MINISTER OF SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND INNOVATION (MOSTI), Datuk Seri Panglima Wilfred Madius Tangau speaks to The Petri Dish on his aspirations for the nation and how science can propel all sectors and all industries forward for a better Malaysia. The science minister has become synonymous to Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) aspirations in Malaysia. He has extremely futuristic views and goals for Malaysia and has been working tirelessly to bring Malaysia on par with the global science, technology and innovation (STI) landscape. This is no small deed as we are still a young nation facing many challenges to reach the pinnacles of STI – a field that requires “luxurious” prerequisites; a handsome budget allocation that runs into the billions; the implementation and execution of detailed and strategic long-term plans and policies as they are on the paper; a talent pool that is innovative and entrepreneurial; political will; cohesion between various ministries; and shedding off of the territorial and silo attitude are some of the prerequisites. As simple as these sound, they are mammoth tasks staring at the minister, up front and smack between his eyes.Madius has his eyes set on what Malaysia’s STI landscape should be, beyond 2050 in spite of all the challenges. MAHALETCHUMY ARUJANAN shares her tete-a-tete on how the minister plans to spearhead STI in this first of a three-part series.

TELL us about how your perception about STI and Industrial Revolution 4.0(IR 4.0) has evolved since you took over as the MOSTI Minister?

I have always been a science fan. Science fascinated me even as a school boy walking through the forest to reach my school every day. The surroundings and nature made me very curios. Today, as the minister for Science, Technology and Innovation, I have become an ardent believer that only with STI, we can become a technology-driven and a high-income nation.

We need to break the territories of physical, digital and biological spheres and merge them to fully embrace IR 4.0. With IR 4.0, we have to embrace new technologies and collaborate with experts outside our field like never before. Collaboration, co-creation and co-production will become permanent fixtures of how we step up to face IR 4.0.

I am reaching out to everyone so that no one is not left behind on IR 4.0. I want STI to reach all nooks and corners of the country to bring about socioeconomic growth. With disruptive technologies, we not only need to change what we think but how we think to develop our agility. I am no exemption, and this is part of my evolution.

What do you like the best about being the minister for MOSTI? What is the excitement?

Being one of the engineers and architects who builds the nation for tomorrow through STI and disruptive technologies. Building a nation is impossible without STI. In the past, our nation’s socioeconomic development was based on mainly agriculture and then manufacturing and oil & gas.

In the future, these fields will remain but with a strong infringement of disruptive technologies and change. These traditional industries will risk being “left behind” if they are incapable to adapt to converging technologies

This is inevitable and MOSTI will prepare the country to embrace the change. It is both exciting and challenging. I may not see the fruits of my initiatives during my time but it feels good to know that I can and have contributed.

I am always on the lookout on global development on STI and STEM when I travel for work or holidays. I always try to bring back ideas from my trips and I immediately get my relevant agencies to do some studies on my idea on how we can implement it in Malaysia.
At MOSTI, we want to democratise STI. This simply means making STI relevant to every single “rakyat”. Either they become part of the STI community, benefit from the innovation as consumers, empowering them to innovate and become technopreneurs, or creating a science-literate society.

Tell us how STI will play a role in realising TN50.

STI has a big role in socioeconomics of the country and will be the centrepiece of TN50 to ensure its mission are successfully achieved. STI will play a key role in becoming the engine for economic growth, creating job opportunities, elevating the nation to a high-income nation, ensuring food security and sustainable development which will all lead to strengthening socioeconomics.

Our youth must equip themselves with the right education and skills to take on Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data – the two emerging fields due to their overarching applications and potentials.

Academy of Sciences (ASM) is always on their toes on this. ASM recently mapped out Malaysia’s economy in the future in their “Envisioning Malaysia in 2050 Foresight Initiative” and has identified ways to position the country moving forward through maximum use of STI by sustaining the country’s development.

This study is interdisciplinary as it envisions how Malaysia would be based on the four components of science and technology, society and culture, economics and finance, and governance. Recommendations from this study will also be included in the TN50 document in determining key strategic areas and detail action plans that enable us to leverage on current strengths for tomorrow’s success.

I can say that MOSTI’s agencies have their fingers on the pulse of the country’s STI initiatives and the problems faced by the people where solutions can be provided through STI. I also believe, that we can and should improve what we are doing and be on the top of the matter. I am constantly in touch with my agencies to drive the STI agenda. I hope to instil the passion, creativity and innovative skills for R&D among our scientists to solve economic and societal problems.

In all the above the youth who will hold the torch of our future economy and leadership will have their roles carved and MOSTI will ensure their STI aspirations are fulfilled.

