Economic cooperation: Science diplomacy – a tale of two countries

AT the invitation of President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak undertook an official visit to Sri Lanka from Dec 17-19. This is to reciprocate the state visit of the Sri Lankan president to Malaysia in December last year.

The visit is of significance in the context of the growing bilateral partnership between the two countries, against the backdrop of Sri Lanka and Malaysia celebrating 60 years of diplomatic relations.

During the visit, the prime minister held bilateral discussions on investment as well as economic cooperation and trade between the two countries. Three MoUs were signed on science, technology and innovation; bioeconomy and biotechnology; and training for diplomatic personnel.

Relations between the Malay Peninsula and Sri Lanka date back to ancient times, when the latter became the main entrance to the Bay of Bengal. Modern-day diplomatic relations were established during our independence year, 1957.

Last year, Sri Lanka was Malaysia’s 41st largest trading partner, 33rd largest export destination and 67th largest import source. For the same period, Malaysia was Sri Lanka’s 10th largest trading partner, 37th largest export destination and sixth largest import source. Malaysia’s total exports to Sri Lanka amounted to US$579.9 million (RM2.36 billion) last year.

Historically, we have much in common as former British colonies. Our economic bedrock was built on the plantation sector, thanks to the British: Malaysia with rubber and oil palm; Sri Lanka with coconut, rubber and tea. These plantation sectors are mature and each country is a world leader in these respective commodities.

It is time to explore new areas of business and to rejuvenate old ones. Malaysia ranks among the 17 most biodiverse countries on Earth; Sri Lanka is among the top 25. As called for by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, judicious access to and benefit-sharing of the genetic resources in our countries has the potential to fuel innovations and new industries in healthcare, agriculture, environmental remediation and more.

Malaysia had a head start when the then-prime minister, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, launched the National Biotechnology Policy in 2005 and the Biotechnology Corporation (Biotechcorp). This was followed by the initiation of the Bioeconomy Transformation Programme (BTP) by Najib in 2012, and the transformation of Biotechcorp into the Malaysian Bioeconomy Development Corporation (Bioeconomy Corporation) last year.

Malaysia is the first country in Asean and the second in Asia, after China, to declare a bio-economy initiative. With the BTP, Malaysia has aligned various initiatives and strategies to accelerate commercialisation opportunities in biotechnology and boost the nation’s bio-based economy.

Sri Lanka gained independence almost a decade earlier than us. Unfortunately, the prolonged civil war had taken a toll on its socio-economic development and the peace dividends only arrived in 2009.

Bioeconomy Corporation has 12 years’ worth of experience and expertise to share with Sri Lanka and we hope to help them develop and implement a bioeconomy policy or framework similar to ours. This collaboration reflects the belief and trust that Sri Lanka has placed in Malaysia and shows that our bioeconomy sets the standard for other countries to emulate.

With its abundance of biomass and feedstocks that can be supplied to Malaysia for high impact bio-based projects, Sri Lanka has the potential to become a strategic bioeconomy partner for Malaysia. Malaysian bio-based companies, meanwhile, can add value to Sri Lankan products and services.

Sri Lanka is also interested in learning from Malaysia how science could be mainstreamed in society, positioned as a key underpinning for socio-economic development. We did this through the “Science to Action” initiative, launched by Najib in 2013, in which science governance is streamlined through the National Science Council, constituted with 11 ministers, captains of industry and leading academics. This is complemented with international-level advice given by Malaysia’s Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council, formed in 2011. These councils, both chaired by the prime minister, provide direct science advice to the highest level of government while breaking down silos between ministries and reducing duplication of efforts. Both councils are also served by the Malaysian Industry-Government Group on High Technology, which houses the Malaysian Foresight Institute, tasked with conducting technology foresight.

As the world seems to grow ever smaller, it is incumbent for countries to collaborate and cooperate in science. Science diplomacy is the use of scientific collaborations among nations to address common problems and to build constructive international partnerships.

It is with great enthusiasm that we will pursue this exciting new exchange with our friends in Sri Lanka, the latest chapter in relations with one of Malaysia’s oldest diplomatic partners.

zakri@pmo.gov.my

Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid is science adviser to the prime minister and joint chairman Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT).

Courtesy – Straits Times

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