MY rubber tapper father had one advice: “Jangan jadi macam ayah (don’t be like me).”
What he meant was that I must go to school to avoid being an illiterate like him. He had to tap rubber in the wee hours of the morning and to supplement his income, he was the village barber in the afternoon.
My mother helped him in the morning and planted tapioca and yam for sale. Life was hard in the village. Farmers endured hardships back then to put food on the table. They didn’t want their children to go through such hardship.
As the result of education, my generation has come out of poverty. Many of us became part of the new middle class, leaving our villages and towns to work in the cities.
Perhaps the stigma of “jadi petani” (becoming farmers) is endemic. Few among my generation stayed on in the villages. My childhood friend, Mahbob Dayat did not leave Kampung Sungai Balang Besar, Muar.
My father taught him to tap rubber, a skill that my father did not pass to me. When rubber trees were replaced with oil palm trees, he soldiered on. There are not many like him. Even in Felda settlements, the ones picking the fruits are foreign workers.
So, images of Norsyzwani Norazmin, 20, and Zaimah Awang, 41, at two Felda settlements featured in Sinar Harian recently, is a welcoming sight. The newspaper labelled them (the former from Felda Pasoh 4 in Negri Sembilan, the latter from Felda Kemahang 3, Tanah Merah, Kelantan) “wanita besi” (iron ladies). They are indeed doing something extraordinary.
Back in 1972 while waiting for my Higher School Certificate (HSC) results, I went to a palm oil refinery in Kulai, Johor. Back then, there were not many oil palm estates.
I was given the task to shove oil palm bunches from the lorries to the factory floor. It looked simple enough. But an oil palm bunch weighs an average 20kg! It was back-breaking work and I have done all kinds of work in the kampung, even digging streams and chopping wood.
The mandor (supervisor), an Indian gentleman, must have seen how I suffered. He shoved me aside on the second day, gave me a pen and a pad to write down the weight of the incoming bunches. Life was less miserable for me.
I will never forget his kindness. I helped his children with their Bahasa Melayu and English, and for the next three months, life was blissful at the estate.
I also read reports about jobs abound including in the plantation sector and how locals shunned such jobs. If the young can’t stay in their villages to work in their own farms, I doubt they would be interested to work in plantations.
It is not just the stigma I reckon. It is not even about my father’s advice to find other livelihoods. Or the unglamourous nature of the endeavour. It is more about the strength and fortitude. To use a scythe attached to a 5m pole to cut a bunch is no ordinary feat. For many young people, driving a Grab vehicle or delivering fast food make a lot more sense. I don’t blame them.
The easy way out is to get foreign workers. The National Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia acknowledged severe worker shortage in the plantation industry.
As the economy is showing signs of recovery, all sectors need to jump start. According to its Quick Take Survey, plantations alone require 70,000 foreign workers.
In another report, the president of Malaysian Estates Owners’ Association announced that at least RM39bil was lost because of shortage of workers. At the current relatively high price of palm oil, the losses will certainly escalate in the near future.
The plantation sector, unlike most other industries, requires fewer skills. There is no issue about skill mismatch in that area. We don’t need graduates to cut the bunches or skilled workers with expertise. It is pure hard work, sweat, and even tears. Even among the foreign workers, not everyone can work in this sector. In fact, among the Indonesian workers, there are certain ethnic groups who excel in plantation work.
The farming sector in the country needs fresh blood. Like politics, it is fast becoming a gerontocracy. Younger people are simply seeking new vocations leaving the farms to fathers and grandfathers.
There is a need for a new ecosystem in the agriculture sector. Mechanisation is the way forward. The sector needs total rethinking.
Forgive my father for his advice but he had a point at the time. But the industry needs to be rejuvenated, and to make it hip, even sexy, to appeal to the young.
Johan Jaaffar is a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.