You are a strong lobby for talent development and National STEM Centre in Malaysia. What motivated you to set up the National STEM Centre and what are your expectations from this initiative?

I had a few hours before my flight back to KL after the Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council (GSIAC) meeting in London in 2016. This gave me the opportunity to visit the UK National STEM Centre in York, about two hours train ride from London.
I wanted something that can promote STEM education in Malaysia, so quickly jumped on the opportunity to visit the centre. After that visit, I vouched that I will set up a similar centre in Malaysia. ASM is already working on this and it will train STEM specialist teachers on Inquiry-Based Science Education (IBSE) methods.

Many ask why MOSTI is driving STEM education and initiatives. We need to understand that MOSTI is the technology driver and provider and we are piloting emerging and futuristic technologies like Internet of Things, nanotechnology, new genetic technologies, automation and robotics. So, we need to ensure two things – that we produce the right talent pool and that we provide them with the employment opportunities. We have to prepare our future talent to be ready for jobs that are not mundane and routine that can be easily replaced by automation.

The National STEM Centre will serve as a platform to create talent for the future. I was one of the strong lobbyists who wanted to upgrade school science laboratories and today we have 1,800 schools that will have better laboratories to give hands-on learning experience to our future STI talent.

The culture of innovation, risk-taking, entrepreneurship is still not fully engrained in our DNA. What are MOSTI’s initiatives to enculture these traits?

I am amazed with the Korean culture of innovation. Korea has 17 creative economy innovation centres around the country and within one year of establishment, they supported 2,800 Korean start-ups and SMEs, raised USD250 million and created 1,400 employment opportunities.

For this to happen, we need the entrepreneurship spirit which is all about innovating and risk-taking. We also need to shift our minds from being job seekers to job creators.
I know these attitudes are difficult to develop. But MOSTI has taken some initiatives through Bioeconomy Corporation that facilitates public-private partnership and Malaysian Technology Development Centre (MTDC) that is tirelessly helping budding technopreneurs. Technology Park Malaysia (TPM) offers incubation facilities and trainings for technology driven start-ups.
One of my new initiatives is establishing Innovative Society Centre in all states. It will be supported by the National Innovation Council and will support anyone right from their ideation to commercialisation.

The centre will offer customised consulting services, advice on funding, intellectual property right, facilitate networking and help build prototype. The focus will be on local industries. E.g. in Sabah, it will focus on tourism, manufacturing, infrastructure, agriculture and environment.

I hope employment rate can also be increased through this initiative. And these centres will tear down the barriers for ordinary folks to innovate and build a bridge for scientists to work with them and bring innovation to actualisation.

How will MOSTI support the industry of all sizes?

The government has increased the R&D grants to public universities from RM235 mil to RM400 mil in Budget 2018. I hope to see innovation and commercialisation thrive with a focus in societal wellbeing. I also hope we move into emerging and futuristic technologies to get us prepared for IR 4.0 and for universities and research institutes to be technology feeder to the industry.

With Standards Malaysia and SIRIM, MOSTI will continue to look on how we govern new technologies through new standards with industry, as well as ensuring the growth and security of the nation at the same time. We will also support industry to harness digital technology.

I urge SMEs to embrace the digital economy and gear up to face competition abroad and not just focus entirely on the local market. With the establishment of the Digital Free Trade Zone (DFTZ), SMEs are able to tap into profitable foreign markets and subsequently boost their national competencies and competitiveness.

What has been the closest to your heart since you assume the ministerial role at MOSTI?

Humanising science, championing human-centred policy and talent development. STI and STEM have no purpose if they don’t serve the people. We need to ensure the people see opportunities in STI and not the problem. We must focus on shifting their existing paradigm and world view. Changing the mindset, work culture and attitude is the hardest but it is a crucial step if we are to emerge triumphant in this age of uncertainty.
I am also happy that RM190 million has been allocated to upgrade 2,000 classes to 21st Century Smart Classrooms. In short, STI has to have the human face and for the public good.

On top of this, I am so excited to envision the state of STI in the country in 2050. Malaysia would have advanced in many areas of emerging technologies such as green technology, biotechnology, digital technology, nanotechnology ad even neurotechnology.

What we sow today in STI will also ensure a nation that is self-sustaining in terms of water, food and energy. Our energy will be generated from renewable sources such as solar, ocean thermal energy conversion and fuel cell supplied and monitored across the country through super smart grid of renewable energy.

Malaysia’s ageing population will also not be left behind in 2050. Digital technology will enable them to still be relevant to the country’s development, and those with mobility problems will have access to affordable intelligent robots to give them a quality lifestyle.