Datuk Zainal Abidin Bin Abu Hassan, Secretary General Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation
*This interview was held on 20th July 2022, prior to retirement of Datuk Zainal Abidin bin Hassan
Expectations, forecasts, predictions and assumptions allow us to make decisions. But they can also contain biases and blind spots. Forecasts and predictions are not well suited to situations of volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity because they project the future in a linear way that is not reflected in reality. The speed of technological change and the emergence of disruptive technologies continuously transform regional industrial structures.
Datuk Zainal Abidin bin Hassan is currently serving as the Secretary General of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation Malaysia. As a skilled public figure, Datuk Zainal possesses decades of experience in a myriad of fields – from leadership to industrial strategies, business, technology, national policies and global issues. myForesight® is honoured to have Datuk Zainal for him to share his knowledge and insights as well as in discussing further how MOSTI uses technology foresight in shaping the future of Malaysia’sscience, technology and innovation.
Technology Foresight: Support and Create a Sustainable Future
Foresight is a provocateur of innovation. Foresight help usto identifyfuture readiness and opportunitiesthat will lead to necessary solutionsfor the future.
We live in an environment of constant and unpredictable change that is now the norm in Government, industries and societies acrossthe world. It iscommonly referred to as volatile, uncertain,complex and ambiguous, known as VUCA world.
As Malaysia positions itself for the next phase of its development and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the issues related to Malaysia’s transformation are being addressed, including through the 12th Malaysia Plan, Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 and related policies/ roadmap under the respective Ministries/ Agencies. Thus, foresight is key in anticipating change and making our industrial strategies more future proof in a VUCA setting.
The COVID-19 pandemic for instance, caught Malaysia and other countries in the world by surprise. Though the Government, through various policies, initiatives and projects had been advocating on the use of technologies to enhance the competitiveness and resilience of our industries, but the transition was slow as many industries still relied on unskilled foreign labour and lacked emphasis on digitalisation strategies. So, when COVID-19 struck, we could see many supply chains were disrupted and operation of industries were affected, leading to economic and job losses, affecting various companies. The operation of Government too was impacted, with various Government bodies trying its best to address the catastrophic situation that affected our socio-economy.
The pandemic provides an opportunity to Malaysia in resetting our economy, strengthening security, emphasising inclusiveness, and advancing sustainability so that we can mitigate future shocks. In this regard, tech centric foresight approach undertaken by Government and industries in resetting their approach or future direction using STI to address socio-economic challenges would enhance productivity, job creation, innovation capacity, high-skilled talent pool and ultimately economic prosperity and societal well-being. It would also change the current production-based economy to a knowledge-intensive economy, whilst challenging the conventional boundaries of operation.
Therefore, in formulating policies and strategies related to our industrial strategies, foresight which foresees new horizons, key drivers and trends, including in Science, Technology and Innovation (STI), has been acknowledged as important and can be used as a key high-level instrument in strategising and planning so that we remain competitive, resilient and agile in responding to changes and major shocks. Foresight is one of the tools that can be used to compliment efforts in formulating policies and strategies.
Foresight is a provocateur of innovation. Foresight help us to identify future readiness and opportunities that will lead to necessary solutions for the future. Recognising the importance of foresight, MOSTI through the National Policy on Science, Technology and Innovation (NPSTI) 2021-2030, has included STI foresight as an important strategy, specifically in increasing capacity development and application of STI foresight. It is to ensure that STI foresighting capabilities and expertise are improved, whilst emphasising the application of STI foresight in developing policiesto address keychallengessuch as industrial competitiveness, food security, climate change, environmental,social and governance (ESG)realisation and disaster risks. For this purpose, the Strategic Data and Technology Foresight Division was established in 2016 to institutionalise foresight initiative within MOSTI and to work with Malaysia Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT) at the national level to meet the country’s aspirations by identifying future STI technologies, inputs and studies that can be used in formulating STI policies and mainstreaming STI for policy making to further enhance the country’s economic growth and become a high-tech nation.
For instance, based on the foresight by MIGHT, some of the major initiatives that the Malaysian Government embarked as strategic investment for high impact value creation were development of the aerospace industry, development of rail industry and pioneered the concepts of Industrialised Building System and Modular Construction. These efforts eventually led to the aerospace industry generating revenue of16.2 billion in 2019 and 11.6 billion in 2020, proliferation of rail-based projects such as Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and Light Rail Transit (LRT) and IBS being mandated for use in Government projects.
