Interview: Dato Ali Apong

How do you see the primary resources and tourism sectors playing a major role in the development and growth of the country’s economy?

DATO ALI APONG: The Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism (MPRT) is committed to ensuring that the primary resources and tourism sectors or industries become significant contributors to the development and growth of the country’s economy, particularly the non-oil and gas sector. This is in line with His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam’s 2016 New Year Titah, where His Majesty highlighted the need for the country to continue to move towards steady and competitive economic growth, and intensify its effort to increase the GDP of the non-oil and gas sector.

This is what the ministry has emphasised in its new strategic plan and policy directions. The focus of the directions of the ministry will be on four main strategic thrusts, namely, new strategic plan and policy growth, productivity, exports and sustainability. Thus, our priority will be to focus on efforts to increase production and productivity of the primary resources and tourism industries, and making sure that the production output continues to increase and grow rapidly from year to year. The target to increase output, especially for activities under the primary resources industry, is not only for the purpose of achieving self-sufficiency and meeting domestic market demand, but also for the export market. The ministry promotes the use of new technology to help increase productivity, which is expected to reduce the unit cost of production, thereby making our goods more competitive in the international market.

In addition, the ministry will also continue to bring in new investments, either local or foreign direct investment (FDI), in the hope that these investments will bring in appropriate technologies and expertise to help increase the production and productivity of the primary resources and tourism industries. To ensure the sustainability of the primary resources and tourism industries, MPRT has also put its emphasis on the effort to reduce dependency on the government’s financial resources in order to implement activities to generate economic growth. The MPRT will also explore the possibility of engaging the private sector in the implementation of its projects and programmes, for example through public-private partnerships, outsourcing and other approaches.

What is the prospect of aquaculture development in Brunei Darussalam?

APONG: In 2015 the aquaculture industry contributed about BN$10m ($7.1m) to GDP. With five major foreign investors targeted to commence business in Brunei Darussalam in 2016, the contribution of the aquaculture industry to the Sultanate’s GDP is projected to increase to about BN$600m ($427m) by 2020. Two main activities will be the focus of these efforts, namely offshore marine fish culture and marine shrimp culture. For the offshore marine fish culture, the Department of Fisheries has allocated a total area of 17,940 ha for local and FDI, primarily targeting high-value fish species for export.

In the culture of marine shrimp, more production is lined up to be operational in the next couple of years primarily culturing rostris shrimp for frozen shrimp markets in the US, Australia, Japan and South Korea. To date frozen, chilled, fresh and live aquaculture and capture fisheries products are exported to countries and territories such as the US, Australia, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. The immediate plan is to expand the export market to include the EU and Middle East.

MPRT is also adopting a strategy of offering integrated operation options for investors, not only to ensure the sustainability and profitability of the operation, but also to strengthen the value-chain of the aquaculture industry. This in turn will also have a positive impact on small enterprises already in operation and help improve their levels of productivity.

How will the ministry’s plan for the agriculture sector contribute to Wawasan Brunei 2035?

APONG: For the agriculture sector we have identified poultry, vegetables, cut flowers and agri-food production as the main industries to focus on. Through the involvement of FDI, our target is to increase the agriculture sector’s gross output contribution to about BN$1bn ($711.5m) by 2020 and subsequently to BN$3.9bn ($2.8bn) by the year 2035.

To achieve this target we will need to change the mind-set of our farmers. We will continue to provide technical assistance and continue to encourage, motivate and make them understand the need to increase their levels of production and productivity. They must produce more for export and adopt new technologies to improve production. We will also encourage our farmers to go into value-added and downstream processing activities in beef, poultry, fruit, vegetables and miscellaneous crops. Through the paddy plantation project, we will further improve the local production output and productivity level of paddy through the introduction of high yielding paddy varieties and by using a large-scale paddy plantation (commercial) approach instead of small-scale plantation. Through high-yield varieties and a large-scale paddy plantation approach it will increase farmers’ profitability, even with reduced government subsidies.

What factors are limiting Brunei Darussalam’s agricultural output, and how can those challenges be overcome in the coming year?

APONG: Currently, most local farmers are still using conventional or traditional ways of farming, which leads to inefficient use of farmland resources and low farm productivity. The lack of responsiveness by local farmers to adopt modern farming systems is among the limiting factors to boosting agricultural outputs. The Department of Agriculture and Agri-food is pursuing strategies to increase the production and productivity of these sectors. It is promoting downstream or processing industries and is attracting potential investors, both local and foreign, in order to foster high-technology production for high-value products, and to penetrate the export market. Various schemes are being provided to local farmers in order to move into a modern farming system that will yield a good harvest and better incomes. The government also provided and upgraded the necessary basic infrastructures for farmlands to help facilitate their operations and increase their productivity.

To what extent can the tourism industry in Brunei Darussalam contribute to the diversification of the country’s economy?

APONG: The tourism industry in Brunei Darussalam, although still new and in its early stage of development, has the potential to contribute to the diversification of the country’s economy. At present, the estimated direct contribution of the tourism industry to the country’s total GDP based on the Tourism Satellite Account’s calculation is only about 2%. This is quite a low contribution if we compare it to countries like Singapore and Malaysia, where the tourism contribution is about 11% and 16% of GDP, respectively. In this regard, MPRT is currently reviewing its priorities in order to further develop the tourism industry in the country. We will be focusing more on creating tourism-related activities such as industries and businesses which can help generate income for the country and contribute towards the growth of the economy. The main goal is to increase “tourism receipts” from the country’s international in-bound tourists through their spending on hotels, travel agencies, airlines, transportation, tour operators, foods and any other activities related to tourism.