TAN Sri Muhyiddin Yasin appears to be in his element in his new portfolio as Agriculture and Agro-Based Industries Minister.
I could go on for days telling you what I have in mind to modernise our agriculture sector, he told Hong Kong reporters who had asked him to elaborate on his vision and goals for Malaysias agriculture and agro-based industries.
That (how long he would take to explain his plans) is probably an understatement since he was brimming with ideas and plans for his ministry earlier when he had sat down with the Malaysian press for breakfast.
His biggest challenge is ensuring that the countrys target of being a net food exporter by 2010 is met. The nation is at the halfway mark of the 12-year (1998-2010) Third National Agricultural Policy (NAP3) that aims to meet the 2010 food sufficiency target.
The current balance of trade in food stands at RM8bil in exports compared to RM13bil in imports. The target, according to Muhyiddin, is to balance the equation by boosting the production of food for export.
To do this, Muhyiddin said, he needs to change the mindset of players in the sector farmers, fishermen, officers under his ministry and producers of livestock to modernise operations and, most importantly, to encourage them to run their operations as a business and not merely as a traditional subsistence activity.
This target may not be achieved fully by 2010, he admitted. We do not want any delays in meeting the target but it may be realistic to extend it to achieve the main targets, which is for the country to be self-sufficient in terms of food security.
Muhyiddin said there is a need to beef up the technical and knowledge-based capacity of his officers so that they can guide and administer policies and practices for farmers and fishermen more efficiently.
Many of our fishermen, for example, have been neglected and marginalised because we dont have the manpower to guide them. They themselves fish for subsistence and have not even ventured into deep-sea fishing that brings in high returns, he said.
We need highly trained government professionals to lead the way towards modernising our fishing industry to adopt new methods of fishing, to embrace new equipment which can enhance and also increase our catch.
He said there was an urgent need for fishermen to move on from inshore (which is now over-fished) to deep-sea fishing for the highly sought tuna.
All parties involved should not accept the status quo. It is time for us (including government officers) to change our mindset, improve our administration skills and enhance our manpower capabilities. We need a new breed of fishermen, he said.
This is merely the tip of the iceberg of Muhyiddins plans to modernise the whole agriculture sector (that includes fisheries, cash crops, livestock breeding and aquaculture). It is, in the minister's own words, an old boat which needs to be put in the dry dock for repairs and given a new coat of paint. Its time we shed the attitude we had 30 years ago.
Infrastructure change is obviously not the only thing on his mind, as he explained that change also means giving more attention to the human factor: We want to motivate, train and tell those involved in the industry why we need them to work harder and think on their feet.
On the ground, the ministrys main priority now is to maximise yields. Efforts are being made to boost production of rice in the country from its current five tonnes per hectare to 10 tonnes per hectare.
Malaysia would eventually want to be self-sufficient in rice production and move away from its current reliance on imports, which stands at 30%, he said.
We also plan to reduce our import of meat substantially. Currently, we can only manage to produce about 17% of our domestic needs. We need to boost this up to around 40% to reduce our import bill, said Muhyiddin.
The export of tropical fruits is also on the governments priority list, running in tandem with increasing demand for fruits globally.
Agriculture is one of the engines of growth in Malaysia. This is the time to make this sector dynamic and create an upstream and downstream agricultural niche, he said. We will work with anyone and everyone in this sector.
Muhyiddin, who had a day earlier launched the Malaysias Best fruit promotion in Hong Kong, was asked what his favourite fruit was.
I like durians, he replied. However, its difficult to say it is the favourite because we have so many varieties of good fruits: rambutan, mangosteen, watermelon, to name a few.
A true blue salesmans answer, no doubt, but it shows that he has the taste for good fruits.
The future looks promising for the agriculture sector under Muhyiddins stewardship, and his experience as the Johor Mentri Besar and also as Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister will come in handy as he strives to develop a modern, efficient and productive agriculture business.
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