In 2003, Malaysia launched an ambitious project to build a biotechnology science park called the BioValley, incorporating three new research institutes and costing US$160 million. It was never completed.
In contrast with Singapore, Malaysia's biotechnology push has been hampered above all by an educational policy that favours the ethnic Malay majority, reports David Cyranoski in this article in Nature.
Last year, he says, 128 students with top grades were denied access to medical school, while less qualified candidates were accepted. Those rejected were all non-Malay.
Many young scientists, especially those of Chinese and Indian ethnic origin, leave the country, adds Cyranoski. Those who remain often lack the required skills, including English: Malay replaced English as the standard language for education in 1975.
Cyranoski sees the failure to embrace English as symptomatic of a wider detachment of Malaysian science from international research.
But the Malaysian government is trying to address these issues, he says. Since 2003, mathematics and science are once again being taught in English in schools. And a national biotechnology strategy released in April 2005 reflects a more modest and outward-looking approach.
Nonetheless, concludes Cyranoski, sceptics say real progress depends on a full reversal of the policy of ethnic favouritism.