HOW well is the world doing with Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals? Not nearly well enough, it appears.
Three years after United Nations member states agreed on the ambitious 15-year programme at a New York summit, a third stocktaking of government efforts has been released: the 2018 SDG Index and Dashboards Report.
Sadly, it shows no country is on track to achieve all goals by 2030. These include ending poverty and hunger, promoting good education, health and well-being, achieving clean water and sanitation as well as affordable and clean energy, and reaching gender equality.
Leaders on the Index — a composite measure of progress across all goals — are Sweden, Denmark, and Finland, and the report notes that even they needed to up their game to reach the targets by 2030.
Germany and France are the only G7 countries among the top 10. The United States ranks 35th; China and the Russian Federation rank 54th and 63rd respectively. Indeed, the report cites the US and Russia as having taken the least action towards implementing the goals.
Detailed two-page profiles of SDG progress on every indicator that makes up the index are provided for all UN member states, along with trend data indication of how fast countries are progressing. Produced by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), the report estimates whether a country is likely to achieve a particular SDG based on historic rates of progress.
Overall, progress is slowest on some of the environmental goals. Whereas many high-income countries have almost completely eradicated extreme poverty or hunger, they obtain their lowest scores on such goals as “responsible consumption and production”, “climate action”, or “life below water”. And, low-income countries score significantly lower still as they tend to lack adequate infrastructure and mechanisms to manage key environmental issues. Low-income nations are, however, making significant progress on ending extreme poverty and access to health and education services.
Says SDSN director Jeffrey D. Sachs: “Once again, the Northern European countries come out on top of the SDG index, and the poorest countries come out at the bottom. The implications are clear: The social-market philosophy of a mixed economy that balances the market, social justice and green economy is the route to the SDGs.”
How did Malaysia fare? With a 2018 SDG Index score of 70, Malaysia ranks 55th out of 156 countries, and 2nd within Asean, one rank lower than China but eight ranks higher than Russia.
You can see how we scored on all 17 SDGs in the full report, available at this link: http://bit.ly/2uI6itG, starting on page 288.
As you’ll see, Malaysia continues to make progress against SDG 1 — reducing poverty — which stands today at 0.6 per cent, down from 49 per cent in the 1970s. This remarkable shift started with the New Economic Policy, introduced in 1970 to eradicate poverty and restructure societal imbalance. Each subsequent five-year Malaysia development plan has underscored sustainable economic growth, growth with equitable distribution to all sections of society, access to basic infrastructure and utilities, access to education and healthcare services, and mainstreamed environmental conservation.
Agenda 2030 increases the resolve to pursue the journey on sustainable development more aggressively. Thus, Malaysia has aligned SDG principles with the 11th Malaysia Plan, which will entrench SDGs in all facets of Malaysia’s development. Our achievement already of this high priority goal does great credit to Malaysia.
Likewise, Malaysia is reported as having made inroads in utilising clean energy (SDG 7). This has come about thanks to a legislative framework, policies and implementation strategies designed to reduce dependency on fossil fuels. Despite an upward trend in clean energy, however, a downward trend is reported for Malaysia on climate action (SDG 13).
As the Fourth Industrial Revolution dawns, we have armed ourselves with digital tools and innovative knowledge and technology to ensure economic viability and social security, highly evident in our reported progress against SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth) and 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure).
The report suggests we have stagnated in critical areas, notably sustainable cities and communities (SDG11). By 2030, the Malaysian population will be 80 per cent urban. We need to both green our cities and make them more efficient, providing high-level services to people with the help of smart communication devices and other high-tech tools. This will drive economic growth through new high technology development investments, jobs and innovation.
Other areas in Malaysia in which stagnation is reported: zero hunger (SDG 2), life on land (SDG 15), and partnerships for the goals (SDG 17).
Dozens of parameters go into the index calculations, and it is helpful to have an outside assessment of our performance on each one at this still-early stage of Agenda 2030. We can only hope that our success improves in Malaysia as we emerge to be a more prosperous high-income country — a milestone foreseen in the not too distant future.
IN former British colonies such as India, Kenya, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, it is quite common to find so-called “hill stations” in the mountains established by the colonialists looking for a cool escape from the steamy temperatures and humidity of the tropical lowlands.
In 1885, a young geologist and explorer named William Cameron came across a plateau during a mapping expedition in the dense jungle of Banjaran Titiwangsa in Pahang. His name would go on to be associated with the area — the Cameron Highlands — where a hill station established by the British offered weekend respite to the colonial civil servants, planters and miners. Many of the quaint English-style bungalows and cottages remain in the district to this day.
In that same era, Sir Hugh Low, the British Resident of Perak, envisioned in Cameron Highlands the development of a “sanatorium, health resort and open farmland”. But, it remained untouched until the early 1920s, with the setting up of an Agricultural Experiment Station, and land opened up for the cultivation of tea, fruits and vegetables. Since then, unfortunately, some development in this area has gone on with too little care and forethought.
