``Penny wise, pound foolish'' is a truism often followed in the rubber industry, much to its regret. Give natural rubber producer Malaysia credit for pulling out of that trap, even if it took 10 years to do so.
A decade ago the Malaysian government decided, ``Hey, everyone knows our Hevea rubber is top shelf. Why are we spending money promoting it?'' and proceeded to close its various rubber bureaus. A fixture in the U.S. rubber scene for years, the Malaysian Rubber Bureau in Washington was shut down, leaving pretty much no one around to look after Malaysian NR interests.
The country poured its energy into developing value-added industries. Let's face it-nations that are strictly raw material producers end up on the bottom of the economic scale. Malaysia wanted to move beyond the status of developing nation.
It soon found that having abundant NR wasn't enough to make it a major tire manufacturing site. But the NR latex glove business, fueled by the AIDS crisis, exploded, and Malaysia became the prime manufacturer of this finished good. Being No. 1 in NR production lost its appeal. But being No. 1 in purity has become an issue.
Allergic reaction to NR latex has developed into a major issue and a big worry for Malaysia. Hospitals, health-care workers and food-handlers who don rubber gloves throughout the day fear allergic reactions that have incapacitated and sometimes killed. Just recently, two states moved against the use of NR latex gloves among some workers, while a John Hopkins University study suggests the Food and Drug Administration ban the use of NR latex as stoppers in medicine bottles.
Malaysia has been well aware of the latex-sensitivity issue and the negative impact it can have on the nation, and addressed it on the technical end through a quality certification program. Now it finally is entering the public relations/marketing fray by opening a Washington office to promote and defend Malaysian rubber gloves and NR latex. Among its first acts: a state-by-state campaign to head off anti-NR latex legislation.
Malaysia has realized it needs to get its message out. Better late than never.
Noga is editor of Rubber & Plastics News.