Meet the Scientist: Tan Sri Prof. Augustine Ong Soon Hock

Meet the Scientist: Tan Sri Prof. Augustine Ong Soon Hock

Interviewed by Dr. Wong Kah Keng and Dr. Lee Hooi Ling

Tan Sri Prof Dr. Augustine Ong Soon Hock has been the Chairman of the International Society for Fat Research (ISF) 1997-1999 and is the President of the Malaysian Oil Scientists’ and Technologists’ Association, a Senior Fellow of the Academy of Sciences, Malaysia, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry London, a Fellow of the Third World Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of King’s College London. He also served as the Dean in School of Chemical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) before joining the private sector in Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia (PORIM). In 2012, Tan Sri Prof Ong was given the Merdeka Award1 in recognition for his “outstanding contribution to the research and development of the chemistry and technology of palm oil and for his significant role in advocating and promoting Malaysian palm oil industry to the world”. To date, Tan Sri Prof Ong is still actively involved in scientific non-government organisations, including the Malaysian Invention and Design Society (MINDS), which he founded in 1986.

Q1. How was your early life like?

In general, I was quite happy in my childhood. I went to school at the age of seven, just before the Second World War. My father passed away during my childhood and I was raised by my grandmother. So, I had a lot of free time and termed myself as “born-free” because I was pretty much on my own – for me it was quite a good situation as I had a lot of time to develop my own ideas about life. I put them into good use because it was a time of transition, the Japanese were advancing into the country (into our plantation area) and the British forces were retreating. At that time, there was much security in the rural area than in the town. There were young mothers with babies in our plantation. When the babies cried, the soldiers would be alerted to the mothers in the house. So, I led the mothers out of the plantation and went deep into the jungle to hide them away from the Japanese soldiers. Thanks to my “born-free” situation, I had been exploring the area; so I knew the jungle by heart.

I went to a boarding school after Standard 6 and I was very happy there. We had to get up as early as 5.30 am in the morning. My entertainment was looking at nature but I was more interested to know the “whys”- why the sky is blue, the leaves are green and so on. I wanted to see beyond what the eyes can see, like what is going on behind the leaves.

Q2. What shaped your interest in science and academia?

I find that science gives me the key to understand nature. At Standard Six, I wrote an essay about my ambition; that I wanted to be a “scientific farmer”, meaning farming with the input of science. Later on, from this interest in science, I was interested in generating knowledge. I analysed and reproduced the work of others, quoted what others have found, and how they have found it including their methods and the rationale of their work. Nevertheless, I was more interested to go beyond this, by generating new knowledge using the existing knowledge to the extent that I wasn’t truly satisfied even if I got 100% at school’s exams. I was happy in terms of my scholastic achievements, of course but this is how I see it: I got all the correct answers based on what the school has asked of us but do I know 100% of the knowledge that I am supposed to have?

I also found out that the more I helped my classmates in their studies, the more I understood my problems. I then took the natural path leading to academia: obtained my Bachelor, Masters and PhD degrees, and I wanted to go to the best places to learn. I wanted to know how other people develop a system to discover knowledge.

“My entertainment was looking at nature but I was more interested to know the “whys”- why the sky is blue, the leaves are green and so on.”

Q3. Why did you move from the academia to the private sector?

A textbook that I wrote with Prof Huang and Dr. Goh called “The Chemistry of Free Radicals” was published in 1974. It was done during the transition period moving from UM to USM. Before the 70s, I was in Universiti Malaya (UM), and after that I worked in USM. The vice chancellor of USM was setting up a new Chemistry department then and it was a very taxing period for me to juggle this with writing the book. When I presented this newly published book which was used as a resource material for tutorials in University of Oxford, the Vice-Chancellor suggested that I should focus on research which was more relevant to the country.

Following this proposal, I decided to drive down from Penang to Singapore and stopped to visit some of the major oil palm plantations and factories along the way. This includes places like Teluk Intan and Batang Melaka in Malaysia, as well as Jurong in Singapore. At the end of my trip, I realised that the industry had a problem with the processing of palm oil. They were using a detergent called sodium lauryl sulphate or SLS in the palm oil separation. The Americans and the Japanese did not accept the product that was separated using SLS even though it could be washed away. Eventually I contacted a colleague who is a biochemist and learned that he had been using density gradient centrifugation for separation in his experiments. Since it is a separation technique, I was thinking “why not try it on some palm oil samples?”. I faithfully followed the given protocol using sucrose solutions for the separation. The experiments turned out to be a failure. As I was trying to understand the failure, I realised that the density of oil is less than 1.0 kg/m3. I could still use the principle of density gradient centrifugation but I had to modify the technique to suit my situation: that is by using solution with a mixture of water and alcohol. After two years of development, I managed to develop 13 systems for the separation and realised that nobody has done these before. The systems were then developed further using an experimental centrifuge as a prelude to an industrial-scale separation.