Cameron Highlands is a unique ecosystem, home to about 700 species of plants, many of them rare. With about 75 per cent of the district 1,000 metres above sea level, the mean annual temperature is 18°C with pleasant day temperatures in the low 20s. The vegetation changes as one ascends the mountain and its woodlands form the prevailing natural ecosystem within and around the prefecture.
Besides its flora, the region is also the habitat for a wide variety of animals, birds, reptiles and insects. Of these, the Sumatran serow, mountain peacock-pheasant and Malayan whistling-thrush are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The Camerons district is drained by three river systems with 123 tributaries. Their high points serve as the water catchment for the Pahang and Perak rivers. The environmental wellbeing of the district is critical to inhabitants of the surrounding areas.
Overall, much of the Camerons is still forested (estimated at 71 per cent). Jungle trails lead visitors to tranquil spots, waterfalls and aboriginal villages. And developments of the past have brought economic benefits. But to visitors today, it is obvious that these have been achieved at major environmental expense.
The Camerons offer yet another classic case study of how we grapple badly sometimes with sustainable development. Its rich biodiversity could be a magnet for ecotourism, its cool and pleasant temperate weather could be a big draw for the rest-and-recreation crowd, and its soils could nurture sustainable highland agriculture, providing a unique showcase.
Starting at least 10 years ago, environmental degradation of Cameron Highlands became the focus of often emotional discussions in public and government circles, sometimes involving not only the NGOs, but top political leaders and royalty too.
The problem has been intensive farming with little or no enforcement and control — a problem common to many tropical highlands suitable for crops. Large tracts of the Cameron Highlands’ pristine mountainous forest have been cleared for intensive farming of vegetables and flowers, exposing many people to an increased risk of disaster. Due to uncontrolled illegal deforestation for farming, the use of foreign labour became a necessity. Thus, Cameron Highlands became shrouded in two main issues, namely illegal land clearing and illegal foreign workers.
Among the catastrophes of recent memory are the flash floods and landslides affecting Kampung Raja, Ringlet and Bertam Valley in November 2014, which claimed five lives. The then deputy prime minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin declared that this was the direct result of environmental degradation caused by illegal land clearing.
He added that plantations that did not comply with standards of highland agriculture were also one of the causes.
“These activities have resulted in excess water trapped by plastic sheets used to cover the crops,” he said.
“The overflowing water runs into the river, flooding the affected areas. We need to identify the unstable areas facing the risk of collapse and work on an action and mitigation plan,” he had said.
In the Camerons, a post-Armageddon like landscape is there for all to see. And with the year-end monsoon season coming soon, one wonders about the status of the promised action plan to mitigate future disasters.
Sustainable development rests on three pillars: social inclusion, economic advancement and environmental preservation. In Cameron Highlands, the presence of branches of virtually every Malaysian bank and a couple of foreign ones testify to economic progress.
But there is a big question mark whether the authorities have done enough with respect to the third pillar, environmental preservation — the very foundation of our national prosperity and well-being.
The writer is joint chairman of the Scientific Expert Panel of the National Disaster Management Authority and a recipient of the 2014 Zayed International Prize for the Environment
EXCEPT for the oil-rich countries on the Arabian Peninsula, the rich, industrialised countries of the West and Asia all owe their good fortune to their mastery of science, technology and innovation (STI).
Indeed, with few exceptions that prove the rule, a nation’s economic prosperity is determined less by the richness of its natural resources than by the rich ingenuity of its human resources.
Wisely, therefore, investing in STI has been and will continue to be a cornerstone of Malaysia’s economic strategy for decades.
Growing up in a multicultural and multireligious country like ours, however, influenced and moulded over centuries by the movement of seafarers from ancient civilisations in China, India and the Middle East, I have always been conscious that in this modern age, balanced progress is required ever more so.
I am often reminded by Distinguished Professor Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, the founding director of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies, that when all is said and done, the survival of this country hinges on the ability of our various communities to come together to form a united nation. No amount of technological advances could ensure peace and prosperity if we, the citizens, are at loggerheads.
Sixty-one years after Merdeka, this nation is still “a work in progress”.
What we are going through at present, according to Shamsul, is a state of social cohesion. What we need for a prosperous and inclusive society is true national unity, notwithstanding our ethnic and cultural differences.
“Social cohesion,” he says, “is a situation where there is peace, stability, prosperity and wellbeing in a society, specifically one which is multi-ethnic, because there exists a strong social bonding built over many years” of co-existence.
To help us achieve national unity there must be greater understanding among our diverse communities, facilitated by the behavioural sciences in moulding our future generations to have a stake in this blessed country.
Our emphasis on the mastery of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) is essential in light of the explosion of advanced technologies that one would anticipate with the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Many observers believe, therefore, that STEMM can and should remain the bedrock of our science-driven socio-economic development. The growing view is that our children’s education needs to be completed with a sense of national purpose or “soul”.
As Professor Tan Sri Dzulkifli Razak, former vice-chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia and the 14th president of the International Association of Universities eloquently expressed it: “Science needs to find its roots once again because STEMM is no longer able to bridge meaningful dialogue with religions, ethics, arts-oriented disciplines such as humanities, and management. STEMM must be widened to allow for the streaming of religions, ethics, arts and management as its integral support.”
