THINK is a series of articles on current and pertinent issues related to policy-relevant matters in Sarawak as well as Malaysia. The articles are written by officers and and members of the Institute. The main aim of the articles is to stimulate public interest in the subjects discussed and contribute towards better-informed decision-making processes in Sarawak, in both public and private sectors.

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Smart Farming in Sarawak: Basic Challenges

23rd November 2021

Under the economic sector of the Sarawak Digital Economy Strategy (2018-2022), adoption of ICT and digital technologies in transforming and driving innovation in the agricultural sector was greatly emphasized. Examples of smart farming initiatives are the usage of technologies like Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, drones, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to boost the quantity and quality of products, while optimizing the human labor required by production. This approach is in line with the Post Covid-19 Development Strategy (PCDS) for agriculture to capitalize on modern aka smart farming as a way to accelerate productivity and growth. IoT technologies have been proven to be able to assist farmers to reduce waste and enhance productivity, and control things such as the amount of fertilizers consumed and the number of journeys made by farm vehicles which will result in the efficient utilization of resources such as water, electricity and fuel. In short, smart farming can be summarized as identifying the right location, right place to apply, right quantity of fertilizer and water, and the right time to apply them.

The Department of Agriculture has started to introduce IoT among its farmers in Sarawak’s Permanent Food Parks (PFP). The first small group who utilise this technology are chili and melon farmers in the PFP of Rampangi. This experiment uses a sensor which monitors the application of fertilizer as well as controls the temperature and humidity, and has proven to be doable and is very rewarding. The Sarawak government is planning to set up smart farming parks at selected agriculture stations throughout Sarawak. The establishment of these smart farming parks or PFP is mainly to provide opportunities and to spur greater involvement of local farmers in smart farming.

Even with some of the success stories, the real challenge, however, is how to spur interest and attract takers, especially the younger generation to embrace smart farming. Can the existing farmers who are from the rural area be swayed to take up smart farming? Smart farming can be a costly project to start with for a regular farmer or even for interested young people. According to one smart farming operator, the cost for the sensors and equipment alone is between RM10,000 – RM15,000 for a 0.4 hectare plot. Smart farming here is still limited to the use of sensor application and this needs a specially prepared farming plot for the intended crop. Proper and effective guidance is very much needed from the experts during the initial stage. The other issues are network performance and bandwidth speed that could hamper the interest to participate. Since many agro-sensors/gateways depend on cloud services for data transmission/storage, cloud-based computing also needs to be stronger. Being connected only is not enough.

If farmers or the younger generation agree or are willing to venture into smart farming, what kind of support and assistance are needed to sustain their active involvement from zero to the production and marketing stage? As smart farming requires ‘new technology and new ways’ to operate, all these technological jargon and new techniques must be at least understood by the farmers if they want to progress and benefit from this transformation in farming. Funding should not be an issue as some agencies have already introduced a programme for farmers to venture into smart farming. For example, Agropreneur Muda programme (PAM), Agrobank has funded 1,159 young agropreneurs in 2020. Some of the agropreneurs have already adopted a modern farming approach.

Potential and aspiring agropreneurs are certainly out there, wanting to be given the opportunity, to be provided with initial support and the right ecosystem, and be guided and trained for the vast opportunities in smart farming.


Online Learning

11th October 2021

Like most other sectors, and many other countries, Covid-19 has exposed the inequalities underlying internet access in this country particularly in Sarawak and has affected schooling activities tremendously. Not only do rural students and urban students found themselves on the opposite sides of the digital divide, the gap also exists among urban students of different economic backgrounds. The authorities have been hyping on online lectures as a viable substitute but the unequal and intermittent access has meant the experience is vastly different depending on location and household income. This is particularly important from the standpoint of the student whose quality on doing online lectures hinges on the mobile versus the laptop or personal computer, as well as good home support to handle online education.

For the less fortunate, they don’t have home wi-fi, rely on the mobile phone’s 4G signal at best which is not equally reachable nor reliable from all, leaving some studying in unimaginable places and deprived conditions in order to join classes online. For most in the rural areas, erratic electricity supply is another major problem and this can affect not only observing and listening to their teachers, but also watching videos, downloading or even keeping the phone charged. The student’s ability to partake and engage with their teachers and peers depends on the number of devices the household has, the quality of the device, the connectivity and the timing of the lectures.

