{Rubber productivity in Felda schemes in mid-1970s was at the level of about 80-85% that of commercial plantations. This is due to the unusual nature of State sponsored enterprise (Wikkramatileke, 1975) whereby

  1. the socio-economic setting of the enterprise made it difficult to apply purely commercial criteria;
  2. implicit political and attendant bureaucratic elements makes the enterprise susceptible to policy changes, and hesitancies in implementation of directives;
  3. rapid development using contractors lead to unrewarding situations with regard to landscaping and inferior planting materials.}

 

On the agricultural land holding side, when I first entered FLDA, they wanted us to be as efficient as the estates. But the smallholders in FLDA were not the same as estate workers. They were potential landowners, and you could not ask them to wake up early to get to the field. We were trying to meld the estate system with the small holders system. They were small landowners, but managed estate style. So we converted this to the block system, so that the hardworking people can influence the less hardworking to work harder.

Originally, rubber was planted carrying on with the estate economy of pre-colonial days, but from 1964 onwards there was a marked swing towards palm oil estates. The primary skilled labour element was specialized harvesting with a free fat acid content of no higher than 3% on ripe fruit. It was also necessary for labour to be mobile.

So, it made sense to move to a cooperative field block system of 150-200 acres each with a minimum palm stand ratio of 60 trees per acre, worked conjointly by 15-20 settlers, which we did in 1971. This allowed for a few trained specialist harvesters to operate through the block, leaving the other chores to the fellow workers.

The first trial block system was implemented in 1973 in the rubber schemes. All schemes after 1974 came under the block system. But this system proved a problem to the system of individual tenure rights envisaged at the onset of the program. The block system was a significant departure from traditional Malay attitudes to tenure. A leader would be appointed from the members of each block, but they were initially rotated monthly for the first 12 months, then they would choose themselves their leader. Under the block system, all members worked in a block of plantation, and also lived in a block in the village area. Title to the plantation lands were held in the name of land ownership cooperatives, which was a closed membership of the workers allocated to the block of land. The purpose was to integrate the settlers and instill a sense of belonging in both field management and social activities. Until maturity of crop, members were given their subsistence loan in the form of a daily wage for a minimum loan of M$208 per month. They were also paid on a piece rate basis if they were to do additional work (Alias, 1990).

We tried other systems too. There was the commercial estate system in Johore Tenggara, the reserve system (Felda develops and recovers costs before handing to settlers) in Kemahang, and sugar cane workers qualification to participate in proceeds and purchase houses.

The JKKR concept and the block system are both socialist ideas. Both came from the concept of the Israeli “kibbutz”. When the settlers first come in, they had no leaders. There would be 12 people, and every month they will change leaders. At the end of the year, they will elect one. It was working very well in the Felda schemes, but unfortunately the government did not optimise this. It is still in existence today.

Essentially, we changed them from peserta (participant) to peneroka (pioneers) to separate them from their ties to their home villages. In the beginning, the term “kampong” was part of the scheme name, eventually we replaced it with “Felda” using it as a noun. The objective was to integrate the settlers as they had originated from different places. It was to create a new community for them.

All schemes had leaders, elected from amongst the settlers themselves. There were leaders at various levels, including women and youth. The leaders were all members of the scheme’s development committees.

The Settler Development Unit in FLDA was established Sept 1969, and by mid 1970 it had 114 specially trained personnel – to motivate and guide settlers in a variety of activities including general food and cash crop cultivation, fish culture, animal husbandry, home economics, small-scale cottage industries, organization of kindergartens and child welfare centres (Wikkramatileke, 1975).

During my first China visit with the first Malayan trade delegation to China in May 1971 (headed by Tengku Razaleigh), I met with Premier Chow En Lai. I saw how they controlled the community and the citizenry. I came to the conclusion that system did not work for Malaysia, because our background is different. They are a homogenous society. Malaysians were and are very diverse. It was a dictatorial state, we are shifting from monarchy to democracy. But one thing I was impressed, they were very hard working people prepared to face challenges. They were very poor, males and females dressed alike in order to share clothes. They later started opening up and doing better than other countries. It’s part of their genes to work hard. If only we can pass this to the majority of Malaysians. A proportion of Malaysians already have this DNA, but if the rest could emulate this, and we will make even more progress.

In order to incentivize the hard working ones, later in 1985 we tried to introduce the share system for the whole scheme, like an estate. Settlers were given individual title to the house lots but shareholding in individual estate development corporations. The corporations paid wages for work or labour done by any of the settlers and each settler would receive a division of profits according to their shareholding. The settlers were also not burdened by a loan payment for subsistence unlike in the individual or block system. However, the politicians did not like that and told the settlers that they should get individual titles. We did this so that as shareholders they would get dividend from profits, and also they would be paid in accordance with their input. But politically, it was not accepted[1]. The government wanted the individuals to be given titles. That’s why it is difficult to make the settler’s lands as competitive as the estates. But this must be differentiated from the estate lands owned by the Felda.

I often wondered whether if more of the settlers were Chinese or Indians, we would not have had to work as hard as we did. It is not easy to help the Malays. But they are growing. We don’t see the Malay boys or girls working in the restaurants or shops. In those days, the enterprises were family owned, so family members run the shop. But when the business gets bigger, you need to get workers from outside. Malays are beginning to go into business, which is good. Fifty years from now, we will have a different set of Malays.

[1] The settlers also could not warm up to the share system, they were disconnected from the land and did not take ownership of the crop. Splinter groups in the ruling party used promises to revert to individual system in order to buy the support of the settlers, resulting in policy reversal. Both the block and the share system were abolished in 1989 under the force of political bickering. See ALIAS, T. A. 1990. The Changes in Land Ownership in Felda Schemes from 1956 to 1990. The Reasons and the Effects. LL.M, University of Malaya.

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