Some scholars have termed this complementary set of disciplines HASS — which stands for the Humanities, Arts and the Social Sciences.
This notion has been around for some time, but, it has been gaining traction now given the challenges faced by countries aspiring to meet the 2030 Development Agenda set by the United Nations and the fact that science alone can’t solve many of the problems the world is facing today, which are often cross-sectoral and multidisciplinary in nature.
Increasingly, countries are seeing the value of HASS in research allocation. For example, in Canada — a diverse, multicultural country like Malaysia — the national government will reportedly invest C$925 million (RM2.8 billion) over the next five years not only in science and health, but also in HASS research. The Canadian budget also includes C$275 million (RM844 million) for interdisciplinary and high-risk research to be administered by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
Along with Canada’s health and science-based funding agencies, SSHRC provides special funding schemes to support STEMM and HASS interdisciplinary work.
These initiatives not only provide strategic funding to support top researchers, but attest to the value of the HASS disciplines in full partnership with STEMM.
These initiatives are part of Canada’s focus on mobilising the value of science and technology, which the government recognises cannot succeed without a simultaneous and clear focus on the human, cultural, and creative aspects of modern society.
It is, therefore, timely, with a new government in place, for us to review our education policy to incorporate and integrate STEMM with HASS so that a new breed of citizens can be nurtured to take on the challenges of tomorrow.
Research allocation to our universities must now reflect a balanced emphasis on both sets of disciplines.
What is needed is to inculcate a critical mindset among our young people so that their minds can be liberated and nimble enough to innovate new products and processes to thrive in the world of the 21st century.
Zakri Abdul Hamid is joint chairman of MIGHT and chairman of the board of directors of Universiti Malaya
AN observer recently likened the creeping problem of biodiversity loss to watching rivets pop off the wings of an airplane in flight — how many can we lose before a catastrophe occurs?
Over the next 20 minutes, the number of people on earth will grow by 3,500 and the number of species that share the planet will drop by one. This unprecedented rate of biodiversity loss is now happening dangerously some 1,000 times faster than the natural background level, prompting ever louder alarms and warnings of earth’s sixth mass extinction. The previous five mass extinctions were caused by natural catastrophes. This one is being caused by a single species: ours.
Close to home, we recently lost our Sumatran Rhinoceros, a hairy two-horned animal that gracefully roamed our forests. Despite the good intentions of the Tiger Summit in Russia in 2010, Malayan Tiger numbers continue on a downward trend. We dread the possible local extinction of the iconic leatherback turtle. The woolly-stalked begonia found in Penang was declared extinct in 2007. And the list goes on.
Animal habitats are uprooted and entire species are driven to extinction as deforestation takes place, often as a result of illegal logging and unauthorised land clearing. Humanity must halt further biodiversity loss, and efforts must be concentrated in important hotspots like Malaysia.
As a mega-diverse country with a rapidly growing economy, ours can and needs to be a showcase of how to balance development and socio-economic progress — in particular the eradication of poverty — with conservation of our natural heritage.
It is against this backdrop that we find it inspiring to find an individual, a leading corporate figure, who takes it upon himself to launch an ambitious project to help protect the largest continuous forest complex in Peninsular Malaysia: the 300,000-hectare Belum-Temenggor Rainforest.
The visionary is Tan Sri Mustapha Kamal, chairman of the EMKAY group of companies, who founded The Pulau Banding Foundation (PBF) in 2007.
Believed to have already existed during the Jurassic Period, the Belum-Temenggor is ranked among the world’s oldest rainforests — older than those of the Amazon or the Congo. The area spans four times the area of Singapore. Its 130-million geological age is compatible with the age of the mountain ranges of Peninsular Malaysia, which appeared through orogenesis at the beginning of the Mesozoic era.
And, it is home to amazing natural diversity — an important habitat for tigers, elephants, tapirs, and seladang. All 10 species of hornbills in Malaysia are found in this forest complex, as are 3,000 species of flowering plants, including three species of Rafflesia, the world’s largest flower.
The Belum-Temenggor Rainforest offers an interesting case study of how to mitigate harm to the natural environment being caused by human activity.
PBF’s aims are to promote and perform tropical rainforest research. To this end, the Pulau Banding Rainforest Research Centre, Pulau Banding Dormitory and the Belum Discovery Centre (BDC) were established to provide and support research, development and knowledge activities. The BDC is also supported by another well-known corporate player, the Sime Darby Foundation.
The PBF has contributed significantly to conservation and eco-tourism in Belum-Temenggor, through education and awareness programmes for all walks of life including schoolchildren, community and public. More than 2,000 students have participated in the Kids for Temenggor Expedition (K.I.T.E.). PBF also collaborated with the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN) and Perak State Park to organise a Green Badge Forest Guide Course to train guides when bringing visitors to Belum-Temenggor.
PBF helped the Perak government and Northern Corridor Implementation Authority (NCIA) to develop a 10-year integrated master plan to sustainably manage the massive Belum-Temenggor forest complex.