Other issues that may crop up include is teaching excellence more important than how lessons are delivered? will the absence of peer interaction deprive motivation and retard learning outcomes? Will not different approaches to online learning be necessary to meet different types of content and pupils? The question therefore has moved from whether a student can access the internet to how does the student do it; from a question of whether the teacher alleviates the education divide or inadvertently deepen it; which begs the final question whether online education is a fair option at all.


EPF Withdrawal: Is This the Right Course of Action?

20th September 2021

Numerous assistance programmes and policies that have been introduced since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to lessen the burden on the rakyat. However, one of the more controversial ones, especially at its introduction were those allowing people to withdraw funds from their EPF savings.

Under the i-Sinar program, it was announced that EPF contributors with savings below RM100,000 could withdraw up to RM10,000 from Account 1 savings, while those with savings above RM100,000 are allowed to withdraw up to 10 per cent of their Account 1 savings, capped at RM 60,000. This was followed by the i-Citra program in July 2021 that allowed withdrawals of up to RM5,000. To date, EPF has 14.6 million active contributors and 530,000 employers with a total managed fund of RM940 billion.1 Despite these impressive figures, as many as 54 per cent of contributors above the age of 54 have savings of less than RM50,000 for retirement. This is substantially less than the minimum of RM228,000 target set by EPF in 2017. 2

The decision to allow access to personal funds meant for retirement has come under fire from many quarters. Many are concerned that allowing such withdrawals during understandably difficult circumstances will further deplete already low retirement savings. This is essentially trading long term security for short term gains. At a macro level, there is also concern that a wave of withdrawals will impact EPF’s financial resource which could affect dividend payouts and missed investment opportunities needed to grow contributors’ savings. Prior to this, government aid has been dispensed at federal and state levels through various channels such as wage subsidies, loan moratoriums and more direct forms of financial aid such as Bantuan Prihatin Nasional (BPN) and Bantuan Khas Sarawakku Sayang (BKSS). The extent of the effectiveness of these policies is yet to be known.

The EPF has moved to quell concerns on outflow due to withdrawals by claiming that they have been preparing for withdrawals since the outbreak earlier this year and had prepared for it by increasing cash levels. In the case of portfolio rebalancing, EPF stated it would look into its liquid assets to cater for withdrawal. While this is superficially reassuring, this brings into question the long-term financial viability of the country’s largest pension fund. Given the fact that there has been other policy prescriptions and direct financial aid to address the financial impact of the pandemic, is this EPF withdrawal initiative the best course of action? How will this directly impact the post retirement finances of those who decided to dip into their enforced savings? These are hard questions not only because these are hard times, but they are exceedingly necessary to ensure that the right policies are used to confront the challenges brought on by this pandemic.

Suicide On the Rise: Who Should Be Responsible?

06th September 2021

WHO (2019) estimates that 703,000 people die by suicide every year mostly in low- and middle-income countries. It is the 17th leading cause of death in 2019 with a rate of one person every 40 seconds.

Since the Covid pandemic started, there have been a reported increase in suicide cases and suicide attempts in the country. During the first Movement Control Order (MCO) last year, 266 people committed suicide with 25 per cent of the cases associated with debts, followed by family problems and marital issues, both at 24 per cent and 23 per cent respectively. The first three months of this year saw 336 cases with an average of four suicide cases every day. Penang alone recorded 53 cases and 19 attempts in the first five months.

With another round of MCO under the National Recovery Plan (NRP), there are likely to be more suicides if no serious action is taken immediately. Finance is not the only concern as loneliness and not being able to be with loved ones is becoming the greater challenge. For instance, last year a Malaysian stranded in Singapore jumped off his apartment, depressed due to a heavy workload, apart from missing his family after almost eight months.

In general, financial assistance is easier to obtain compared to intrapersonal issues related to emotions and feelings because no one can help unless the person comes forward to tell what he/she is going through. Of course, there are channels and organizations specialized in assisting this group such as Befrienders Malaysia, but it is uncertain whether their existence is known to the public. Many countries consider both attempted suicide and suicide as a crime, and this may prevent suicidal individuals from coming forward to seek help fearing legal action.

