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In 2003, Dr M had a plan to boost biotech in M’sia…but it’s now a ‘valley of ghosts’

When you talk about biotechnology, some of the things that come to mind might be the Resident Evil series, Westworld, or even the Spider-man series. However, it’s something pretty real, and it’s a pretty big thing across the world.

To put it simply, biotechnology is technology based on biology, where cellular and bio-molecular elements are used to develop technologies and products that can potentially improve our daily lives. For example, biotechnology is used to come up with medical vaccines and cures, like what they’re doing with finding a cure for the Covid-19 pandemic now.

And Malaysia’s apparently been paying quite a lot of attention to expand the field in the country for the last several years; we’re sometimes even called the biotechnology hub in Asia. And at one point in time in Malaysia…

 

There was an idea to invest in biotechnology in Cyberjaya

GIF from Pinterest

In 2003, when the 8th Malaysia Plan was announced by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, he announced a plan to develop a BioValley as well. It was a proposal to build a local biotechnology center in Cyberjaya, or more specifically, in Dengkil. The project served as one of the final initiatives in Mahathir’s last days as our fourth Prime Minister.

While it may seem that the biotechnology buzz had just hit Malaysia around that time, it was said that our government had already identified it as one of the five key technologies to help transform Malaysia into a highly developed nation in the 1980s. According to Mahathir, this BioValley would be a 15km by 50km hard-wired zone that’s intended to be a location for biotechnology innovation. Apparently, the Malaysian government at the time was hoping that the plan could attract USD$10billion in foreign and local investments within 10 years.

Image from Twitter

To develop the BioValley, our government decided to not just work with the Japanese for the architecture, but also the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MIT had apparently recommended the BioValley focus on research into agriculture and natural resources, given that these are what we have a lot of.

“I’m confident we can build a multibillion dollar biotechnology industry in Malaysia. All the ingredients are here. We are just working on the recipe.” – MIT professor Anthony Sinskey, as quoted by The Wall Street Journal

Working together with MIT, the initial plan of the BioValley was to situate it in Dengkil with three research institutes, costing around USD$160million. And it was expected to complete in 2005. However…

 

No one would tell anyone anything about the BioValley

GIF from Gifimage.net

However, after the announcement in 2003, the plan was shrouded in mystery, where hardly anyone, especially the media, could get any details about it. For example, we didn’t know anything about the progression of the project or at what stage it was in. Part of the reason behind the secrecy was said to be due to lessons learned from MSC, which didn’t garner as much investment as the government had initially hoped, and the government was cautioned against ‘overselling’ the BioValley project.

“We want to get the project off the ground rather than talk about it.” – An official at the Science, Technology and Environment Ministry, as quoted by Nature

What we do know is that apparently, there were already three companies that had agreed to park themselves in the BioValley in 2003, and the government was in the process of negotiating with another 20. Not just that, while it was still in planning stages, researchers were already tapping into our country’s resources, such as looking into tongkat ali to treat, um, certain disabilities in men.

Following the announcement of the BioValley in 2003, Mahathir resigned and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over as our fifth Prime Minister, so essentially, he took over the project as well.

Well, in retrospect. Image from The Malaysian Times

However, the expected completion date of 2005 came…and went. Until today, there’s still nothing to show for the BioValley. There currently are no photos or anything of the BioValley that was supposedly to be already under development.

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Now, there are different verdicts about the BioValley project. Some have claimed that it’s still under development, some said that it’s never existed, while others just don’t want to talk about it. We don’t even know for sure where the USD$160million that was supposed to go into the project had gone to. All that’s left is apparently an 80-hectare construction site with a few empty buildings in Dengkil, but even then, there’s no pictures of the site.

One had even called it…

Screenshot from Nature

“It was one of the most grandiose biotechnology projects. We were hoping that BioValley would take off.” – University of Malaya Research & Innovation Assistant Vice-Chancellor Rofina Yasmin Othman, as quoted by Malaysian Business

But that’s not to say that we’ve completely failed in our biotechnology ventures as…

 

Our biotechnology industry remains strong, outside of the BioValley

Image from EduSpiral

While the BioValley kinda didn’t pan out, we still have a pretty strong presence within the industry. Malaysia was ranked fourth globally for Biotech Enterprise Support in the Scientific American Report and second in ASEAN for intellectual property protection in the IMD World Competitiveness Index Yearbook.

Plus, our government launched a National Bioeconomy Programme in 2010, making Malaysia the first in Southeast Asia to have such an initiative. The main objectives were to focus on specific bio-based industries in Malaysia in order turn Malaysia into a high-income nation by…well, this year, actually.

In fact, biotechnology has become so important in Malaysia that we came up with our Biosafety Act to “regulate the release, importation, exportation and contained use of living modified organisms, and the release of products of such organisms”. And that also made us one of the few Asian countries to be actively managing and assessing the risks that come with biotechnology.

And when we talk about the BioValley, while the BioValley in Dengkil doesn’t seem to be operational any time soon, we do have a BioValley of a smaller scale in Miri, Sarawak, funded by the Sarawak government.

Image from NST

It’s not the same thing as the one in Dengkil, but hey, at least it’s something! It’s a collaboration between the Sarawak government and Curtin University. Just like the plan for the initial BioValley in Dengkil, this one’s meant to support the development and research of biotechnology, while also providing jobs.

“The Sarawak Biovalley Pilot Plant is unique because it aims to assess and maximise the viability of bio-products for commercial production.” – Curtin University Malaysia pro vice-chancellor Jim Mienczakowski, as quoted by NST

As of the BioValley project in Dengkil, well, a PPBM supreme council member had suggested that the production of ketum and cannabis can help in reviving it, but that’s simply a suggestion. For now, there’s been no further news on the BioValley project in Dengkil. When Mahathir returned for his second run as Prime Minister, he didn’t say a word about it either.

But all things considered, we’ve managed to attract major players in the industry into Malaysia. Not just that, Malaysia itself has also been doing pretty well with our own research institutes to boost biotechnology. So it does seem that there’s still a pretty bright future for biotechnology in Malaysia.

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