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From the laboratory to the market
Biotechnology and higher education are instrumental in Malaysia’s transition to a knowledge-based economy

Deep in Malaysia’s ancient rainforests grows a herb known locally as Tongkat Ali, or Ali’s Cane, which is used as a treatment for dysentery, glandular swelling, fever, malaria and other ailments. It is especially prized, however, as the Malaysian answer to Viagra, and is sold in coffee and tea as well as pill form as an enhancer for the male libido.

Tongkat Ali is just one of the innumerable varieties of plants, herbs and living creatures to be found in Malaysia, which is one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world and estimated to contain at least 60 percent of all known species. Even the population comprises a heterogeneous ethnic mix of Malays, Chinese, Indians, dozens of indigenous tribes, and others.

This extraordinary multiplicity in nature provides Malaysia with a huge and unique resource for an industry it has identified as one of its most important future engines of economic growth – biotechnology.

From medicines and pharmaceuticals to agriculture, the environment and food processing – biotechnology is very big business indeed. Globally, the industry is forecast to be worth $193.8 billion by the end of this year. As yet, Malaysia’s biotechnology sector is at a relatively early stage of development, but its potential is enormous.

The federal government has committed substantial funds towards expanding the industry, which it regards as having a key contribution to make towards the reorientation of the national economy. It predicts the sector will generate RM270 billion (£42 billion) in revenue for the country by 2020.

Researchers and scientists have a crucial role to play in the new Malaysian economy

Development of biotechnology warrants an entire chapter of the ongoing Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP), which is aimed at shifting Malaysia from a low-cost mass production economy to a knowledge-based, technology-driven one focused on innovation, entrepreneurship and value-added production.

Biotechnology has the potential to unlock additional value in traditionally strong sectors of the Malaysian economy, such as commodities and manufacturing, and to create substantial value in new and upcoming sectors such as healthcare, nutraceuticals and industrial bio-processing. It has a vital role to play in food sufficiency, environmental protection and conservation, and the fight against diseases.

In addition to having the advantage of easy access to vast natural resources, Malaysia already has experience in vaccine production, clinical trials, diagnostic and agro-biotechnology upon which to build.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi describes biotechnology as one of the key drivers of the country’s future development. “Biotechnology will not only drive improvements in the quality of life of Malaysians; it will also propel the creation of knowledge and innovation in the country, crucial elements in our quest to climb up to a higher value-added stage of development,” he says.

The National Biotechnology Plan, launched in 2005, focuses on developing niches in agriculture, healthcare-related biotechnology, industrial biotechnology and bioinformatics. A total of RM2 billion (£312 million) has been allocated to implement the plan.

Crucial to the government’s plan to reorient the economy is the nurturing of research and development (R&D) and the building of a workforce equipped with the requisite skills. Both of these areas rely on the commitment of Malaysia’s universities, colleges, vocational and other higher educational institutions, and a massive upgrade of standards is under way.

It is essential that the universities work closely with the private sector, both to ensure that the educational institutions are fully attuned to the needs of the rapidly changing labour market and to facilitate the development and marketing of commercially viable products from scientific discoveries. Ways are being sought to put them in touch with investors and domestic and international customers.

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GREECE PROJECT TEAM
Project Director: M. Mercedes Pagalday
Editorial Director: Fredrik Meloni
Project Assistant: Idil Demirel