Academician Tan Sri Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Augustine Ong Soon Hock was born on 18 September 1934, in Malacca. He was raised by his paternal grandmother in a small rubber plantation in Malacca, following the death of his father when he was seven years old. Academically inclined since his early years in school, his academic pursuit began when he decided to challenge himself with chemistry, physics and mathematics during his secondary residential education at St Francis Institution in Malacca.
It was in St Francis that my foundation in Science was laid,” he says.
Excelling in school, Tan Sri Ong was accepted for pre-university education at the St Johns Institution in Kuala Lumpur. He attended University of Malaya between 1954 and 1959 and graduated with a Bachelor of Science, First Class Honors, and subsequently an MSc. His passion for chemistry showed in his excellent academic achievements, where he was awarded a gold medal for chemistry. “It is a way for me to understand nature,” he says. “Chemistry is a powerful discipline to explain nature.”
Tan Sri Ong began his career as a lecturer with University of Malaya in 1959. He was a Fulbright-Hays Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) USA from 1966 to 1967 and prior to this he read for a PhD in Organic Chemistry at the University of London King’s College, 1961-1963.
In 1970, he was appointed senior lecturer at the University of Science Malaysia (USM), and promoted to the position of Professor of Physical Organic Chemistry in 1974. Seeking to expand his knowledge, Tan Sri Ong took a one-year sabbatical leave to attend the University of Oxford as Visiting Professor at the Dyson Perrins Laboratory in 1976. On his return to USM, he was appointed Dean of the School of Chemical Sciences at USM from 1977 to 1981. From 1981 to 1985 and 1990 to 1991, he was appointed Visiting Professor at the same university.
Between 1959 and 2011, Tan Sri Ong authored or co-authored 400 articles. “All these articles arose from ideas,” he says. “My strategy has been concentrated on the world of ideas. Ideas are top priority in getting new findings and inventions.”
Together with his colleagues Tan Sri Ong also co-authored two books. His first book with SH Goh and Rayson L Huang, “The Chemistry of Free Radicals” was published in 1974. The book has been used by the University of Oxford as a resource material. His significant research findings include the conformation of free radicals and SH2 cleavage of t-butyl peroxide. Along with his colleague, Prof Etsuo Niki, Tan Sri Ong co-authored a book on free radicals and antioxidants entitled “Nutrition, Lipids, Health and Disease” in 1995.
Tan Sri Ong obtained his first patent from Britain in 1974 on lipids research of olein-stearin separation method. He later added 15 more patents to his name in palm oil research. These patents are from the US, the UK, Japan, Australia and Malaysia. His research on palm oil covered several aspects of palm oil; from its chemical composition, nutritional value, technical training and to its waste treatment. Tan Sri Ong was also a co-researcher in the isolation of tocotrienols from palm fatty acid distillate. Tocotrienols, an anti-oxidant, has beneficial effects on brain neurons, is loaded with anti-cancer properties, and lowers the levels of bad cholesterol. Tan Sri Ong’s research inspired other scientists in other parts of the world to conduct similar research on palm oil.
The conversion of palm oil to biodiesel was conceptualised by Tan Sri Ong in 1981. The project began with a pilot plant study, went on to field trials and subsequently proceeded to mass production for commercialisation in Malaysia, Thailand and South Korea. Today, Malaysia is one of the world’s leading biofuel producers, with 58 plants approved for production.
Tan Sri Ong has worked tirelessly and passionately in advocating and promoting Malaysian palm oil to the world. Just shy of one month in office, Tan Sri Ong, as Director-General of the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia (PORIM), had to deal with the Anti-Palm Oil Campaign from the American Soybean Association (ASA) in March 1987. He spent two years in challenging the anti-palm oil campaign. As part of his efforts to counter the fight against palm oil, Tan Sri Ong advised the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the nutritional aspects of the palm oil, addressed the American media and nutritionists and established several nutrition advisory committees worldwide. Tan Sri Ong used research and scientific evidence to convince his detractors of the health benefits of palm oil. “Although efforts made to work out peaceful arrangements with the ASA were attempted, these were turned down. “We had no choice but to counter the campaign which was essentially a trade issue under the guise of health,” he says.
The ASA called for a truce in 1989, ending the Anti-Palm Oil Campaign. Today, scientists acknowledge the nutritional value of palm olein, a new source of healthy oil with nutritional values at par to extra-virgin olive oil but at a fifth of the price. “The Campaign stimulated a lot of research all over the world, some sponsored by PORIM. It was a blessing in disguise. These efforts helped us to realise that palm oil is not harmful to health and that it has almost a perfect structure for good health,” he adds.
Tan Sri Ong continues to devote his time and energy to learning, discovering, and enhancing the chemistry and technology of palm oil. Between 2006 and 2011, he conducted continuous research on palm oil and contributed to several discoveries. Among them is the sn-2 hypothesis, proposed with his colleague Dr S H Goh, which showed that palm oil is less fattening than corn oil and soy bean oil, based on comparisons of their triglyceride structures. He created a new palm oil milling process which resulted in zero waste. The patented process was based on a concept that oil palm fruits are edible, including palm puree fractioned upon removing crude palm oil, thus creating a new source of healthy food for the world. The novel process identified new sources of carotenes, vitamin B complex, beneficial polyphenols and vitamin E including tocotrienols. Tan Sri Ong also created a new green product by expoxidising used cooking oil which is very beneficial to the environment.
Tan Sri Ong’s love for science is not only limited to research and development, but also in nurturing new scientists, technologists and inventors. He established the Malaysian Invention and Design Society (MINDS) in 1987 and remains its President today. MINDS was established to encourage people to think independently and creatively without barriers. MINDS is also designed to assist scientists and technologist to develop their ideas into inventions, and to commercialise the innovations. “Ultimately MINDS encourages every Malaysian, hopefully Asians, to believe in themselves; to think and provide solutions for development and for life. When we deal with nature where science can play a role, members of MINDS could be trained to deal with the material world and use knowledge of science to provide solutions,” he says.
Tan Sri Ong has received various awards for his achievements. In 2009, Tan Sri Ong was made Honorary Fellow of The International Society of Professional Engineers in Los Angeles California. The International Federation of Inventors’ Association (IFIA) awarded him the Officer of The International Order of Merit of the Inventors (IOMI) in 2009 and in 2010 he was presented with a medal & certificate on the 20th Anniversary of the Polish Union of Association of Inventors and Rationalizators (PZSWIR). In 2011, he was made Fellow of King’s College, London, and received the Palm Oil Industry Leadership Award (PILA).
A discussion on Malaysian palm oil rarely takes place without the mention of Tan Sri Ong, who is considered by many to be a ‘father figure’ in the Malaysian palm oil industry. Tan Sri Ong played an important role in overturning the negative campaign against palm oil and has set a legacy that continues to strengthen the palm oil industry and its contribution to the Malaysian economy. A pioneer in Malaysia’s palm oil industry, he has paved the way for many scientists to build on his work in supporting the industry.
A father of four, 78-year-old Tan Sri Ong remains active in the palm oil industry today, as he continues to nurture his passion for chemistry and for nature. Currently, Tan Sri Ong’s research is focused on environment-friendly projects that could help the world reduce its carbon footprint.
As an eminent scientist, innovator and inventor he continues to guide and nurture younger scientists in their quest to achieve world-class breakthroughs. His unerring commitment and dedication truly personifies the Spirit of Merdeka
and its pursuit of excellence.