What next for plantations?
Mahbob Abdullah 
FOR me it is always good to look back in review and relish the memory of my times in plantations as a young man, walking in shorts and long stockings, and with a walking stick, enjoying the work in the field and checking the ranks of rubber trees. Malaysia was the leading producer of rubber. Now those trees are mostly gone, oil palm has taken over.

Then for many years we were the leading producer of palm oil. We had worked hard to get there. But we were also riding on the efforts of the past. In the early days it was mainly British estate managers who were driving Land Rovers and walking into the fields to check on details on planting and harvesting, giving instructions in fluent Tamil. Meetings in the plantations’ associations in Kuala Lumpur were dominated by the expatriates while the few Malaysian managers would sit at the back rows.

New material to plant

The bastion of these bodies in the planting industry is the Bangunan Getah Asli, at Jalan Ampang, where the owners and employers would meet. Even now, the photographs of olden day industry leaders, mostly English and Scottish, still stare down from the walls. The table is a big arc, but sitting there nowadays are Malaysians.

Now it is our turn to do something new. We are no longer the leading producer of palm oil, overtaken by Indonesia which has more land. It is also likely that our areas will reduce with new townships, as well as factories. But we try to raise the yield of oil per hectare. Managers will continue to be trained, together with all levels of employees, while research work will not cease to find new material to plant. And we hope to use machines to solve the labour shortage.

As long as we keep seeking improvements on the above, losing the number one position cannot be all bad. That should raise another question: how else can we excel?

We have succeeded in going downstream. Since the 1970s the government has worked hard to persuade the industry to refine palm oil here. It was not without resistance from industrialised countries, but the government persevered.

Today we have the largest concentration of refineries in Pasir Gudang. When I was running one of the refineries, I realised that there were many issues I did not find in plantations, one being marketing and fighting for margins. One way was to formulate products that the buyers want so that their biscuits and their chocolates can taste better and stay fresh longer. Research in oleochemicals continues to find new uses for palm oil.

For example the hand wash sales have increased in the last fifteen years. We can see the brands that appear on the shelves in the pharmacies, including Reckitt Benckiser’s Dettol, and our own homegrown brand Hovid. Both are packed here. Palm oil also goes into cosmetics, and the value increases sharply. However, competitors will always try to stop the progress of palm oil and equally we do our best to show the merits of palm oil and how all have gained from it through the ages.

Like many other crop plants, the oil palm does better than in its place of origin. Our country is blessed with the most suitable climate, with regular rain and strong sunshine. In addition we have a management culture in plantations built over a long time that includes discipline, and procedures that other countries try to emulate. They import our managers and work to get the same results.

However, we need to broaden this culture to extend to other crops. We still have much land that is not productive, and we can see that even from the car as we travel. There must be crops that can be grown and improved with research work, and although they may not reach the scale of our success in oil palm, they may still add to our exports.

Already in the supermarkets we can see imports, and if you go to the wholesale market in Selayang, Selangor, you can watch crates of exotic fruits arriving from as far as Ecuador. This is a country that also grows oil palm. Mangoes from Australia sell at very high prices because of their exquisite taste, and even their rosy colour will tempt you to buy. Plant breeders have done much research there. Perhaps we can do that too, and plant in the parts of the country where rainfall is low so flowers can turn into fruits.

From Australia too comes a custard apple many times the size of what grows here, with the price to match. Although the land is regularly short of water, each year it is producing more bananas and pineapples. Blueberries and avocados are popular, and growers enjoy increasing margins. Australia is also a big exporter of honey. The bees help to pollinate almonds, another export crop.

Malaysia is trying, and meeting with some success with a few crops. One of them is the durian. The musang king is finding a big following, with buyers chasing the price up in China. Plant breeding has given the fruit and marketing has made it a big success. In the case of durian, the appeal can be from its colour, texture and taste, and it is likely that buyers are also pulled by its potent smell. The qualities of the durian can get you into long debates. With a strong demand we can expect more farmers to grow durian trees.

Some plantations even grow trees for timber. There is little work needed, labour is not an issue, but it entails a wait of about thirty years in the case of mahogany. Rubber trees of timber clones can be harvested earlier. With the shortage of supplies today, the price of rubber wood has been going up and supplies are harder to get.

Back to my old rubber days, it was a story of packing the rubber sheets into bales, weighing and putting them onto lorries that go to the ports for shipping, and they came back as end-products. Now the story has changed. Malaysian investors have progressed in manufacturing, through trials and error, and we have had our failures.

Rubber gloves

Now we are the world’s leading producer of rubber gloves with Top Glove producing about 60 billion pieces per year. Another listed company, Karex, is the world’s largest producer of condoms. Soon Top Glove is going to produce condoms too, using its existing network for distribution, and putting its cash pile to work to build new brands. It does not matter that we are no longer a big producer of rubber, but we have become a big importer of latex, so that these products can be made. Just as with rubber, with more manufacturing work, we can be a growing importer of palm oil as we make more oil products for export.

So looking at things in review, I can only say that the future can become more exciting. Living in our land of plenty, and using management to work with research, so much more can be grown, processed and exported. We can be a bigger cornucopia to the world.

Mahbob Abdullah is a former planter. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 241.