To enhance research and development and further understand the forest complex ecosystem, PBF raised funds for two scientific expeditions in 2012 and 2015 involving 350 researchers and support staff. In addition, since 2008 PBF has provided grants to local and international postgraduate students, and in 2016 alone facilitated about 140 researchers and students in their field and research works.
A four-year doctoral research programme supported jointly with Kyoto University, on the “Behaviour of Tapir in the Wild”, was successfully completed in 2017.
In October 2016, PBF in collaboration with other NGOs, government agencies and the state government, organised the inaugural Belum Rainforest Summit, where more than 100 participants from 12 countries shared experiences and views on issues in tropical forests worldwide and their solutions.
PBF, in collaboration with the UN Development Programme, has also participated actively in a number of local and international programmes on conservation such as Biodiversity Financing and Protected Area Financing.
It is committed individuals like Mustapha, who in their special ways make a difference in our crusade to create a more sustainable human existence on this planet.
Although sustainable development is now a universal mantra, “think global, act local”, it can only be effective and impactful when there are individuals like him who walk the extra mile to achieve our common future.
Zakri Abdul Hamid is the 2017 Asean Biodiversity Hero and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Universiti Malaya
TO earn the title ‘World’s Best Science Communicator’, a young scientist must explain an important science idea in a compelling, easy-to-understand way, and in less than three minutes — a tremendous challenge of World Cup proportions.
So it was with great pride that we learned one of our own had won the top honours at the 2018 FameLab International competition, held this month in the western UK city of Cheltenham.
Dr Siti Khayriyyah Mohd Hanafiah of Universiti Sains Malaysia prevailed over 11 other finalists — from Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia — with her description of modern diagnosis of a “hidden killer,” tuberculosis, through the use of antibodies-antigens.
Siti Khayriyyah was the second Malaysian winner in three years. Dr Abhimanyu Veerakumarasivam of Universiti Putra Malaysia won the 2016 competition. And together they have demonstrated to the world the capacity of Malaysians to excel in science and technology.
And what a boost for young scientists as they start careers, not just for the winner but for all those from the 27 participating countries. While only one competitor can win in one sense, all took home valuable experience and contacts.
Malaysia was invited by the British Council to participate in FameLab in 2015 and the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT) offered to act as its national partner.
It is one of MIGHT’s more recent creative efforts to drive forward our economy through competency in science and technology.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary of service this year, the independent, non-profit MIGHT was created as a public-private partnership to prospect and promote promising technology-related opportunities, and to build consensus on strategically important policies.
The origins of MIGHT actually date back to 1984 when, in his first tenure as prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad appointed his first science adviser, an authoritative voice to augment the counsel of government ministries.
With a mandate to develop science and technology in Malaysia, the first Science Adviser, Tan Sri Dr Omar Abdul Rahman, created a “High Technology Special Unit”, which gradually grew and emerged as MIGHT in 1993.
Since then, MIGHT has realised many achievements, nurturing the growth of strategic, technology-related industries and helping Malaysia edge ever closer to developed nation income and status.
So what are the key tech-related sectors MIGHT prioritised as most promising and valuable for national pursuit? There are several, including:
Aerospace, advanced automotive materials, biotechnology, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, energy, electronics and electrical equipment, herbal products, housing and construction, intelligent transportation systems, “smart cities”, shipbuilding and repair, telecommunications, waste management, nanotechnology, medical sensors, and plantation crops.
Creating concrete substance in these priority areas, MIGHT’s early successes included support of the Malaysian Automotive Institute, for example, as well as Formula 1 racing to advance our expertise in auto-related technology.
Opened in 1996, the MIGHT-supported Kulim High-Tech Park was the first development of its kind in Malaysia and now ranks among the best in Asia Pacific.
It offers local and multinational companies a world-class, synergistic space within which to produce high-value products, and boasts 37 industrial and 78 supporting tenants employing a workforce of 28,000. In all, the Kulim High-Tech Park has helped cultivate investments of more than US$11 billion.
Over the years, Malaysia’s development of more than 20 industrial sectors has been charted with the benefit of blueprints and roadmaps produced by MIGHT.
MIGHT’s programmes and activities today also include supporting, for example, Malaysian business competitiveness through our membership in the Global Federation of the Competitiveness Council and the Kyoto Science and Technology Forum. MIGHT is also the secretariat of the Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council (GSIAC) established by the prime minister and comprising leading world figures in academia, business and civil society to advise Malaysia on the role of science and technology in economic development. One of the projects arising from GSIAC’s advice is to find ways to derive additional products and economic benefit from biomass left over from palm oil refineries (MyBiomass).
It is expanding Malaysia’s use of systematic foresight techniques beyond the realms of technology and industrial development. In 2012, MIGHT launched the Malaysian Foresight Institute (MyForesight) to build national capacity to employ these techniques for better decision-making.
Winners of MIGHT’s Global Cleantech Innovation Programme, a collaboration with the UN Industrial Development Organisation and other partners since 2014, give Malaysian entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch their innovations in Silicon Valley, and access to potential venture funding.
