Sarawak’s role in advancing sago industry
John Teo 

The sago palm may be endemic to Sarawak (though not exclusively so) and its potential as something of a wonder crop long recognised. But realising its full potential has, despite decades of officially promoted efforts, been slow in coming. The state government can, and should, muster greater political will to turn potential into reality.

The starch extracted from the trunk of the sago palm has long been a trading commodity for the state, extending perhaps over hundreds of years. It has long been a staple source of carbohydrate for Sarawakians, particularly among the Melanau community for whom, among other things, the distinctively fat sago worms are a prized traditional delicacy.

Tea drinking connoisseurs everywhere may be more familiar with sago pearls – bland and translucent beads of sago starch – added to milk tea for that silky extra kick.

Sago starch is also said to be particularly good to starch up new fabrics for ease of mechanised stitching. Its use in this way may only grow exponentially if, as prototypes are being developed, fully automated sewing machines are more widely introduced to eventually replace human hands in stitching clothes together.

Not for the first time, therefore, the Sarawak government appears to be making another stab at fully realising sago’s economic potential. It has to take the lead in this since, although sago palms and their exploitation are common throughout the region, only Sarawak has anything like a developed market in sago and its derivatives and an export industry in the commodity to speak of.

Opening the 13th International Sago Symposium in Kuching early in the month, Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg had noted that Sarawak is today the leading world exporter of sago, shipping out between 25,000 and 40,000 tons of sago products annually to Peninsular Malaysia (where it is most widely used for the making of Terengganu’s keropok lekor), Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, among others.


Subsidies for smallholders

Abang Johari also revealed that both the state and federal governments are pumping RM20 mil into sago development efforts, including subsidies for sago smallholders. Much work needs to be done to turn sago palms from being still mostly a crop growing wild to a largely cultivated crop.

Towards that end, the chief minister said the state is “taking the initiative based on the experience from the domestication of other crops as compared to Indonesia, where wild sago is rehabilitated to a high-yielding semi-cultivated sago plantation in a much shorter time with less financial inputs, Sarawak has invested in increasing sago palm productivity by taking the bold step of being the first in the world to cultivate sago, covering a total area of about 5,000ha up to 2013.”

The state had also set up a research centre dedicated to developing sago-palm cultivars in 1994. Given that Sarawak is developing oil palm plantations beyond a million hectares, sago cultivation – such as it is – clearly has a long way to go by way of catching up.

It is perhaps ironic that even as sago grows easily and abundantly in the wilds of Sarawak’s coastal mangroves, domesticating it and growing it on a commercially viable scale is proving to be a lot harder and taking much longer than anticipated.

To be sure, there is great merit in the state diversifying away from growing economic dependence on increased hectarage in oil palm estates. Stands of cultivated sago palms will also be a profitable bulwark against the growing problem of coastline erosion.

Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Ja’afar revealed somewhat ominously on Oct 7 that 10% of the nation’s 6,700km of coastlines are now badly eroded, owing largely to strong waves lashing the shores, in particular during the monsoon season.

Mukah, long the traditional centre where sago palm logs are harvested and processed into various by-products, is to become what Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities Datuk Seri Mah Siew Keong describes at the closing of the sago symposium as the nerve centre of research and development for a holistic supply chain of sago.

Towards that end, the new Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) campus in Mukah has entered into a collaborative arrangement with the Society of Sago Palm Studies of Japan.

As Mah noted, among other things, “there is also the high potential for low-cost ethanol production without land competition with other food crops, thereby minimising the risk of food insecurity which might be caused by the promotion of ethanol production from food crops. The biomass has also been included to be used as added-value products.”

Maintaining a centralised institutional memory on all things related to sago is obviously another critical area for the future development of the industry and in that regard it is noteworthy that moves are advancing towards the setting up of the International Sago Research Centre based in Sarawak.

This is an initiative of international research experts and veterans and when realised should provide further impetus to recruit new academic talent for greater research and development efforts into sago.


Brainstorming, comparing notes

Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas has made encouraging noises about drawing on government support towards the realisation of such a centre which also hopes to become a permanent avenue for key partners and stakeholders in the sago industry from across the Asia and Pacific region to brainstorm and compare notes.

Given all the clearly positive points in sago’s favour – from the all-important human standpoint to that of the increasingly important ecological standpoint – it behoves almost everyone from the stakeholders in the sago supply chain to local and international researchers and governments to come together and collaborate more closely to advance the industry as a whole.

Sustainable development is perhaps the most over-hyped concept in popular usage these days but in the sago palm, there is every likelihood that promoting its large-scale development can indeed be sustainable at the same time.

Sarawak has all the ingredients in hand to further enhance its lead role in promoting sago internationally and must tap all avenues open to it in doing so.

John Teo is based in Kuching. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 255.