[Letter to the Editor] Unlocking S’wak’s potential: A pathway to excellence in biology, biomedical research

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Letter to the Editor

By Dr Low Teck Yew, Professor Maxey Ching Ming Chung & Professor Ho Jeong Kwon

Sarawak covers a vast area of 124,450 km² and is home to a relatively modest population of just 2.619 million people. Recently, Sarawak has gained recognition for achieving a high-income status. It has unveiled ambitious plans centred on a new green economy agenda and a firm commitment to provide universally accessible tertiary education to its people by 2026.


Located on the enchanting island of Borneo, Sarawak is a region of exceptional natural beauty, boasting lush rainforests, diverse marine ecosystems, and an abundance of unique flora and fauna. Yet, despite these extraordinary attributes, the State is only beginning to realise its full potential in advancing the fields of biology and biomedical research.

During the recent Human Proteome Organisation (HUPO) Congress in Busan, South Korea, we had the privilege of speaking with Dr Peter Morin Nissom, the Sarawak Research and Development Council (SRDC) general manager.

SRDC is wholeheartedly committed to the grand vision of creating a robust, sustainable, and globally competitive research and development ecosystem for Sarawak. Our discussions centred on facilitating interactions between State delegates from Sarawak and eminent researchers from various higher education and research institutions, as well as scientists and leaders from biotech companies from Korea.

These potential interactions are in line with Sarawak’s comprehensive research initiatives, which include establishing local research institutions, increasing research funding, developing research talent, promoting collaboration and networking, and encouraging interdisciplinary research. We are confident that by diligently pursuing these directions, Sarawak is poised for significant progress in the field of research and development.

However, given its relatively small population of 2.6 million, Sarawak must make astute strategic choices and prioritise specific areas of research. These key areas should ideally be aligned with Sarawak’s unique strengths and values, which include its invaluable biodiversity, pristine environment, and the rich genetic, cultural, and historical diversity represented by its more than 40 ethnic groups. Biodiversity conservation is an overarching goal, in line with the state’s unwavering commitment to achieving sustainable development goals (SDGs).

We take note of the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre (SBC), which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2023. The SBC has made commendable contributions in various areas, including traditional knowledge documentation, bioprospecting, and the establishment of a comprehensive natural products library. The potential to synergise these unique natural resources with modern science for drug discovery holds the promise not only of financial prosperity but also of attracting global scientific talent and fostering collaborative efforts.

Peter also updated us on Sarawak’s proactive efforts to tackle local diseases and advance medical biotechnology through initiatives such as the Sarawak Infectious Disease Centre (SIDC). Headed by Associate Professor Dr Ivan Yap, who is also the deputy general manager of SRDC, SIDC is expected to be fully operational by December 2024, with the primary aim of making a significant impact in the field of biomedical research.

This ambitious RM200 million project, generously funded by the Sarawak government, will provide SIDC with state-of-the-art facilities, including a range of biosafety laboratories. Preparations are also underway to establish collaborations with local and international institutions to develop vaccines, therapeutics, and medical treatments.

Notably, SRDC is a statutory body operating under the purview of the Ministry of Education, Innovation, and Talent Development (MEITD), Sarawak. MEITD, headed by Datuk Seri Roland Sagah Wee Inn, was established to promote STEM education, improve English language proficiency, create a conducive learning environment, and promote research and development (R&D) for socio-economic benefits. Sarawak is building the Sarawak Science Centre (SSC) to promote STEM education among its youth.

Recognising the importance of talent development in the transition from a natural resource-based economy to high value-added industries, Sarawak has adopted the commendable approach of providing free tertiary education to its people from 2026. Sarawak is also steadfast and determined to implement the teaching of science and mathematics in English medium. This was reiterated by Datuk Dr Annuar Rapaee, the Deputy Minister of MEITD.

The recognition of the Chinese independent schools’ UEC is another facet of Sarawak’s strategy to strengthen its human capital pool and talent development. By embracing students from diverse educational backgrounds, Sarawak aims to prevent the loss of valuable local human resources through brain drain.

Attracting, developing, and retaining talent is often a major challenge in a knowledge-based economy. In addition to offering competitive remuneration packages, several factors come into play when professionals consider exploring opportunities elsewhere. This consideration is particularly relevant given the nature of scientific work, which involves international exposure through conferences, workshops, and sabbaticals.

These factors include opportunities for personal development, career prospects, a supportive environment for family life, and, particularly for scientists, the degree of autonomy to pursue their research interests. It is also important to address the bureaucratic obstacles and the burden of excessive administrative tasks that are often encountered in local universities.

In addition, scientists and the whole research ecosystem need to evolve together. This includes not only the researchers themselves but also management, administrative roles, and support functions such as grants offices. Benefits and remuneration packages must be competitive, but it is also time to explore the extensive role that artificial intelligence (AI) can play in streamlining repetitive administrative tasks, thus reducing bureaucratic inefficiencies and maximising efficiency.

In the commitment to investing significantly in tertiary education, especially for post-graduate degrees, we must also acknowledge the need to recognise and foster alternative career opportunities. An overemphasis on producing a surplus of unemployed or underemployed PhDs and a blind chase after paper may prove counterproductive, leading to a sheer numerical surplus without creating corresponding economic opportunities and real-world impact.

It is, therefore, equally important to cultivate entrepreneurial skills and to encourage the growth of start-ups among graduates. The ability to facilitate the ease of doing business and to create an environment conducive to innovation is essential to realising Sarawak’s broader vision.

In addition, the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) sector should be given the recognition it deserves. Within this sector, well-trained, meticulous, and disciplined technicians and researchers often form the essential backbone of research and development. Their skills and expertise are essential for the successful operation of research labs and the practical application of research results. This harmonious blend of academic research and practical implementation is instrumental in achieving Sarawak’s research and development goals.

The transition to a research-centred ecosystem requires a profound change in mindset. It requires an embrace of uncertainty and a willingness to take risks and accept setbacks while extending opportunities for redemption. The ethos of collaboration and teamwork should replace bureaucratic obstacles and an excessive focus on administrative processes.

In this sense, the establishment of an advisory board of local and international experts is a monumental step forward. Such a body serves as an important catalyst for fostering diverse perspectives and forging strategic partnerships, all aimed at transcending narrow perspectives and embracing international competitiveness.

In conclusion, Sarawak is on the cusp of a promising era in biology and biomedical research. With its unique natural resources, cultural diversity, and a strategic focus on talent development, Sarawak is well-positioned to make significant strides in research and development.

By adopting a holistic approach that encompasses academic research, practical application, and a supportive ecosystem, Sarawak can realise its potential as a global player in this field, benefiting not only its residents but also contributing to scientific progress on a wider scale. — DayakDaily

Dr Teck Yew Low is currently an Associate Professor and a Senior Research Fellow at the UKM Medical Molecular Biology Institute (UMBI) at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM).

Professor Maxey Ching Ming Chung grew up in Sarikei, Sarawak and is now a retired faculty member of the Department of Biochemistry, NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore.

Professor Ho Jeong Kwon is a full professor at the Department of Biotechnology, College of Life Science & Biotechnology and was an adjunct professor at the Department of Internal Medicine, College of Medicine, both at Yonsei University, Korea. He is also the director of the Chemical Genomics Leader Research Program supported by KNRF.

This is the personal opinion of the authors and does not necessarily represent the views of DayakDaily. Letters to the Editor may be lightly edited for clarity.