Senior government officials and captains of industry are represented on MIGHT’s board of directors, which I have the honour to chair jointly with Tan Sri Dr Ahmad Tajuddin Ali, a distinguished leader from Malaysia’s corporate world. MIGHT’s talented president and chief executive officer is Datuk Dr Yusoff Sulaiman.
MIGHT’s work has been recognised with many awards over the past quarter century. But the greatest reward of all cannot fit in a trophy case — it is the higher standard of living many Malaysians enjoy today as a result of its farsighted vision and effectiveness.
We therefore wish MIGHT a happy silver anniversary, with thanks from us all.
Zakri Abdul Hamid is Joint Chairman of the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT) and the third science adviser to the Prime Minister
HAVING been involved in international scientific governance for more than 30 years, I couldn’t help but feel a lump in my throat in Turkey on June 4 when witnessing the inauguration of the United Nations’ Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries (LDCs).
It marks the beginning of realising a dream long held by many colleagues from the LDCs for a mechanism that would facilitate their use of science, technology and innovation (STI) to benefit socio-economic development in their respective countries.
Turkish and UN officials last week formally opened the bank in Gebze, an industrial town near Istanbul. The bank will serve as a bridge for technology transfer and related assistance to the 47 LDCs around the globe, including advice on intellectual property rights and developing technology related policies.
LDCs are highly disadvantaged in their development process for a variety of reasons. Of the 880 million citizens of LDCs, 75 per cent live in poverty. With 12 per cent of the world population, LDCs account for less than two per cent of global gross domestic product and about one per cent of the global trade in goods.
The idea for the bank was conceived in Istanbul in 2011. In addition to strengthening the STI capabilities of LDCs, it will foster development of innovation ecosystems and generate home-grown research, among other goals.
Hosted and generously supported by the government of Turkey, other countries making financial contributions to the
initiative so far are Norway, Bangladesh, Sudan and the Philippines. These voluntary contributions from UN member states are complemented by support from other stakeholders, including the private sector and foundations.
The bank is viewed as a milestone for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), namely Goal 17.8: “to fully operationalise the technology bank and STI capacity-building mechanism for least developed countries.”
At the opening ceremony, Turkish Minister of Science, Industry and Technology Faruk Özlü said that hosting the bank was a reflection of his nation’s humanitarian foreign policy.
The bank will be a key resource for developing world scientists and innovators — a repository for scientific information and a connection to sources of funding, legal support and patent licensing help.
The bank’s governing council will be chaired by Mohamed H. Hassan of Sudan, the former chair of the United Nations University Council.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres similarly honoured me with an appointment to the council, together with Abdoulaye Yero Balde (Guinea); Ann Aerts (Belgium); Aggrey Ambali (Malawi); Sonia Bashir Kabir (Bangladesh); Bitrina Diyamett (Tanzania); Xiaolan Fu (China); Rosibel Ochoa (Honduras); Frank Rijsberman (Netherlands); Alfred Watkins (USA); and, Orkun Hasekioðlu (Turkey).
In his inaugural speech, Hassan pointed out that in 2016, the 47 LDCs, with a population close to one billion, contributed less than 0.4 per cent of the world’s total scientific publications. Compare that with the 1.4 per cent contribution of Turkey and 2.75 per cent of South Korea in the same year.
According to Hassan, the bank will help level the playing field between the LDCs and the rest of the world.
“The lack of capacities in the production and utilisation of scientific and technological knowledge poses a real challenge to many developing countries, especially the LDCs,” he said. “Such inequalities are greatly hindering the efforts of LDCs to overcome chronic poverty, underdevelopment and the implementation of the SDGs.”
The role of the governing council is to create principles and policies to govern the bank’s activities and operation, initially drafting a charter which has since been adopted by the UN General Assembly.
UN officials hailed the bank’s establishment. “This achievement is not only highly symbolic but also of great strategic importance to the LDCs in the overall achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Ms Fekitamoeloa Katoa ‘Utoikamanu, the UN High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States.
“We must ensure that the LDCs are not yet again left behind.”
UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed appealed to member states and other stakeholders to contribute generously to the financing of this bank so it may reach its potential.
Let us all, as Malaysians, ponder how we could weigh in to assist. It would continue a long tradition. During Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure as prime minister, he set his sights on assisting Africa’s development with efforts that included the highly visible Langkawi International Dialogue — an important medium encouraging a free-flow of ideas and exchange of information among developing countries.
It was also during that time that the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme flourished with an influx to Malaysia of developing country trainees. During prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s tenure, Malaysia hosted and funded a key United Nations University (UNU) centre in Kuala Lumpur — the UNU International Institute on Global Health.
The UN Technology Bank for the LDCs is a similarly noble initiative. It deserves our full support.
Zakri Abdul Hamid is Joint-Chairman of the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Tech (MIGHT) and vice-chair of the Governing Council of the UN Technology Bank for the LDCs
IN THE 19th century, renowned French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur famously said: “Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.” The wisdom of that remark has proven itself often in the many decades since.
Successfully advancing research depends on sharing ideas and knowledge with colleagues worldwide. And the benefits of such cooperation can draw together even the staunchest of enemies.
