Charting New Frontiers

1890
Dato’ Dr Jalaluddin Harun

Excitement is in the air for the Malaysian timber industry. It has come a long way from the days of sawn timber to today’s stylishly-made furniture based on Italian designs. There is a new sense of invigoration under the leadership of the Director General of the Malaysian Timber Industry Board (MTIB), Dato’ Dr Jalaluddin Harun in combining modern business technologies, quality management principles and most significantly, the injection of eco-friendly creative innovations. The current trend of exporting rubber wood furniture has its fair share of success, notably the consolidation of the Johor furniture hub. The industry’s foresights include the recycling of cash crops notably oil palm, the growing of new types of wood such as acacia while not overlooking the home-grown traditional bamboo and rattan. In a recent interview, Top10 of Malaysia talks to Dato’ Dr Jalaluddin Harun on the Malaysian timber industry, the achievements of MTIB in steering the industry towards its current position and the roadmap for the future of the industry.

The rich brown hue of wood is a veritable favourite all over the world from homes to offices and industrial use. The long lasting durability, attractive sheen and luxuriousness of wood, without doubt, exude class and elegance. The Malaysian timber industry have reaped the benefits of wood by achieving a status as a global tropical timber producer and top revenue generator as evident from past records and the RM$7.2 billion the industry generated this year.

The Malaysian furniture sector, as a markedly star performer in rubber wood furniture, is positioned in the global top 10 producers list. “Rubber wood furniture is a consumer favourite in the United States, Europe and Australia. The reasons for the popularity of Malaysian furniture in these markets are its consistent quality, competitive pricing and design. All our products are from legally sustainable sources and adhere rigorously to international standards. Unfortunately, natural tropical hardwoods such as meranti are inconsistent in quality and quantity,” Dato’ Dr Jalaluddin says.

MTIB is undertaking a major initiative with the close cooperation of the Johor State government and the Johore Furniture Association that will further consolidate the industry. “To promote and develop the industry we have come up with a road map based on the furniture industry in Muar. Why Muar you might ask,” he says. “Johor is the largest state involved in furniture making, accounting for 62.2% of total revenue. Further to that, the largest concentration of Malaysian furniture makers, supported by component vendors, is located in Muar. We went on the ground to understand the evolution of the Muar furniture industry and the current issues the industry was facing. The lack of a stable, skilled workforce was the primary concern voiced out by a majority of the manufacturers as it leads to inconsistency in meeting orders. In the long run, this will be to the detriment of the whole industry as the reputation of unreliability will persist. The eco-system study of the community that we have done has provided a good baseline for a road map that can be replicated throughout Malaysia.”

The proposed future plans are envisaged to turn Muar into a major furniture hub within Malaysia. Dr Jalaluddin listed the plans in the pipeline as the Muar Timber Industry Park (MTIP), Ledang International Furniture Hub & Trade (LFT), Bumiputera Furniture Entrepreneur Scheme (SuPerBumi) and the branding of Muar Furniture. To this end, in ensuring consistency in quality and quantity, the cultivation of timber plantations from imported wood such as acacia has taken off the ground. As the maturity period of such wood is from 5 to 12 years, there will exists a gap period before the wood is ready for the industry.

The culmination of the collaborative effort on the road map between the State, Federal government and the Johore Furniture Association will be showcased at the Johor Wood and Lifestyle Fair. In view of the significance of the event, a book entitled “Hala Tuju Industri Perabot Kayu Negeri Johor” has been produced by MTIB. “I am happy to say that the publication of the book has received the Johor State Exco’s approval and the Menteri Besar will be launching the book at the Fair,” says Dr Jalaluddin.

Design and innovation is a favourite topic as these are the key differentiators that will add value within any competitive industry. However, the other factors of price and costs cannot be ignored. “Innovation is important but we also have to keep an eye on costs and pricing. The Malaysian industry, although doing well, continuously faces challenges from competitors and customers. The industry is vulnerable to countries with low production costs such as Vietnam and China. In our efforts to study costs efficiencies, we have undertaken quality improvement programmes involving 27 companies. The results show that there are opportunities for timber factories to improve through costs efficiency measures as the results showed an annual savings of RM$19 million and reduction of labour costs by 38%,” reveals Dato’ Dr Jalaluddin.

MTIB has already put in place innovation strategies that are needed. “The most strategic way we can remain competitive is by building our reputation based on innovative designs,” adds Dato’ Dr Jalaluddin. “Towards this, we have started nurturing local talents based on Milan standards that represent the epitome of furniture design. I am proud to say we have a pool of talented designers who have been acknowledged by Milan. These are initial steps we are taking towards building a community of designers who will continuously reinvent furniture design.”

There are other biocomposite initiatives seeking to utilise materials that can be recycled from composite materials including oil palm stumps, kenaf (jute), rice husks and recycled wood. Similar to the rubber wood, oil palm tree that has reached maturity has the potential to be turned into wood products. Bamboo is another versatile raw material that can replace components requiring durability and strength. An interesting feature was a bicycle made of cane components that was exhibited at the MTIB showroom.

“We are currently looking into the utilisation of composite materials in army aircrafts especially kenaf. As the airline industry has the most stringent of conditions, we are still working on it. But it shows the diverse potential that exists within the Malaysian timber industry,” says Dato’ Dr Jalaluddin.

Dato’ Dr Jalaluddin Harun
Dato’ Dr Jalaluddin Harun

When asked on his vision for the timber industry, the concept of value-add was stressed. “We have to do away with exporting raw materials such as sawn timber and plywood that add no value. This is still occurring in Sabah and Sarawak but not in West Malaysia. There has to be an emphasis on downstream processing with an increase in importation of raw materials. Timber that is imported from high-cost countries is still cost-efficient and profitable when used to make products and exported from Malaysia,” explains Dato’ Dr Jalaluddin.

He stresses that the way for the industry to move forward lies in a knowledge based economy. “It is the key to innovation and sustainability within the timber industry. This has to happen through research and development of the vast diversity of wood raw materials not only within Malaysia but also globally.”