The country's other consistent performer is palm oil. It is running short of land to expand. The only place where the price of land is still acceptable is Sarawak. Even there, the process to acquire land is complicated. Industry players now look at Africa, particularly Liberia and Ghana, to expand. Unlike petroleum, at least for palm oil, the industry can still fall back on Research And Development to increase production.
While the country's key revenue earners are showing signs of potential decline or stagnation, the country's expenditure on fuel and food subsidies takes a big chunk of the annual budget. Admittedly, it is not easy to reduce or phase out such subsidies. It may even be political suicide. It has to be done in stages.
Nowadays, society is more educated and better informed. They are becoming more vocal in protesting projects which compromise their safety and health. Projects which negate environmental well-being are not looked upon too kindly. Take nuclear energy, for example. Soon after the debacle in Fukushima, the public has grown more nervous about anything radioactive. Even the slightest mention of radioactivity would set off a string of objections to projects.
Such is the case with the rare earth project in Kuantan. Though international experts have come out with assurance that the risks are manageable, this has not silenced the critics. Some say the views of experts are no longer respected here. Is this a healthy development? Unless it is recognised that virtually all technologies carry some risks, it will be very difficult for the nation to truly benefit from the opportunities that new technology-based businesses present. The question should be whether the risks are manageable or not.
Even today's nuclear reactor designs are relatively safer compared with earlier ones. They are now talking about third and fourth generation nuclear power plants. Improvement continues. In fact, scientists are now experimenting with new fuels such as thorium to replace uranium which experts claim will further improve the safety aspects of nuclear power. Despite all the publicity over the incident in Japan, the radioactivity there is still well contained locally. The number of fatalities is also considered low.
This should be quite encouraging considering the fact that the Fukushima plants are of the older design. But an important question to ask is why Japan, which went through all the pain of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, still chose to invest in nuclear. I am sure we cannot buy the argument that the Japanese are less concerned about losing lives. Like all humans, the Japanese also want to live long. That is the reason why anti-ageing formula sells well in Japan. Maybe they look at climate change as the bigger enemy. For that matter, why are the oil-rich countries of the Middle East also committing to invest in nuclear power? This is despite the fact that their oil reserves can last a very long time.
For two days, on July 7 and 8, the National Professorial Council had their first national congress. Almost 1,400 professors in the country descended on Kuala Lumpur to discuss among other issues the implications of climate change on the country; the energy options for the country, including whether we should invest in nuclear power; the new emerging science-based businesses that Malaysia can benefit from; the ecosystem for scientific research in the country; and the issues surrounding science education in the country.
They came from various disciplines ranging from pure and applied science to social science. All the 20 public universities of the country were represented. Nowadays, most of the global issues require a multi-disciplinary approach to develop solutions.
When implementing new technologies, an understanding of the socio-political impact is crucial. This is why social science research has become more important. The organisers are quietly hoping that their deliberations will be taken up by the media for eventual publicity. Public awareness is critical.
The congress did eventually generate a lot of new ideas. All in all, a total of 14 resolutions were passed. All talked about pushing the country's envelope to better compete in the knowledge-based, innovation-led economy. The professors are among the nation's best brains. They can offer clues to some of the country's challenges. How does Malaysia move on the question of nuclear energy? How can Malaysia strategise to benefit from the green economy? How can Malaysia profit from the hidden and untapped wealth in the country's vast biodiversity? How can we better manage our water? How can we attract more bright students to the science profession? These are some questions looking for answers.
If we are to effectively deal with the many challenges confronting the country, and profit from the many opportunities, the assembly of the country's professors is definitely a forum where we can look to possible answers. It is high time we listen closely to their ideas. It is time to tap on the country's professors.
Dr Ahmad Ibrahim is a fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia
Source: The NST Home OPED 2011/07/28 Look to our professors for answers