TO THE untrained eye, the trees with glossy, dark green leaves look like any other plant in the northern Kedah agricultural landscape.
“That’s ketum,” my 52-year-old Kedahan political contact told me.
“Really?” I said. “I did not know that it was planted openly along trunk roads.”
Earlier, ketum was one of the hot political topics discussed among Orang Siam at a roadside stall next to Wat Phikulthararam (or Wat Pedu) in Kampung Tanjung Siam, Pedu, Kedah.
The stall serving Thai food is operated by a Malaysian Siamese who watched lakorn (Thai soap opera) on her mobile phone.
Kampung Tanjung Siam is populated by Malaysians of Thai descent. It is about 20km from the Durian Burung Immigration, Customs, Quarantine and Security (ICQS) complex that connects Kedah to Songkhla province in Thailand.
I was at the village to get insight on the issues facing the 60,000 Siamese voters in northern Kedah parliamentary seats such as Padang Terap, Pendang, Baling, Sik and Kubang Pasu.
“Although we are bumiputra, the process to apply for land is complicated and time-consuming. It can take 10 years to get approval. There’s too much bureaucracy,” a 48-year-old Siamese farmer told me.
“It is difficult for Siamese who were born in Malaya before Merdeka to change their red identity card to blue. Without a blue identity card, they can’t apply for BR1M.”
The Siamese community, according to the farmer, who declared that he was voting for Pakatan Harapan, was not given a quota to buy affordable government homes.
“What are the other concerns of your community?” I asked.
“Previously, we can plant ketum but now we can’t, especially in Padang Terap,” said the voter who voted in Pedu state seat and Padang Terap parliamentary seat.
“Has the Government declared planting ketum as illegal?” I asked.
“No, but I heard it will ban ketum plantations and cut down the trees because some people are addicted to ketum,” he said.
“But nothing confirmed yet?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Why will you be angry if the Government bans ketum plantation?” I said.
The rubber, padi and ketum farmer said ketum supplemented his income, especially now that rubber prices had plummeted from RM6 a kg to RM2.
Eight years ago, he planted 40 to 60 ketum trees. He makes about RM600 a month selling the leaves. He earns about RM20 a day tapping rubber, making about RM600 a month from his rubber trees.
“If the Government cuts my ketum trees, I’ll be short of RM600 a month,” he said, adding that the price of ketum fluctuates between RM4 and RM11 a kg.
“If the price of rubber is higher, I do not need to rely on ketum.”
For generations, according to the Siamese, his community had been planting ketum. Kratom is the Thai name for the plant.
“When they eat ketum leaves, it makes them hardworking,” he said. “I also eat two or three leaves before I tap rubber trees. It makes my body feel strong.”
However, he said there were people who abused ketum.
“They use it to get high,” he said.
After the discussion with the Orang Siam, I headed to Felda Lubuk Merbau about a few kilometres away to listen to the angry complaints of the second-generation Felda setters. On the way, my contact pointed out the ketum trees.
We stopped by the roadside so that I could take photos next to the ketum trees.
I posted the pix on Instagram and Facebook with the caption: “I’m happy as I’m in a ketum plantation in Kampung Tanjung Siam, Pedu, Kedah.” My social media friends got “high” seeing the post.
“Is that even legal? Don’t get high,” my gorgeous friend posted.
“The fact that it is planted in public should indicate that it is legal,” I said.
Curious to know if what I wrote was factual, I Googled ketum.
A September 2017 article in The Star Online stated: “While the planting of ketum trees is not a crime, doing this on a commercial scale – including picking and processing the leaves – has been an offence under the Poisons Act 1952 (revised 1989) since 2004.”
Ketum leaves, according to the article, are boiled to produce a drink that is usually packed in small packets for sale to drug addicts.
“Drug addicts abuse ketum leaves because of their psychoactive components, such as mytragynine, which produces a stimulating, sedative and euphoric effect, and can lead to addiction,” it reported.
Since 2015, more than 14,000 people have been arrested for ketum abuse, and large tracts of land in northern states like Perlis, Kedah and Kelantan, and parts of Perak, are planted with the trees.
It is interesting to read the stories on ketum when you Googled “ketum and thestar.com.my”.
For example, it is a trend among Kelantanese youngsters to drink a cocktail of ketum and cough syrup followed by a carbonated drink so that they can consume the intoxicating mix in public without arousing suspicion. Many parents are not aware that their children are taking intoxicating drinks right before their eyes.
For a ketum farmer, the sale of the leaves can double his monthly income. It is a bread-and-butter GE14 issue for him.
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