Making Sarawak a rice bowl of Malaysia


SARAWAK could soon become Malaysia’s major rice producer with the federal government now seriously studying the potential of the country’s largest state in tackling the problem of low yields.

Rice, a Malaysian staple, has traditionally been cultivated in the northern peninsular states such as Kedah, dubbed the
‘Rice Bowl’ of Malaysia, and Perlis.

However, Kedah, and to a lesser extent Perlis, which used to occupy over half the total 700,000 hectares of rice fields in the country, have over the past five years seen the abandonment of more and more padi fields
due mainly to labour shortage, higher energy and fertiliser costs, and above all, declining soil condition.

In 2000, Malaysia produced 2.36 million tons of rice, or slightly below 75 per cent of the country’s needs. This had led to the importation over 500,000 tons of the grain from Thailand, Myanmar and India.

Six years later, instead of increasing, Malaysia’s rice production recorded a significant dip – so much so that it was barely able to meet 70 per cent of its 26 million population’s needs at the time, sparking concern some 40 per cent of the staple would have to be imported by 2010 in lieu of better yields.

In fact, the situation got so worrisome that the then government decided to hold back several mega projects and channel some RM9 billion to increase rice production and cushion escalating food prices.

To give production a much-needed boost, the vast expanse of agricultural lands in Sarawak and Sabah are seen as key to elevating the nation’s rice self-sufficiency by at least 80 per cent.

This is imperative with heightened risk of rice supply shortage in the regional and global markets, brought on by natural disasters like flooding – as seen recently in Thailand – and droughts in some of the major rice-producing countries.

In Sarawak, there are pockets of land along the coast, in the middle plains, the upper reaches of rivers and the valleys at the foot of the mountain range (such as in Bario) that may provide more than adequate space suitable for commercial production of different varieties of rice for domestic consumption as well as export.

With the fulfilment of prerequisites such as research to determine the right soil condition, application of the required technology and expertise and sufficient capital outlay, there’s every reason for commercial rice cultivation to be successful in Sarawak.

During a recent visit to the state, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak indicated the federal government’s support for turning Sarawak into the second ‘Rice Bowl of Malaysia’ after Kedah, reflecting the same vision as the nation’s founding father and first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman who, during a state visit in the mid-1960’s, declared Sarawak would one day become an important rice bowl of the country.

A country with vast tracts of arable land can be organised into a highly successful rural-based agragrian society, which in the context of today’s economy, means lifting the living standards of the people.

Fifty per cent of the population in Sarawak are said to be living on largely undeveloped lands albeit in recent years, because of the good prices fetched by oil palm fruits, there has been a proliferation of oil palm-based smallholdings across the state.

Commercial-scale rice cultivation in Sarawak with its five million hectares, making up 35 per cent of the country’s land area, will impact positively on especially the rural community.

Soil conditions may pose a challenge but are not beyond the ingenuity and capability of innovation and technology.

In fact, if proven commercially feasible, rice cultivation on peat swamps is a venture option that can be considered. For this, the necessary technical backing can be extended to new investors or village-based co-operatives with a minimum of red tape.

The state government has quite rightly emphasised on large-scale rice production. Self-sufficiency in the staple means taking a huge load off our economy, given the huge annual import bill. Indeed, it stands to reason to prioritise rice cultivation with the availability of land in the state and country.

While hopes are high that new planting know-how and ample land in Sarawak would help ease the country’s rice shortage, others are concerned about the inevitable environmental impact widespread clearance of land for padi cultivation would have on the state’s ecosystem.

However, with oil getting costlier – coupled with the effects climate change on global food production and the resultant surging food prices – hopping on the agriculture bandwagon may ultimately prove to be a matter of survival.

All things considered, priming the land to cultivate crops is still, for us, one of the best routes towards self-reliance in food production, particularly rice, our main staple. No matter who, what or where we are, we still need to eat, period!