For palm oil producers and their critics
On Oct 12, Tun Musa Hitam received the prestigious 2016 Palm Oil Industry Leadership Award from the Malaysian Palm Oil Council. The annual award recognises industry personalities who have contributed significantly to development of the palm oil sector (see p.12-13). A slightly edited version of Tun Musa’s acceptance speech follows.
“Malaysia is a country full of awarders and awardees. All year through, the print media, I suspect, thrives on full-page, half-page and quarter-page congratulatory messages relating to honours and awards for one thing or another. I must humbly boast – if it makes any sense at all – that I rarely accept awards even though quite a few have come my way.
No offence to any awarders, but I must confess that it’s quite a tiring and often-times expensive affair. So, just to let you know that tonight’s honour that is being bestowed on me is really an offer I simply could not say ‘No’ to. So, thank you, Malaysian Palm Oil Council, and thank you all, for your presence.
During the course of my long life for over 80 years now, I have always been around or been part of events that relate to the oil palm. Whether at the village level, or at town, state, national and international levels, I have been there. You might ask: how come? Well, let me elaborate.
As I grew up in Kampong Bahru, Johor Bahru, I remember the patches of oil palm growing wild around village areas. These trees were never appreciated until during the war years, when I learnt that the fruit could be crushed; as a child, I found out that the oil could be used for frying and cooking.
It was during the war years too that, in Johor Bahru, I witnessed the ingenuity of the Japanese occupying forces who created some very crude-looking machines to drive lorries; the machines belched smoke as a result of the crude palm oil used to drive these lorries! Only on looking back, did I realise that this was biofuel in its crudest form!
Much later on, as an assistant district officer in the district of Kluang, I literally lived among rubber and oil palm trees, as well as people from different strata of society whose lives were dependent on these agricultural crops. I am talking about those who worked the fields, those who supervised the work, those who managed, and those who supported the industry in one way or another. Indeed, the whole district of Kluang was mainly economically dependent on the plantations.
One needs to say here that it was the plantation industry spearheaded by rubber and later oil palm that was the real basis of our country’s economic development. It was the political foresight and responsible national leadership after Independence that made Malaysia the No. 1 rubber and palm oil producer and exporter in the world … until rather recently, of course.
Let us then, at the start of this very significant night, pay tribute to Malaysians and foreigners alike who have contributed so much to our success in making these two commodities the pillars of our economic growth. We learnt, we applied and we laboured. We learnt from the early British and other foreign managers; then we ourselves became managers and applied the knowledge and lessons learnt.
As it happened, my comeback into government at the beginning of the 1970s as a young man, after being out on a ‘sabbatical, was as chairman of FIDA. It was during that stint that FIDA became FELDA. That was the time within FELDA that I reunited with some of my best university classmates such as Raja Alias and Nasir Yusof. They were two of the many personalities of dedication and integrity who were chosen to lead the government’s charge against deprivation and poverty through FELDA.
Those were actually the early days of our dependence on rubber, and rightly so. But then, even while enjoying the national benefits from rubber, the leadership was already working on agricultural diversification. This awareness was well demonstrated by the establishment, on [then Prime Minister] Tun Razak’s initiative, of a palm oil research centre in the middle of Pahang, amidst plantations, under the management of FELDA. That, I must admit, was my first ‘formal’ introduction to the oil palm as a recognised agricultural industry.
It was as early as that, at the first ASEAN-EEC meeting in Brussels, that I was designated as ‘advisor’ on palm oil to the ASEAN delegation. That was how I literally jumped into matters relating to palm oil internationally, a matter that has increased in importance in ASEAN-EEC (now the EU) and overall economic relations with the rest of the world.