They are big, calloused, wrinkled and very, very strong.
When I first shook hands with Datuk Leslie Davidson, a 77-year-old former planter, I was left with numb fingers before blood resume flow into my right hand.
In an interview with Davidson and Mahbob Abdullah, his friend and former subordinate, both talked about their upcoming books. Scheduled to be launched in early 2009, the books tell of their amusing and poignant experiences as planters in the tropics between the 1950s and the 1980s.
Davidson was also in Kuala Lumpur to receive the Merdeka Award from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for his outstanding contribution to Malaysian people. The Merdeka Award, a Petronas initiative co-founded with ExxonMobil and Shell, came with a trophy, certificate and RM500,000 cash.
Davidson’s contribution could be attributed to efforts 30 years ago when he initiated efforts to get weevils, insects from Cameroon, to pollinate oil palm trees in Malaysia. Since then, the oil palm trees have been merrily producing more fruit bunches, making Malaysia the world’s biggest palm oil exporter.
As Davidson sat himself down beside Mahbob, he said, “the Merdeka Award is actually a team effort”.
I stole a glance at Mahbob.
“My boss is right. Maybe the award money should be divided among team members, too,” he said, and laughed, “there were thousands of us”.
In chapter 10 of Mahbob’s book titled “Planters Tales” and chapter 37 of Davidson’s “East of Kinabalu”, they tell how oil palm companies had to spend a lot of money to hire hundreds of workers just to manually harvest pollen from male flowers of oil palm trees to pollinate female flowers.
Teams of workers patrolled the estate daily searching for male flowers to collect the pollen. This was then issued to other teams who went around pollinating every receptive female flowers with hand puffers.
“Ironically, by trial and error, we found the ideal instrument for this delicate operation to be vaginal douches,” he said.
When Davidson submitted orders for vaginal douches, Unilever headquarters in London was very surprised and immediately questioned if he was carrying out birth control programmes among his estate workers.
Davidson promptly replied, “Oh, quite the contrary, we’re actually trying to increase fertility rates among the trees to get them bear more fruits”.
While top management approved of the orders, Davidson was constantly reminded that Sabah estates’ oil palm yields were lower than in Johor and Cameroon.
Undeterred and unconvinced by textbook knowledge which claimed that palm fruits were wind-pollinated and that heavy rain washes pollen away, Davidson arranged for more research to prove that pollination in West Africa was largely due to weevils which were not found in Malaysia.
Under Davidson’s instruction, Dr Kang Siew Ming, Zam Karim, Dr Tay Eong Beok and Mahbob went to Cameroon to assess the work of Dr Rahman Anwar Syed, the entomologist who was assigned to study oil palm pollination by insects in Africa, especially the elaieidobius kamerunicus specie.
“It ended up with the two ladies Dr Kang and Zam climbing the oil palm trees,” Mahbob said.
Asked what he and and Dr Tay did while the ladies were up on the trees, Mahbob replied, “we stood underneath and made sure they didn’t fall down” and grinned, “but we didn’t look up.”
Jokes aside, Mahbob is most probably remembered among members of East Malaysia Planters Association for being the very persuasive money collector for the RM2 million weevils project.
The Unilever Group was the first to pay but Sabah Land Development Board was the biggest contributor.
Incidentally, the estates that Davidson and Mahbob used to work and live in Johor and Sabah are now owned by IOI Corp Bhd. To this day, the almost 70-year-old IOI Group executive chairman Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng still makes his regular rounds at these estates. Lee’s talent in serenading Tamil songs to his oil palm trees may seem surprising to many but it reflected Incorporated Society of Planters (ISP) requirement that all planters must be proficient in commonly-used languages at the estates.
Davidson recalled preparing for the Malay and Hakka language tests almost 60 years ago. At that time, the ISP examiner said, “You will find Hakka very useful in North Borneo,” and asked, “Nyi thuk-ko-kai shu, han ki-tet mau? (Do you still remember your studies?)”
Davidson replied, “Yit pan ki-tet, yit pan mong-ki liau.” (Half remember, half forgotten.)
The examiner liked what he heard and Davidson passed the Hakka test with flying colours.
Mahbob was also lucky. In his second book entitled “Planter Upriver”, Mahbob told how he was slow to start learning Tamil but eventually aced the test. At that time, Mahbob’s contract as an assistant manager at Tanah Merah Estate in Tangkak, Johor, required him to pass the Tamil language test. He found a very patient tutor in Krishnan, an 18-year-old son of a worker. Also, Mahbob’s love for Tamil and Hindi movies might have helped.
Asked if he is able to sing Tamil songs, he winked and smiled, “If Tan Sri Lee invites me to his estates, I certainly don’t mind a duet”.
