Malaysia Seeks Economic Success Based on Science and Technology

By Gwynne, Peter | Research-Technology Management, September-October 2011 | Go to article overview

Malaysia Seeks Economic Success Based on Science and Technology


Gwynne, Peter, Research-Technology Management


While the BRICS countries--Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa--gain most of the global publicity about emerging economies, other nations have joined the race to harness technology and thereby join the club of developed nations. One such country is Malaysia. In the past, it has served as a source of low-cost manufacturing for the computer and communications industries. But now it has higher ambitions. Early this year, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak announced the creation of a series of programs and initiatives to increase per capita income significantly over the next decade.

The Southeast Asian nation will develop the programs with a little help from its friends, old and new. A council of experts--many of them American--will advise the country on its pursuit of a "green, high-income economy" based on improved education, particularly in science and technology, and mentoring efforts to encourage small and medium-sized science and technology-related enterprises.

The plan has the goal of more than doubling the Malaysian population's per capita income, from the 2009 figure of $6,700 to $15,000, by the year 2020, with the primary vehicle for that expansion a series of innovative science and technology initiatives. "Malaysia's ambitious goal is to simultaneously reduce poverty and achieve a green economy," Prime Minister Razak said in announcing the plan. "We see science and technology innovation as key to achieving that goal, guided by the advice and active support of some of the world's most distinguished entrepreneurial, scientific, and economic experts."

The "fifth Asian tiger"

The planned initiatives, many of them related to environmental advances, will build on the country's current development programs, programs that have already persuaded some analysts to group Malaysia with Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan as the "fifth Asian tiger." Nevertheless, the task ahead is daunting. Malaysia is not even one of what James O'Neill--the chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management and the man who coined the term BRIC--calls the "next eleven" nations, those with the potential to follow the BRICS in becoming powerful global economies in this century.

However, the country has garnered help through the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), an organization that promotes links between science and society. That effort includes working with national governments to create roadmaps to innovation economies. "The vice president of the Malaysian Academy of Science was aware of what we were doing with Mexico and the Russians," says Ellis Rubinstein, NYAS's president and CEO. "He thought our unique capacity would be useful to the Prime Minister." In September 2010, after preparatory talks with Razak's science advisor, Zakri Abdul Hamid, Rubinstein and Razak began discussions on a joint project to facilitate the rapid growth of the Malaysian economy.

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To start the project, an NYAS staffer visited the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur "to see opportunities where we could be useful," in Rubinstein's words. "The Malaysians aren't short of great plans," he continues. "They have been very aggressive in learning what the most ambitious ideas are out there to help development. The issue is learning how to work together to create synergies for change."

The visit revealed three sectors that could provide the thrust necessary to fulfill the country's economic and social ambitions: the IT sector, human capacity building, and the palm oil industry. Once the sectors had been identified, Rubinstein says, "we thought about people who would be most visionary and most likely to give advice in one or more of these areas."

Council of experts

Using its academic, industrial, and international contacts, the New York academy assembled a 35-person council of experts, bringing together 10 Malaysians and 25 international members. The group includes such notables as Nobel laureates Richard Roberts and Torsten Wiesel, former National Science Foundation director Rita Coldwell, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, and Rajendra K.

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