Malaysian Space Agency created to maximize efficiency and impact

  • Created from merger of National Space Agency & Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency
  • Savings of US$4.9mil & getting data, using it in practical ways to benefit economy

Yeo Bee Yin (2nd from right) during her visit to the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency with its director, Azlikamil Napiah on her left.

WHILE speculation was hot in the early stages of the new Malaysian government about certain entrepreneur development agencies being merged or shut down, for better or worse, that has not really happened. But one recent merger happened with two agencies that operate out of the public eye, even though they have their eyes on the country, in a manner of speaking.

The Cabinet on 20 Feb had approved the merger of two space related agencies, the National Space Agency and Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency, to be renamed the Malaysian Space Agency or MySA.

Most Malaysians would not have heard of the two agencies and most will be even more surprised to hear that the country even has two space related agencies. Actually there are three, with the third called Astronautic Technology (M) Sdn Bhd. A decision on that agency’s future will be made in two months time, says Yeo Bee Yin, Minister of Environment, Science, Technology, Energy and Climate Change (MESTECC).

Meanwhile, a key driver for the decision to merge the National Space Agency and Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency were cost savings, driving greater efficiency and as a kickoff to the National Space Policy 2030 where one of the thrusts is strengthening administration in the space sector.

Yeo estimates a savings of more than US$4.9 million (RM20 million) from the merger with US$4.15 million (RM17 million) coming from one-off savings through optimizing infrastructure usage including satellite integration and testing. US$855,000 (RM3.5 million) will be saved through avoiding duplication of work and building applications and data platforms.

She further expects space technology to be used in other sectors under her portfolio such as in energy and minerals with in-house developed applications to help save her ministry anywhere between US$122,000 to US$366,000 (RM500,000 to RM1.5 million) per application, depending on its complexity.

Savings aside, Yeo, speaking during a 4th Feb visit to Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency, points out that “Space is not just about satellites and astronauts. It’s about getting data and using it in practical ways to benefit the economy and the government.”

To this extent, as part of the government’s Open Data policy, her ministry is working on an open data framework to share data, not just within her ministry but with the government and private sector as well. She expects the framework to be introduced in the third quarter. “This is important because we know that knowledge comes from the interpretation of data and through this, we hope that both public researchers the private sector can deepen their acquisition of knowledge.”

Described as “closed agencies” because the nature of their work is to serve other government units, Azlikamil Napiah, director of Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency says the agency is currently serving 65 government units with his ambitious target of hitting 70% of government units by end 2020. “We have weekly requests from various government units (agencies, departments and ministries) who bring us their problems and we work with them to plan, develop and operationalize applications for their use.”

A Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency officer showing some of the applications it has built for various government units.

Saving Natural Resources Ministry US$51 mil over 5 years, reducing fish imports by US$85.5 mil 

Despite the agency having 106 researchers and scientists out of its 227 headcount, it is actually short-staffed to handle the requests coming in says Azlikamil, who has been with the agency for 25 years. And judging by the impact of some of the remote sensing applications developed for the government, which it does without charging any fee, it is no surprise.

One example was delivering a forest management system for the Ministry of Natural Resources, using satellite imaging updated every 14 days. The cost savings as estimated by the Natural Resources Ministry, was US$51 million (RM209 million) over 5 years with an average of 10,000 field operations a year with savings ranging from 58% to 100%. The 100% savings come from being able to flush out false complaints via the satellite imagery from the office without having to send officers to the field to conduct a physical check.

Even bigger savings come from helping fishermen detect areas of the ocean surface where upwelling occurs. This is where colder, nutrient rich water rises to the surface. Areas of upwelling will typically attract fish as well. Using freely available data from low-res US satellites, the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency feeds this information to fishermen whose boats are equipped with GPS, echo sounders and sonars. Data from the fisheries department shows that in 2015, the higher yield from fishing because of the data supplied by the system helped the country reduce its fish imports by  US$85.5 million (RM350 million).

Aware of the impact the Malaysian Remote Sensing Agency is having, Yeo expects the new MYSA, beefed up with an additional 50 researchers from the Banting based National Space Agency, to deepen its collaboration with other government agencies to help them save money and increase efficiency.

“We have a number of applications already being used by certain government agencies but if more know of what we have, they may find use for those applications as well and there will be no need to tender out developing the same applications,” she explains.

It could take up to six months before the newly merged MYSA is officially launched but Azlikamil assures that the work of the agencies is ongoing and not affected by the merger.

Meanwhile, Yeo also has her eyes on utilizing under-used facilities and equipment. “We have a US$62.8 million (RM257 million) space facility sitting under utilized at the National Space Agency with some high tech equipment such Assembly, Integration and Test, Vibrator Test System, Alignment Measurement and Electromagnetic Component Test Facility.”

One of her initiatives for MESTECC in 2019 is to ensure all its assets are better shared with other government agencies and even rented out to the private sector. There is an effort underway to tag all the equipment and start sharing and renting it out. “We can do more this way and act as a catalyst in science and technology where sometimes the private sector cannot afford the costly equipment.”

Her goal is to be able to rent out the equipment that MESTECC has for a fee that will allow it to cover maintenance costs and allow it to buy new equipment when necessary. Aware past efforts to run similar initiatives have not gone anywhere, Yeo is chairing a quarterly meeting with KPIs set that have to be met.

If Yeo is able to pull off her twin goals of getting more government units to work with MYSA and the sharing and renting of assets under her ministry, she will have done what no other Science and Technology Minister has been able to do and in the process show other ministries how they too can operate better, smarter and more efficiently while saving the government from unnecessary expenditure.   

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