GROWING up in a tapioca farm in Kampung Baru Batu 12 in Bidor, Perak, Lee Tee Siong’s fascination for tractors is nothing unusual.
His grandfather, Lee Kee, left behind two tractors when he died in 1963, the same year Tee Siong was born.
Tee Siong, who started helping in the farm at the age of 12, clearly remembers how his father, Hoi Yong, struggled to keep the two tractors in working condition.
It was then that the young boy learnt the importance of engineering and mechanisation in agriculture, long before knowing that he would venture into the business of farming.
“I tried operating a tractor when I turned 12,” said Tee Siong, who dropped out of school after Form Three to become a full-time tapioca farmer.
Fast forward to present day, the 55-year-old is now known as “Doctor Tractor” by farmers in Bidor.
Skilled at repairing tractors, Tee Siong can also improvise the diesel engine for energy- saving and turbo power.
“This saves cost, helps protect the environment and also gets work done faster,” he said.
The journey of this businessman is a story of survival in a changing economy during the 1980s.
Tee Siong’s parents, who planted tapioca for animal feed to raise their family of nine, saw a sudden change in fortune in the early 1980s when demand for the crop started to drop drastically.
“Farmers who had been cooking tapioca to feed their pigs and ducks switched to ready-to-eat animal feed that started to be easily available.
“It was a convenient and time-saving option for farmers, who had also started to expand their farms,” he recalled, adding that farmers in Negri Sembilan, who dominated the pig farming industry those days, were major buyers of their tapioca.
Farmers in the new village switched to planting oil palm by the mid 1980s.
That was when, Tee Siong said, he made servicing and repairing tractors his full-time job.
“Change is the only thing constant as the economy evolves,” he said, recalling stories from his grandfather’s era.
Lee Kee, who was from China, first set foot in Malim Nawar before moving to Bidor.
“The place was a jungle. People like my grandfather had to use their bare hands and cangkul for farming. He started planting tobacco and pepper.”
While Tee Siong and his wife continue to stay in the village, their five daughters, who are fourth-generation Malaysians, are not likely to follow in his footsteps.
Meanwhile, the journey of another villager, Lee Hoi Fong, 64, appears more adventurous.
At the age of 18 and armed only with education up to Form One, he headed to Kuala Lumpur and worked his way up to become his own boss in the furniture business.
When in his 30s, Hoi Fong grew tired of city life and headed back to the village where he set up a furniture and renovation business.
“I was introduced to gold trading by a goldsmith while renovating his shop,” recalled Hoi Fong, who went on to open a goldsmith shop in Teluk Intan, about 20km from the village.
While it was a courageous move, the fluctuating gold prices left Hoi Fong concerned and he subsequently closed the shop.
Thirteen years ago, he ventured into fruit farming on leased land in Slim River.
Sadly, his papaya farm was wiped out by a disease four years ago.
But Hoi Fong did not give up; he instead started planting guava and chiku.
A father of two boys, Hoi Fong, who is second-generation Malaysian, and his wife have no plans of leaving the village. Instead, he prefers to commute daily to the farm which is a 30-minute drive away.
A typical day for Hoi Fong starts at 7am and ends at sunset.
He believes that there is a bright future for agriculture and it was time for young people to list the sector as one of their top career options.
However, he pointed out, the relevant authorities have to help pave the way by resolving long-standing land issues.
A majority of the farmers in Kampung Baru Batu 12 and all through Perak have toiled on land without lease or grant since the country’s independence.
Hoi Fong and Tee Siong reckon that many young people would return to the village to venture into farming if these land issues could be resolved.