Your 10 Questions

  • Business
  • Saturday, 06 Mar 2010

Mahbob AbdullahPlantation expert and author answers ...

What was your message behind Planter’s Tales and Planter Upriver, and how successful were these books? — Bulbir Singh, Seremban

I wrote so readers can enjoy the stories. In the plantations, you live with colourful characters. Many appear in the sixty chapters of each book. I started planting in 1963 at Cashwood Estate in Perak, so these true stories are a glimpse of the past. I spoke Tamil, as most rubber tappers were from India then. One of the stories tells how insects were brought in from Africa to take over the work of pollinating the female flowers. It was an idea from a Scotsman, Datuk Leslie Davidson, who was a planter in Cameroon before coming to our country.

An eminent entomologist, Datuk Dr Rahman Anwar Syed from Pakistan did the scientific work. Tun Musa Hitam was Primary Industries Minister then. Soon after he agreed to have the insects brought in, we stopped all the pollination workers. The insects did a much better job.

The books have a following. You can find them at various places such as Syidah bookshop in KLIA, the Incorporated Society of Planters near Jalan Ampang, Silverfish bookshop in Bangsar and the Badan Warisan office at Jalan Conlay. The Natural History Publications sells them in Kota Kinabalu, and you can find them in the biggest bookshop in Miri. Copies will also be sold in Cameron Highlands, at the pavilion on the Boh tea estate of Sungei Palas. There, in the cool air, you can enjoy a cup of tea and read.

With rising demand for palm oil from China and India, will we be losing more of our forests? — Hashim Adnan, Kuching

Most of our suitable land have been planted on. We try to get higher yields from existing areas. With research, there are clonal palms in some plantations, including in Sarawak.

I read an article by Datuk Seri Dr Fong Chan Onn titled “Caught in the middle-income trap” (dated Feb 7). As the demand for palm oil rises, Malaysia will be bringing in more unskilled foreign labour. If this situation is going to continue, and it looks as though it will as palm oil is an important commodity, how is Malaysia going to get out of the middle-income trap? — Marcus Lim, KL

I thought the article was a cry from the heart. It was also timely. I read it in Kota Kinabalu on that day, where the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) did a workshop on how to have fewer foreign workers. We can do it through mechanisation and innovation through research. Skills, knowledge and expertise can lift us out of that trap. Our Prime Minister has explained that human capital development will be part of the New Economic Model. We we will have more details (on that) by end March.

How do you suggest we continue to grow our plantation sector with less foreign labour? — Goh Gee Tet, Johor Baru

We have to make the work lighter to attract local workers. Mechanisation is one of the best ways. For example, harvesting of oil palm can be done faster with the Chantas, an innovation by MPOB. It is a mechanical sickle that makes it easy to cut the bunch stalk.

But for very tall palms of over 20 feet we still do not have a new way. Here, we need to rely on the sharpest knives and the lightest harvesting pole. We even use buffaloes, so men no longer have to carry bunches.

How will the freeing up of agriculture land for property development impact the plantation sector? We are already seeing this as both Sime Darby group and IOI are plantation players and property developers. — Mindy Wong, Shah Alam

We will lose more land near towns. Land owners want to go global. Therefore, their companies will only get bigger. It helps the host countries and Malaysia. For example, Kulim Group is doing well in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, and KL Kepong, Genting Plantations and IOI are expanding further in Indonesia. Sime Darby is already there.

What prompted you to write Planter’s Tales and Planter Upriver? Are you planning a third book? — George Wong, Seremban

It grew from my interest in reading. I went to Undang Rembau English School, where everything was new including the boo ks. I can still recall the smell of the books in that library. Miss Boon the librarian got us to read. Then the Henry Gurney Memorial Library was op ened by the town fiel d. I also went to people’s homes if they had books. Datuk Dr Kamarudin Kachar was one of them. He came fro m a rich family a nd had many books. At the Royal Military College in Port Dickson, my teachers also got me to read. One was Capt Bernard Preedy, who fought in the First World War. He encouraged me to write. I am writing my third book, also about plantations, which is mainly about stories from overseas including Indonesia, Africa, and one on Zanzibar.

You have travelled widely during the course of your career. So, how do you occupy yourself now that you have retired? — Kumar Kuldeep, Batu Pahat

I advise a few companies. I am on the board of some Felda subsidiaries, Fima Bulking, which is a KUMPULAN FIMA BHD subsidiary, and GREENYIELD BHD, which provides supplies for rubber plantations including latex stimulants. When invited, I give talks to a few bodies such as the Rotary Club and take part in training sessions. I also write. Like many retired people, I also go to the market with my wife.

What is your opinion of the Government’s plan to institute windfall profit tax based on crude palm oil (CPO) prices? It does seem rather unfair. — Mohd Zain Mohd, Petaling Jaya

You share the views of many owners. The Malaysian Estate Owners Association (MEOA) has the same view, because there are many small estates where the palms are still young and there is little coming in. Yet they are being taxed.

MEOA president Boon Weng Siew has explained this to Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Tan Sri Bernard Dompok. Boon is now waiting to meet the Finance Minister.

In the meantime, I think we should not call it a windfall tax, but perhaps simply a special tax. There will be no connotation of excessive profit this way.

How different are today’s planters compared with those during your time? Have the good agricultural practices filtered down to our current generation of planters? — Sharifah Ali, Ipoh

With many estates today, promotion can come faster than before. So, there are gaps in training and exposure which we have to correct. Many planters also get jobs overseas. Planters have to keep up with new technology. So, in some ways management is different. But the basic tenets are the same – hard work, initiative, power of observation, and last but not least, integrity.

As a former planter, what are some of the changes you would like to see in our plantation companies? This can be at the company level or at the plantation estates itself. — Cindy Tay, Sarawak

Companies should ask young planters how to get more people to join. Many senior planters are leaving for overseas plantations because the pay is higher, so we are losing talent. I think companies need to pay more for trainees to join and offer higher bonuses for management when they exceed expectations. Companies should invite schoolchildren to come and see the estates.

They can feel fresh air, hear the sounds of birds and animals, and see fish in the streams. This way, many students will want to join the estates later on.

With current high CPO prices, companies should allocate more on research and reward ideas. They should send managers for training overseas and to learn what competitors are doing.

Palm oil has many uses and it is cheaper to produce compared to other oils. We need to find new ways to tell the world about what we do right. Even blogs help – one is written by Tan Sri Yusof Basiron, CEO of our Malaysian Palm Oil Council. You can go to A lot of information can be found there. For information about life on the estates, you can always read my books of course.

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