Q4. What are the research breakthroughs that the Malaysian palm oil industry has achieved for the past few decades?

In the 1960s, the palm oil production was only 60 thousand tonnes yearly. In the 70s, it increased to 1 million tonnes per year. Our major concern then was how to sell off all these oils. We adopted two methods, one was to know the composition of different types of palm oils, and the second was to diversify the use or application of palm oil based on their composition. For example, Egypt used cotton seed oil to make shortening (fat that is solid at room temperature), so we wonder whether or not we can produce the same type of shortening using palm oil. In India, they use ‘ghee’ (a type of butter from cows’ milk), whereas different materials were used in Pakistan (buffalo milk) and in the Middle East (vegetable fat). We wonder whether we can produce substitutes to their source of oil using palm oil, and show that it is acceptable and cost effective.

We then get knowledgeable people in the oil and fat industry to tell the factories to consider this change because there are advantages in the properties and the cost. In the case for Egypt, we formulate something to mimic their products and once they’ve chosen the product that they liked, we even sent some oil to Egypt free of charge for their first trial. Egypt subsequently imported about 200 thousand tonnes of palm oil from Malaysia. Following that, we implemented similar strategies for other countries all over the world, including China. We know that China is the world’s largest consumer of instant noodles, so we worked with them and proposed to them to fry their instant noodles in palm oil; firstly, because it is cost-effective and secondly it gives the instant noodles a longer shelf-life. China now imports 5 million tonnes of palm oil from Malaysia. I think this is one of the biggest breakthroughs in Malaysian palm oil industry.

One problem we faced is the fluctuation in prices of commodities, including palm oil. One way to deal with this is to stock-pile palm oil – i.e. when the prices of palm oil dropped due to excess production, palm oil are bought to bring the prices up. The products bought can then be resold when the prices increase. I joined MPOB in 1981 and I suggested whether we can have a technical solution to such economic problem. Can we handle this price fluctuation by expanding the use of palm oil? I proposed to convert palm oil into fuel for carssuch as palm-oil based diesel as an alternative to stock-piling. At that time, we needed 3 million tonnes of petroleum-based diesel for the country, and I suggested that if there were any excess palm oil, we can convert them into diesel. It was very controversial and people thought it was a stupid idea (laughs). Now, Malaysia has adopted B10 diesel programme.

Photo by Merdeka Award

Photo by Merdeka Award

Q5. How has technology advanced the palm oil research in Malaysia?

Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) said that they have sequenced the genome of oil palm, so now people start researching which part of the genome that gives rise to various characteristics, disease resistance, yield and so on. We have also gone into tissue culture but there are some constraints in the mass production.

“The most important thing is to find the interest in what we do.”

Q6. Have you ever considered retiring completely from the scientific world?

The answer is ‘no’ and the reasons behind it are quite important. Some want to retire even before the age of 40, but I have been thinking – why should we retire when we enjoy what we are doing? Perhaps one wishes to retire early because he/she treats career as a chore, something that he/she does not enjoy and wants to get away from it. Even if one has retired from the chore, one should perhaps find something else that is more interesting because I believe that once we stop, when we retire completely, the mind and the body might also retire! We could be affected by health deterioration and diseases when our mind and body are not active.

Q7. In what way that you think retirees could contribute to the Malaysian scientific arena?

There are several ways that retirees could contribute. A lot of things that we are doing have no financial returns such as creating awareness about inventiveness, instill confidence into young generations, getting people to continue learning about science and technology – it is more of national interest without financial motives. There are also many senior scientists who get together to exchange views and discuss scientific issues voluntarily and privately and we could try to bring forward the ideas to the current generation of working scientists. There are many things going on in the background conducted by retirees.

Tan Sri Prof. Augustine Ong with Dr. Wong Kah Keng after the interview.

Tan Sri Prof. Augustine Ong with Dr. Wong Kah Keng after the interview.

Q8. What would be your advice to the young Malaysians?

The most important thing is to find the interest in what we do. I think our tradition of emphasising hard work or culture and religion when dealing with our work are important, but on top of that, we should possess the passion in what the youngsters are studying or working on. Some parents could be very simplistic and want their children to be a doctor, accountant or millionaire but I think these issues should be secondary – choosing a career or field of study has to be dependent on the individual’s interest and let the individual pursue the interest to the highest level if possible. We want the young generation to jump out of bed and couldn’t wait to start working because the real passion to pursue one’s interest is always there, and hopefully it stays until one finally retires completely.