As recent as two months ago at the Tan Sri Bek-Nielsen Foundation Lecture 2008, Sime Darby chairman Tun Musa Hitam acknowledged Tan Sri Lee’s singing of Tamil songs has worked wonders on oil palm yields.
He then said he was seriously thinking of “asking the boys at Sime Darby to sing Indonesian songs to the trees too.” That got the hallful of audience roaring with laughter.
I then thought back of that fateful field trip to Sagil Estate, Johor in 2005. Back then, I was still new to the palm oil sector and I had no idea what to report from field trips. I went up to one of my editors, Shahriman Johari and asked for his advice.
He looked up from his computer screen and told me in a straight face, “People have said Tan Sri Lee talks to his trees. See if this is true…”
And so I went along to the field trip with this unusual mission at the back of my mind. Throughout the 2-day trip, journalists and stock analysts asked Tan Sri Lee questions on crude palm oil price (CPO) trend, soya oil price trend, oil extraction rates, acquisition plans, company borrowings and forecast results.
When all ‘serious’ questions were asked, senior journalists and stock analysts made their way to the buffet tables, leaving younger and inexperienced reporters, like me, to face Tan Sri Lee in awkward silence.
After what seemed like five minutes of polite smiles and nods, I took a gamble and asked Tan Sri Lee if he loved his oil palm trees. He hesitated and looked around. I held my breath and thought to myself, “Oh uh… I’m in big trouble now.”
To my surprise, Tan Sri Lee replied, “Yes, of course.”
And the rest is narrated below.
A planter at heart, Lee grew up in Jeram, Kuala Selangor, and spent his childhood days in the rubber plantation there.
Now, the group executive chairman of IOI Corp Bhd, the country’s most valuable plantation firm, spends his weekends visiting his estates that spans over 158,514ha from Peninsular Malaysia to Sabah. At 66 years of age, Lee is a picture of health as he treks up and down the undulating plantation without pausing to catch a breath.
He faithfully carries a stick to poke into thick bushes to ward off snakes.
“My trees are my girlfriends. Each one has her own characteristics. If one produces well, I will tell her ‘I love you’,” Lee grins, adding that if a tree is not productive he would tell her that he will give her six to nine months to bear the quota of fruits.
“Surprisingly, they tend to bloom to expectation,” he said.
But what happens if after nine months, they still bore no fruit?
“Well, I’ll tell her, ‘I’m sorry darling. I will have to chop you down’,” he said.
Sensing a hush descending upon the crowd of people before him, Lee quipped, “But my trees are like me, fat, short and productive,” he laughed.
In a rare occasion, Lee invited 14 journalists and analysts to visit IOI Group’s estates and oil extraction mill last week, in efforts to get them to better understand the plantation industry.
Today, all of Lee’s six children work for the IOI Group. By urban Malaysian Chinese standards, six children in a family is productive. IOI Corp has long been reputed to be the most efficient palm oil producer in the world.
With an average yield of 6 tonnes of crude palm oil (CPO) per ha per year, IOI Corp is, much to its reluctance, often used as the benchmark of efficiency among reporters during their interviews with rival plantation companies’ performances.
The estate, which house an Indian and a Chinese primary school on its compound, employs 310 workers. Situated at the base of Gunung Ledang, IOI Corp’s most productive estate is its 2,553ha Sagil Estate, of which 2,246ha have been planted. It produces 8.32 tonnes of CPO per ha per year and 38.2 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches per ha per year.
“Don’t compare us with other plantation companies. It’s unnecessary. There’s no high-tech formula. It’s just basic prudence. We aim for 100 per cent recovery. Loose fruits have the most oil content. So, we strive to pick up every loose fruit that falls onto the ground,” Lee said.
Another factor that contributes to IOI Corp’s high-yielding palm fruits are its DXP IOI breed which is the result of cross-pollination between the IOI deli dura and avros pisifera clones. About 60 mother oil palms at its Regent estate in Negri Sembilan are manually pollinated with avros pisifera pollens by workers daily.
Annually, IOI Corp’s seed garden in Negri Sembilan and Sabah are able to generate six million seeds per year. Big buyers of the DXP IOI seedlings are rivals PPB Oil Palms Bhd, Rimbunan Hijau Group and BLD Plantation Bhd.
Currently, IOI Corp owns 78 estates with a total landbank of 158,514ha, of which two-thirds are in Sabah and the rest in Peninsular Malaysia.
With 12 oil extraction mills throughout the country, the group is capable of processing 3.9 million tonnes of CPO a year. Since its last upgrade in 1997, IOI Corp’s biggest mill in Gomali estate, Johor is able to process 120 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches per hour.
* Story featured in Business Times on 31 Oct 2005