Cold War hostilities were put aside, for example, when American Albert B. Sabin helped pioneer the use of a live-virus, oral polio vaccine in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, leading to the vaccine’s adoption worldwide.
Since then, the scourge of polio, so dreaded in my childhood years, has all but disappeared from the planet (though not eradicated; occasional outbreaks remind us of the need to be vigilant).
We have also seen tremendous international coalitions formed around the world’s common interest in polar science.
The Polar Regions have in many respects been good models for international scientific cooperation: this started with the two so-called Polar Years of 1882-83 and again in 1932-33, during which many nations collaborated in simultaneous scientific measurements at remote polar sites. These investigations focused primarily on the Earth’s climate and its magnetism.
A sequel to the International Polar Years was the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957-58, which focused on Antarctica and outer space. Despite the Cold War there was good cooperation in Antarctica, which continued well after the IGY. In the Arctic, scientific cooperation proved to be quite difficult, however, because of the military confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Some 10 years ago, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) opened a Centre for Science Diplomacy, and two years later teamed with the United Kingdom’s Royal Society on a joint report, which described three forms of science diplomacy:
SCIENTIFIC collaborations that improve international relations;
USING evidence and scientific expertise to help formulate foreign policy; and,
DIPLOMACY that promotes and supports international scientific cooperation
Since that publication, many academic programmes, workshops, conferences and institutes, even a AAAS journal, have been dedicated to the subject.
In addition, a global Foreign Ministries Science and Technology Advisers Network was initiated two years ago. Its initial meeting involved advisers from Japan, New Zealand, the UK and the US, and diplomats from 12 other nations in Africa, Asia (including Malaysia), the Americas, and Europe.
The organisation underlines that science and technology advisors to foreign ministries “are not necessarily experts on all scientific matters, but they understand science and know where to find the most appropriate expert on any given topic. They have the skills to explain evidence required for informed decision-making about foreign affairs, serving as evidence brokers in our increasingly trans-boundary world with constantly emerging complexities. They utilise their roles as evidence brokers to reveal options that contribute to informed decision-making by nations across the international landscape.”
Recently, the network convened a meeting with the Commission for Science and Technology for Development in Geneva, Switzerland. Among the main discussions was the role of science, technology and innovation (STI) in foreign aid.
An increasing proportion of foreign aid has a core STI element and research may be specifically funded as a development assistance tool. Indeed, the success of much foreign assistance requires science and technological effort, and donor academic institutions are often involved.
A good example of the role of STI in foreign aid is the Newton Fund established by the UK. Malaysia is among 18 nations chosen to participate in this global initiative (known here as the Newton-Ungku Omar Fund) which builds scientific innovation partnerships to support economic development and social welfare. It also develops research and development innovation capacity for long-term sustainable growth.
Today, more than 250 joint collaborations are funded in various fields of STI between both countries from programmes and activities such as the Institutional Links, Research and Innovation Bridges and Researcher Links.
At least eight technologies and innovations are being co-developed. These products and innovations have significant outcomes in terms of commercialisation and solving global challenges.
Malaysia itself actually put the idea of foreign aid through cooperation into practice 40 years ago when we embarked on the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme during the First Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sydney. The programme emphasises human resource development through training in public administration, good governance, healthcare services, education, sustainable development, agriculture, poverty alleviation, investment promotion, banking and other essential areas.
More than 100 short-term specialised courses are offered by not less than 50 training institutions. More than 20,000 participants from 140 countries have benefited so far.
Clearly, science advice and diplomacy are crucial. Developing cross-disciplinary, multilateral responses to global challenges such as the Sustainable Development Goals depends on the interconnected roles they play.
AN almost immediate challenge to Sabah’s newly installed government is a seemingly local problem, but, with national and global implications: how to ensure the ultimate survival of Borneo’s unique pygmy elephants.
Last week, Sabah again made international headlines with news of the death of six pygmy elephants in several different oil palm plantations, the latest of the endangered creatures to perish as their rainforest habitat continues to shrink.
According to Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga, the carcasses did not have any signs of gunshot wounds and he theorised that they could have been poisoned accidentally by plantation fertiliser. Some conservationists said the creatures might have taken drinks from the poisoned watering hole.
Late last year, three other elephants were killed by poachers; in 2013, 14 were found dead in Sabah and were thought to have been poisoned.
Pygmy elephants are threatened by widespread logging of their natural habitat to make way for lucrative oil palm plantations, and are targeted by poachers as their ivory fetches a high price on the black market.
A herd of pygmy elephants feeding by the banks of the Kinabatangan River is a sight to behold. They are baby-faced with oversized ears, plump bellies and tails so long they sometimes drag on the ground as they walk. Pygmy elephants are unique to Sabah and it will be an act of tragic neglect and omission if we fail as stewards and pay little attention to their survival.
As the Malay saying goes, “Tak kenal maka tak cinta” (you won’t love them if you don’t know them). We need more research to understand these animals better and thank those meeting that need in Sabah.
The Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) located in the Lower Kinabatangan Basin is a collaborative research and training facility managed by Sabah Wildlife Department and Cardiff University. The centre is also generously supported by the Sime Darby Foundation.
According to the DGFC director, Dr Benoit Goossens, understanding the pygmy elephants’ origins and past demography would be useful for the development of a long-term conservation strategy. The centre, with partners including the Sabah Wildlife Department, is drafting a 10-year action plan to protect the elephants.
He said there were fewer than 2,000 pygmy elephants living in an increasingly fragmented environment. There have been, for many years, two competing theories on the elephants’ origins: they could have been introduced by humans (records from the 1600s show neighbouring sultans offered elephants as gifts to the Bornean sultans), or they could have diverged from Asian elephants a long time ago.
About 15 years ago, a genetic study showed that Bornean elephants’ DNA differed significantly from that of Asian elephants. A joint research team of experts from Portugal, France, Wales and Sabah, including Dr Goossens, recently published a study in Scientific Reports saying that the elephants may have arrived on Borneo at a time of the last land bridge between the Sunda Islands in Southeast Asia.
The team used genetic data analysis and computational modelling to study the demographic history of these animals. With no fossil records to guide their work, the team created computational models for different scenarios.
“Then we compared the results from these models with existing genetic data, and used statistical techniques to identify the scenario that best explained the current genetic diversity of the elephant population in Borneo,” Dr Goossens says.
Their conclusion: the most likely scenario was a natural colonisation of Borneo around 11,400 to 18,300 years ago. The period corresponded to a time when the sea levels were very low and elephants could migrate between the Sunda Islands.
Such an illustrious history for a special group of animals is not only a source of pride for Sabahans but for all Malaysians. Indirectly we are also the custodians of these unique and majestic animals for the rest of the world to appreciate and wonder.
Therefore, it is reassuring to know that one of the earliest public statements made by Sabah’s new chief minister, Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal, was to assure the rakyat that the state government was committed to the preservation and conservation of wildlife and natural resources, and to back that with the necessary political will “to push through more drastic measures that would affect big logging companies and plantations”. Furthermore, short and long-term measures to mitigate human-elephant conflicts must be put in place.
Time is running out for the pygmy elephants. Surely we do not want to see what happened in 2015 when the Sumatran rhinoceros was declared extinct in the wild in this country. Malaysia takes pride in being one of the 17th mega-diverse countries on Earth. Let’s ensure the precious pygmy elephants of Borneo continue to be one of our greatest emblems of that status.
Zakri Abdul Hamid r is a Langkawi Award laureate and was the first Asian ever elected Chair of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity
IN Austria in 1973, at the height of the Cold War, six years of effort by United States president Lyndon Johnson and USSR premier Alexey Kosygin culminated in their nations’ joint establishment of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
It marked the beginning of a remarkable project to build bridges between the West and the Soviet bloc — a milestone in science diplomacy, defined as the use of scientific knowledge to foster international relations on a bilateral or multilateral basis.
In a paper for the British Council for the “Going Global 2018 Conference”, held in Kuala Lumpur last week, Dr Jane Knight from the University of Toronto noted that in today’s globalised world, “there is increased interconnectedness and interdependence among countries”.
The desirability of this development is being debated, she said. “Nevertheless, global issues such as climate change, epidemics, cybersecurity, migration, social justice — to name only a few — know no borders. Global challenges are now national challenges and vice versa.”
According to Dr Knight: “In international relations, countries tend to present their self-interests first – it is naïve to think otherwise. But because national self-interests are closely linked to global issues, multilateral cooperation is growing in importance. History has shown us that addressing both global and national issues requires collaboration and a commitment in order to find solutions that respect the individual needs and perspectives of different countries, while at the same time finding a common path to ensure different but relevant benefits for all”.
Some recent multilateral examples are the roles played by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprised of scientists and experts from various nations to influence the outcomes of negotiations undertaken at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Others include the Intergovernmental Platform on Science-Policy Advice on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Another recent example was the 26-member UN Secretary-General’s Scientific Advisory Board, established by then-UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to help inform the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals through science, technology and innovation.
My earliest first-hand experience in science (knowledge) diplomacy was when I was made a member of the Malaysian delegation to negotiate the CBD in a series of intergovernmental meetings over two years beginning in 1990 for the treaty to be ready for signing at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the then prime minister, signed the treaty on behalf of Malaysia.
It was almost a surreal experience. Coming from the university, 30 years ago, I was ill-prepared and hardly at ease as a negotiator in the heady world of the diplomats. They were suave, confident and almost invariably had the gift of the gab honed through years of experience as ambassadors of their respective countries.
Nevertheless, academics bring contributions not readily available to the diplomats — technical or expert knowledge which provide much added-value to any negotiation. It is the synergy of the two that makes knowledge so invaluable in today’s diplomatic relations.
What is needed at the national level is greater fostering of the relationship between academia and the diplomatic service. For example, we need to share research knowledge accumulated in areas of strategic importance in the local universities. Another option: organise dialogues and training workshops at our specialised institutions such as the Institute for Diplomatic and Foreign Relations. Through such collaborations, we would be in a better position to articulate our arguments in international arenas.
