Law: Yes. What is currently enjoyed in the MSC (companies) will also be enjoyed in BioValley.

BC: Can you update us on the proposed Advisory Board that will consult the Government on ways to develop the biotechnology industry?
Law: We are inviting Malaysians outside the country, as well as friendly foreign parties to join the Board. Currently, we are finalising the list, and it can be added from time to time. We hope to announce the establishment by year-end.

BC: If I am a biotechnology-related firm looking for support and the likes, who is my first point of contact?
Law: Contact the Ministry directly. We have dedicated personnel to handle all enquiries.