Using Foresight to Support and Create a Sustainable Future
Foresight plays an important role in identifying as well as preventing or mitigating the issues or gapsin Government, industries and societies.
Malaysia’s policies such as 12th Malaysia Plan, Shared Prosperity Vision 2030, NPSTI 2021-2030 and National Policy on Industry 4.0 (Industry4WRD) places importance on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). We need to create a conducive ecosystem that supports the development and adoption of products and technologies that can drive SDGs. For instance, Goal #9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure) and Goal #12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) provide opportunities to Government, Society and Industries in devising and prioritising initiatives and projects that emphasis on life-cycle approach so that they are sustainable.
This is where foresight plays an important role in identifying the issues or gaps in Government, industries and societies in adopting sustainable practices and developing possible scenarios and strategies to prevent or mitigate those issues and gaps. By generating plausible scenarios, where traditional planning has sought to prevent failure, foresight instead engenders agility, innovation, strategic evaluation, and the proactive shaping of the future, including in supporting and creating a sustainable future for the nation.
Initiatives that wean the market off hydrocarbons, tap into renewable energy sources, prevent pollution, and reward commitment, would create a sustainable future for Malaysia and achieve our commitments made under the Paris Agreement to reduce our greenhouse gases by 45% by 2030, and atthe recently concluded United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference 2021 (COP26).
Foresight that consists of developing possible scenarios which showed technically and economically possible routes forward to reduce carbon emissions, for instance categorised as unambitious pathway, aggressive pathway, modest pathway and balanced pathway would provide critical information for policy and decision making taking into consideration the trade-offs. In this regard, key strategies related to potential of green technologies and new energysources such as hydrogen could be developed and implemented to encourage economic resilience and accelerate our transition to low carbon economy. This has paved the way for MOSTI to embark on the initiative to develop Hydrogen Technology and Roadmap as an alternative energy source that would unlock potential growth of hydrogen related technology companies as solution providers. The Malaysia Startup Ecosystem Roadmap 2021-2030 has also prioritised developing and facilitating startups in clean energy as among the strategic sectors that would eventually create positive social and environmental impact.
Based on the foresight that led to informed policy and decision-making, it would provide confidence to the private sector and guide them towards right investment decisions based on environmental, social and governance aspects, adopt agile regulatory approach, as well as stimulate research, development, commercialisation and innovation (R,D,C&I) activities.
Moving forward, as approved by the National Science CouncilMeeting held on 8 April 2022,MOSTIthrough the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) is embarking to develop a National Action Plan for Planetary Health driven by science, technology, innovation and economy (STIE) to mainstream planetary health in all national policies and plans through a whole-of-nation approach in addressing ecosystem changes, biodiversity, human health and climate change forsustainable development. The adoption of a new “Planetary Health” approach that focuses on the interdependence between human, animal and environmental health will ensure that the nation’s prosperity is built upon environmental sustainability coupled with social equity and inclusion so that no one is left behind. This development will bring together various ministries, agencies and all relevant stakeholders for inputs and support in ensuring that it is a doable action plan to be carried out nationally via the whole of nation and whole of societal approach. Here, foresight approaches are useful in identifying emerging issues, navigate uncertainties, articulate scenarios and develop a common vision for a desired future to safeguard planetary health. It is evident that the interdependence of human health with biodiversity conditions and climate change, also reflected in the COVID-19 pandemic which is one of the zoonotic diseases has resulted in 4.1 million deaths in the world and 90 million people fell into hardcore poverty by 2020. This reminds the world of the importance of nature conservation and preservation and the need to balance them with socioeconomic development. The foresight process imparts an instrumental value in improving our understanding of futures for strategy formation to address issues related to “Planetary Health”, find new solutions and also to prepare for future pandemics. It also offers intrinsic value such as democratic participation process to invite more stakeholders for long term agile planning and anticipatory policy making for robust policies and actionoriented strategies to shaping futures.
Technology Foresight as Instrument to Influence Future Policy and Planning
Through foresight,MOSTI could bridge the gap of technology adoption and application in socioeconomicsectors by working collaboratively with the respective industries,communities and Government entities in matching products, technologies and services.