Another key question posed by Dr Knight relates to the role of universities in addressing national, regional and international challenges — how to bridge international relations and higher education and research.
Malaysia and the United Kingdom have created a very good example to illustrate this point: the Newton-Ungku Omar Fund (NUOF), a joint research initiative funded dollar-for- dollar by each country. Launched five years ago from a commitment to science and technology in both countries, the agreed research focus from the start has been the impact in Malaysia of climate change in sectors such as water, energy, health, food security and biodiversity loss.
Beyond joint research and an exchange of scholars, the NUOF programme has also built the relevant institutional links between our two countries — a great example of the intersection of knowledge and diplomacy.
As stressed by Dr Knight: “Higher education and research is changing at an unprecedented pace with the development of innovative global research networks, education/knowledge hubs, international joint universities, regional centres of excellence, multi-sector partnerships, and new modes of academic mobility among students, scholars, programmes, providers, research and policies.”
The time is ripe for policymakers to re-examine how this vast body of knowledge could be brought to bear on improving diplomatic relations among nations of the world.
The writer was founding chair of IPBES, and a member of the UN Secretary-General’s Scientific Advisory Board
LONG before “sustainable development” became a global buzzword in 1987, the principle of “utilising natural resources to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” had already been practised by many cultures and individual leaders beyond the Western world.
In this regard the late Sheikh Zayed Sultan Al Nahyan, father of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), stood out for decades.
Last week, Malaysia hosted the visit of a delegation from the Zayed International Foundation for the Environment. Led by its chairman, Prof Mohammad Ahmed Fahad, and its secretary-general, Dr Meshgan Al Awar, the visit was to celebrate the “Year of Zayed”, commemorating the late leader’s contribution to sustainable development.
Introduced in the influential UN report “Our Common Future”, sustainable development is a philosophy that encourages us to conserve and enhance our resource base while meeting basic needs of employment, food, energy, water and sanitation.
The idea quickly went viral, taken up as the theme of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro — better known as the “Earth Summit”. And, it inspired Agenda 21, the summit’s sustainable development blueprint for the global community.
This was followed by the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg which reviewed progress and focused on water, energy, health, food security, and biodiversity loss.
Twenty years after the Earth Summit — Rio+ 20 — leaders from 192 nations renewed their sustainable development commitment in a non-binding document called “The Future We Want”.
Three years ago, heads of government met again and agreed on the 2030 Development Agenda, committing to 17 sustainable development goals (SDG).
Each interrelated goal relates to a vital social or economic issue such as poverty, hunger, health, education, climate change, gender equality, water, sanitation, energy, urbanisation, environment and social justice. And, each goal has its own set of targets (169 in total across the 17 goals).
Notwithstanding the global processes taking place in the UAE, the late Sheikh Zayed exemplified a leader who walked the sustainable development talk. He is considered one of the world’s greatest conservationists, one whose foresight and vision long preceded the present-day global environmental movement.
According to Zayed: “We cherish our environment because it is an integral part of our country. On land and in the sea, our forefathers lived and survived in this environment. They were able to do so only because they recognised the need to conserve it, to take from it only what they needed to live and to preserve it for succeeding generations.”
“With God’s will, we shall continue to work to protect our environment and our wildlife, as did our forefathers before us. It is a duty, and, if we fail, our children, rightly, will reproach us for squandering an essential part of their inheritance, and of our heritage.”
Sheikh Zayed founded a programme to protect the country’s wildlife and created a sanctuary for endangered species such as the Arabian Oryx and the Sand Gazelle. Among the results: the symbol of Abu Dhabi, the Dorcas Gazelle, is a protected species and its numbers are increasing. Sheikh Zayed also reintroduced traditional methods of desert agriculture, ensuring that Abu Dhabi will be greener and more fertile.
Sheikh Zayed was born into an inhospitable, arid environment, so when he was appointed the Ruler’s Representative to the Eastern Region of Abu Dhabi in 1946, he immediately started to secure a more reliable and sustainable supply of water. He set out to preserve the heritage of falconry and hunting, and, at the same time, ensure the long-term survival of falcons and their prey. He also introduced a humane face to the sport, which he considered art and an invaluable heritage.
It is no surprise, therefore, that in 1999 UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum, honoured the former leader by founding the Zayed International Foundation for the Environment.
The foundation launched the Zayed International Prize for the Environment to recognise and encourage environmental achievements that support and promote implementation of Agenda 21, the Millennium Development Goals, the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation for Sustainable Development, the outcomes of Rio+20, and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Over the years, recipients of the Award in the Global Leadership category have included Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Prince Albert 11 of Monaco. The scientific and technological category includes scientific leaders like Bert Bolin, Jane Lubchenco, Partha Dasgupta, Ashok Khosla and Mostafa Tolba.
In the words of former US president Bill Clinton, “Anything written about this man will not do justice to him — he is a very influential man and you can feel his strength and his great dreams of a happy future for his country”.
The writer is science adviser to the prime minister and co-recipient of the 2014 Zayed International Prize for the Environment (Science and Technology)