Saturday, May 28

It’s time to recollect

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‘There is money on those palms!’ – Bernama photo

THE stay-at-home order issued by the Ministry of Health has been a blessing in disguise in more ways than one. It is supposed to prevent the spread of Covid-19, and it has given us ample time to think. Just now we would prefer to be negative instead of being positive – in a test for the coronavirus, that is.

It allows time for creativity. Some people have picked up vegetable-gardening by hydroponics, others have acquired new hobbies. Time utilised in this manner is time wisely spent.

During the lockdown, I read many old books – old magazines such as the ‘Readers Digest’ or ‘National Geographic’, and also ‘The Sarawak Gazette’, the oldest news bulletin (1870) funded by Sarawak government. Re-reading the old newspaper cuttings can be fun too, though Auntie Di does not appreciate them all over the floor!

The other day, I read about how good the price of palm oil in the world market. My memories went back some 50 years, when I was involved in land development in the rural areas of Sarawak. Spending time with the rural people and talking about their economic problems served as an opportunity at seeing poverty at first hand. It stirred in me the desire to do something about alleviating the problem in a positive way.

Developing land without curtailing the rights of the native owners was a real challenge; to convince government planners of the necessity for poverty eradication took time and persistent effort. It was easier to negotiate rapids and to withstand heat in the steamy jungle than to convince certain politicians and government officials who managed public funds to your way of thinking. Believe me – the real jungle is in Kuching!

By chance or by providence, it was in mid-1970s that the government of Sarawak began to try out a policy of planting oil palm on a commercial scale. The market for edible palm oil was good.

In 1972, I was appointed the secretary of the Sarawak Land Development Board (SLDB) by the state government. The chairman was Wan Habib Wan Mahmud. With his permission, I went to Sabah and was kindly invited by Mr Walker of the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) to see the corporation’s plantations in Tawau. This was a fleeting visit to study the rudiments of plantation management.

What did I see?

The CDC had started planting oil palms in areas earlier earmarked for ‘sisal’ (Agave sisalana) plantation. I had never seen a sisal plant before. I saw a huge expanse of what I thought was a pineapple plantation.

Sisal, eh? The plant is of Mexican origin. Its fibre is used for cordage and ropes. At the time, the main markets for sisal were the Philippines, Europe, Japan and Korea.
I asked Mr Walker why it was necessary for his company to switch to another crop. Pointedly, he responded: “Sidi, there’s money in oil palm! Sisal is being replaced fast by plastics and nylons.”

Well, the plastic problem has come home to roost in the meantime, but neither of us could have known that 50 years ago!

That gave me the idea for another crop for Sarawak – a new product for export from the state.

At the time, economic planners showed little interest in planting oil palm on a commercial scale; everybody was talking about rubber and pepper, rubber and pepper.

Not many people in Sarawak even thought of palm oil as food, and as an excellent source of vitamins.

The early Christian missionaries from England planted the palm wherever they had established Mission centres. The Roman Catholic missionaries planted oil palm around their Mission quarters at Kanowit in the 1880s. The Reverend Stonton of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) planted several palms on a high ground in Simanggang known as Bukit Sabun.

Isn’t that’s somewhere near the St Luke’s Church? ‘Sabun’ is the local name for soap; indeed, there’s a small percentage of extracts of pure palm oil in the humble soap. Apparently, the oil from the palm kernel is a rich source of beta-carotene, said to be good for the improvement of eyesight. The missionaries might have learnt about such valuable properties of the palm from other missionaries working in Nigeria or the Gold Coast, the original home of the oil palm.

Yesterday, I was happy to read about the soaring price of the palm oil in the world market. The ‘golden oil’ is in great demand in countries like India and China.

I hope the good price would be sustained for a long time to come and that the quality of our oil would remain competitive vis-a-vis the other edible oils.

While the going is good, I hope that the people in the industry in Sarawak would spare a thought for its pioneers.

Sarawakians played an important part in land development for oil palm. Have you heard about Sabri Ali and Hollis Awell, the managers of the CDC in Sabah who later started an oil palm plantation in Miri for the corporation?

What about Wan Habib, Edwin Lau, Reduan, Benedict Bunsin, and Leong – these young Sarawakians had worked for the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) in Peninsular Malaysia, risking their lives in jungle infested with tigers, or in locations where unexploded bombs had been left behind by the soldiers during the Malayan Emergency.

Most of the boys came back to Sarawak to help develop the industry here. Wan Habib later became the chairman of the SLDB and Edwin Lau was the field manager for Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Salcra)’s schemes at Merindun, Batang Ai and Pakit.

The others were working for the industry in various capacities.

If I missed a name, please forgive me – I often think of you all including the supporting office staff members both at SLDB and SALCRA; too many names to remember and write down here.

But these pioneers of Salcra in the headquarters, as at 1974, should be mentioned: Major Walter Ted Wong, Major Wilfred Busu, Michael George, Hamsiah Ojet, Leong, Tan Kim Hong, Teresa Bateman, Jahawi, Ah Seng, Nuing, Desmond, Mrs Unting, Sline Kallang …Who else?

Please add, don’t delete.

It’s time to remember of the days when we were young and energetic and working for the good of our land and our people.

We planted the seed, today’s generation will carry on the good work!
We did it our way!

* Comments can reach the writer via columnists@theborneopost.com.