The Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia (RRIM) scientists and technicians are showing that farmers in developing lands, guided by effective application of systematized knowledge and organization, can compete with great, multinational corporations and safeguard their means of livelihood.
Since the cultivation of Hevea brasiliensis trees to tap their latex began with 22 seedlings shipped from Kew Gardens, London, to Singapore’s Botanic Gardens in 1877, the fortunes of the rubber industry have been elastic. As automobiles multiplied before, during and after World War I, several million acres were planted to Hevea in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, India and Sri Lanka. From the peak in the 1920s to the nadir in the Great Depression, rubber prices fluctuated from US$1.23 to three U.S. cents per pound. Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia during World War II prompted massive production of synthetic rubber by the West. Subsequent technical advances resulted, by the late 1960s, in a synthetic “natural” rubber, Cis-1, 4-polyisoprene. The livelihood of many millions growing natural rubber in rural Asia seemed doomed.
Dr. B. C. SEKHAR’s emergence to leadership of the RRIM parallded this challenge to natural rubber, which was felt most acutely in Malaysia as supplier of 40 percent of the world’s total production. Born less than four miles from the Institute’s 3,400-acre experiment station at Sungei Buloh, the now 44-year-old chemist knew rubber firsthand: his father, an immigrant from India in 1916, had worked on rubber estates and become an estate assistant. Joining the Institute in 1949 SEKHAR led research, especially in physiochemical changes, in rubber. He was the first Malaysian to head the Chemistry Division, in 1964, and to become Director of the Institute, in 1966.
As the largest research organization in the world devoted to a single crop, RRIM has reversed natural rubber’s prospects by effective action on five fronts: 1. developing Standard Malaysian Rubbers (SMR) grading to buyers’ technical specifications; 2. producing “Heveacrumb” that is uniform and superior to bales of ribbed, smoked sheet, and recently a tire-rubber blend; 3. conducting botanical research which has resulted in faster-maturing, higher-yielding, sturdier trees by budding clones and now by tissue culture techniques; 4. simplifying gathering by tapping directly into plastic bags thus also avoiding contamination of the latex; and 5. developing stimulants to paint on rubber trees to double or triple latex yields.
While distinguishing himself as one of Asia’s most effective scientists, SEKHAR has remained sensitive to the human dimension. Research is aimed at reaching and benefiting all through energetic extension by the Institute’s Smallholders Project Research, Training and Advisory Services divisions, and the cooperating Malaysian Government Rubber Industry Smallholders Development Authority.
In electing BALACHANDRA CHAKKINGAL SEKHAR to receive the 1973 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes his leadership of scientific and technical advances that assure a more prosperous and stable future for rubber growers, large and small, in South and Southeast Asia.
No words at my command will be adequate to express the impact this Award has made on me. And not all present can wholly appreciate how this overwhelming moment engulfs me in my own thoughts and feelings—thoughts and feelings which at once scan the spectrum of my adult life, highlighting moments of satisfaction and disappointments, achievements and failures. Equally, one is reminded in this train of thought of the responsibilities that lie ahead, and of the smallness of one’s achievements against the requirements of one’s chosen field of endeavor. I am all the more conscious of this default when I think of the great man in whose memory this Award is so significantly and rightly instituted to inspire us to emulate his complete and selfless dedication to the improvement of his fellowmen. In receiving this Award, therefore, I am only too aware of how much more one should really do to become truly worthy of the Ramon Magsaysay Award.
The natural rubber industry is the economic lifeblood of many countries in Southeast Asia, and certainly of my country. In a fast-changing world the requirements imposed on an agricultural commodity in competition with a sophisticated industrial product must be met if it is to survive. For success in this struggle for survival two essential conditions must be fulfilled. First, modern science and technology must be brought to bear in all their manifestations in formulating solutions to meet changing industrial and economic requirements. Second, such solutions must be actively translated into practice for the benefit of the entire industry. In fulfilling the first condition, a team of dedicated scientists and technologists—with a clear understanding of the problems and with a depth of knowledge and a vision relentlessly to pursue the solutions—must be available. The second condition demands that the affected countries must consciously, concertedly, and urgently attack the problem of implementing the improvements.
I have been in the very fortunate and privileged position of having colleagues who measure up to such demands and a country which is determined to support in every way any effort to improve and modernize an industry which contributes to the well-being of millions of people. The recognition and honor I receive today therefore extends to my colleagues at the Rubber Research Institute of Malaysia and to my country.
My own satisfaction stems from the quiet recognition that millions of people in my own country and other natural rubber producing countries are now beginning to share the returns from a scientifically exploited and modernized natural rubber industry. That my own small efforts have contributed to this improvement makes me only feel deeply and warmly grateful that circumstances allowed me the privilege and opportunity to serve the natural rubber industry.
Natural rubber once reigned as the single, supreme sovereign in the empire of elastomers. But scientific progress, pushed ahead by political and economic forces, not only produced pretenders to the throne but also heirs who claimed rightful control in specific areas. In the midst of this claim for supremacy, the future role of natural rubber was challenged and the livelihood of millions in the developing countries of Southeast Asia was threatened. In fact, it was even prophesied that natural rubber would be forced to abdicate, and would suffer a fate similar to so many raw, primary products that have been ousted by superior, synthetic substitutes.
By research and development programs concerned with production economics, presentation standards, and consumer technology, we have proved that the future of so many in our developing countries, which is riveted to the natural rubber industry, need not be impaired. Indeed, the use of science and technology allows us to assure these same people a future which can be stronger, safer and sunnier.
As a scientist, I cannot help but feel that it is by the proper and urgent use of science and technology that quickly improve the economic well-being of our people.
In the natural rubber industry the impact of science has been felt. And arising from this, our ordinary people are beginning to harvest the economic returns. But equally important is the fact that the implementation of scientific research cultivates the scientific mind and spirit. This cannot be otherwise; for to utilize the fruits of research, the mind, the intellect, must be receptive. I can sense the positive social transformation that will take place—where obsolete, old ideas give way to new, strong and progressive views. And so I see the progress of our natural rubber industry as one not merely contributing to the material welfare of rubber growers but also, importantly, molding the scientific mind and outlook so vital for our development. Thus I feel that this Award is not made only to me, but to the many of us in the natural rubber industry who are striving to ensure the progress of our people.
I, therefore, am grateful that this Award recognizes this urge for progress, and in receiving it I am again conscious of the willing help I have received from so many which has given me happiness in my work that is beyond the power of failure or sorrow to destroy.