The 10-10 Malaysian Science, Technology, Innovation and Economic (MySTIE) Framework is an integration of 10 key Malaysian socio-economic drivers with 10 leading science and technology drivers aligned to Malaysian strengths and needs. The framework was derived from Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM) Emerging Science, Engineering and Technology (ESET) Study to provide S&T Foresight as part of ASM’s flagship initiative on Envisioning Malaysia 2050. A process of identifying, characterising, and anticipating the possible scenarios in Malaysia’s future was adopted through a method in foresight termed scenario planning. Bytaking into account different alternatives of our future in 2050, policy and decision makers, industries, communities and STI influencers are able to put in place long term planning tools in anticipating and preparing for plausible futures. In particular, it enables the selection of a desired scenario that is conscious of our historical past and capitalises on our unique strengths while mitigating our weaknesses. By doing so, we are able to create the future that we desire and based on Malaysian landscape. ESET study culminated in 284 products, services, technologies, possible applications and outcomes relevant for Malaysia towards 2050, 95 emerging technologies and 21 impactful emerging technologies.
Subsequent analysis by ASM to identify the top Science and Technology (S&T) drivers that can develop Malaysia’s socio-economic sectors. Research capabilities, outputs (publications, patents and commercialisation activities), outcomes and the research building blocks (e.g. public and private Centres of Excellence (CoEs) and research institutes) were evaluated before 10-10 MySTIE Framework was finalised and approved by Government. The framework provides guidance that can be used as an integrative tool for government, researchers, innovators, industries and communities to address challenges affecting our socio-economy using Science and technology. The 30 National STIE Niche Areas identified in the framework provide an opportunity to build collaborative networks and platforms towards establishing vibrant innovation ecosystems across Malaysia. These ecosystems in turn need to be strengthened through regular foresighting to be agile, relevant and impactful over time.
Based on the 10-10 MySTIE Framework, MOSTI, including our funding agencies have reprioritised our initiatives such as National Technology and Innovation Sandbox (NTIS), Upskilling for Deeptech and Future Skills, Malaysia Social Innovation (MySI) and funding projects related to R,D,C&I. This would in return ensure there is focus, particularly on R,D,C&I activities b y optimally utilising our resources and increasing the return on investment from public funded projects through strategic partnership with related stakeholder, particularly private sector.
Furthermore, through foresight, MOSTI could bridge the gap of technology adoption and application in socio-economic sectors b y working collaboratively with the respectiv e industries, communities and Government entities in matching products, technologies and services from our R,D,C&I initiatives to address industrial issues, climate change, pollution and food security . For instance, in addressing climate change impact based on various studies undertaken b y respectiv e Ministries/Agencies, Academia or other related parties that incorporated among others foresight methodologies, MOSTI through Malaysian Nuclear Agency had developed the IS21 paddy seed using nuclear-technology with gamma radiation-induced mutation method. The paddy seed has higher resistance to unpredictable weather, crop disease, as well as biotic and abiotic pressures, contributing to food security.
MOSTI through ASM had also provided relevant inputs to the United Kingdom Government on NPSTI (2021-2030) and 10-10 MySTIE Framework. As a result, Malaysia was one of eight countries, including Canada, Finland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, United Arab Emirates and the United States that showcased for best practices related to foresighting in the United Kingdom Government’s 2021 publication on “Features of Effective Systemic Foresight in Governments around the World” study . The document featured the 10-10 MySTIE Framework as an enabling tool for ‘Wholeof-Government and Society’ approach to ensure STIE development to enhance economic growth, improve the livelihood as well as quality of life of the citizens and global competitiveness of Malaysia. To date, the 10-10 MySTIE Transformation Book has recorded more than 8300 downloads with more than 8000 readers from 69 countries. Stakeholders such as the state governments are no w incorporating the framework in planning and implementing activities for regional prosperity.
Therefore, technology foresight is important as it can provide clear understanding on possible scenarios for informed decision making in various aspects. The foresight effort undertaken by MOSTI, including ASM and MIGHT is crucial in policy formulation or adopted in other areas such as project planning. Foresight has to be mainstreamed and institutionalised in various Government entities, industries, research organisations and at regional and global platforms such as through ASEAN Foresight Alliance to continuously create awareness and build capacity in using foresight for analysis, formulating policies and making informed decisions.