The big question is, should we blame the person himself for not being mentally strong enough? Or is it the family members and immediate community that are insensitive? Or the government for not taking the issue seriously? The bottom line is what should be done to prevent it? And who by?



Impact of Job Losses

23rd August 2021

The Movement Control Order 3.0 earlier this year has culminated in the White Flag Campaign where people publicly air their needs for food assistance. Although NGOs and individuals have risen to the occasion and responded speedily, many wonder how long this problem will continue. As reported by the media, many who require this assistance are families whose breadwinners have recently been laid off from work or are unable to continue their business.

The Department of Statistics (DOSM) reported that for May 2021, the number of unemployed persons stood at 728,100 as compared to 826,000 the previous year. While it may seem like an improvement, the national unemployment rate still stands at 4.5% as of May 2021 (latest available data), a rate not seen since the 1998 global economic recession. Understandably, this COVID-19 pandemic has been a big contributor to the rise of unemployment, with the various levels of movement control orders affecting industries and businesses, forcing employers to lay off workers, impose salary reductions, or work on contract-basis.

Given this statistical context, does it mean that the Federal Government’s economic recovery steps to boost employment through its PEMERKASA and PEMULIH strategies have failed? Or have they yet to deliver? And should not a more workable programme (food coupons, fixed weekly/monthly aid distribution, etc.) be designed to ensure that those who are in need of aid are not cut off suddenly until they get employed again? The sudden change in government will hopefully bring in new impetus to soften the economic impact among the unemployed.

TVET: Time for A Renewed Push

2nd August 2021

Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is one of the central components necessary in transforming the country’s economy into a high tech, Industrial Revolution 4.0 based economy. However, the march towards such modernisation has been fraught with challenges. For starters 25 per cent of all jobs in Malaysia are skill based, far lower than the 40 per cent in developed countries. Also, at its very base, only 10 to 15 per cent of secondary school students in Malaysia are opting for further education in TVET. In a webinar in December of last year, titled Budget 2021: 6 Billion Reasons to Disrupt TVET, industry speakers pointed to a strong need for streamlining and the importance of shifting TVET training to the private sector.

The webinar also discussed the much celebrated German model of TVET where a vast majority of training is hands on, in the field and paid for the training period. While the model proved to be effective in the German context, Daniel Bernbeck, CEO of the Malaysian-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry noted that countries such as the United States and China overcame their TVET challenges by building up their own approach into a more demand driven, innovative model. The German model cannot be copied wholesale, as it is not a “plug and play” model. This is an excellent, though concerning point, as this makes the TVET mountain that Malaysia has to climb even steeper – the country will have to fix its already pressing issues while developing a model that will propel it to the next stage. Also discussed was the need for industry to be the one drafting TVET curriculum and not the government. They also lamented the dissolution of the TVET Commission which was consulting industries, and was empowered to craft policy. The speakers also opined that seven ministries each with their own syllabus and systems were inefficient and did not meet the needs of industry. Furthermore, the curriculum was archaic and outdated, taught by educators who are not in touch with contemporary industry knowledge and trends.

These perspectives by the industry should be taken seriously by the government as they are most directly involved with economic growth and know what they need. As such, proper and thorough consultation with them needs to be a cornerstone of any TVET policy. After all, it would be unwise not to leverage the expertise and experience of industry. This issue points to the need of a stakeholder consultation mechanism or platform similar to the previous TVET Commission, one that is empowered, especially from a policy perspective. And while there are calls by industry to place education and training solely in their hands, this should be examined carefully to ensure it is in line with TVET national policy goals and priorities. While there were interesting insights generated at the webinar, many also concluded that the implementation of remedies to the challenges to TVET in Malaysia would mean little without the political will to do what is necessary. That is the final piece of the puzzle.

What therefore can the immediate community or close family members do in addressing this issue? And what help and action can the authorities, both government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) offer in defending, protecting, assisting, and supporting these victims? Perhaps, a more concerted effort is needed to explain and create greater awareness to convince victims to come forward and tell their stories, and to make society stop remaining silent which indirectly protects the perpetrators.