Cover story: The secret life of planters

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 29, 2017 - June 04, 2017.

Tek visiting the on-site crèche at Desa Talisai Estate, Sandakan

Trekking through the Hundred Acre Wood, the pinnacle of IJMP’s conservation efforts

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The impact oil palm has had on Malaysia has never been in doubt. Ever since it was planted commercially a hundred years ago by Frenchman Henri Fauconnier at the Tennamaram Estate in Batang Berjuntai, Selangor, the native West African plant has not just transformed the country’s economy but also indelibly shaped the nation’s landscape while leaving its mark on much of daily life. As my plane begins its descent to Sandakan, on Borneo’s north-east coast, miles upon miles of neatly planted palms amid the rainforest catch my eye.

Granted, oil palm has not enjoyed much positive press of late due to issues that range from sustainability to the plight of the orangutan. However, this was what piqued my interest most and made me accept an invitation to join Joseph Tek, the 51-year-old CEO and managing director of IJM Plantations Bhd (IJMP), during his Walk With The CEO programme — a bi-annual engagement initiative open to analysts, members of the media, academics and other stakeholders that has been ongoing since 2004 and which was designed to give an immersive experience of the often-insular world of planters. “I was thinking to myself, why preach to the converted?” muses Tek. “Planters sometimes live in a world of their own and I thought we should start to reach out.”

It is strange that the word insular should be associated with a group of people whose labour bears all-encompassing fruit and whose touch vicariously extends to almost every part of our lives. After all, what would our larders look like without instant noodles or biscuits — just two of the innumerable products made using what is, without doubt, the world’s most used edible oil today. In fact, it was as long ago as 1900 that a brand of soap made purely from palm oil and olive oil was the world’s best-selling soap. The brand in question? Why, Palmolive, of course.

Moreover, oil palm has been Malaysia’s main cash crop since it was introduced by the British in the 1870s as an ornamental plant before going on to supplant rubber’s economic dominance several decades ago. “Oil palms make sense in Malaysia and Malaysia will sink or swim with it,” says Tek, who is also president of the Malaysian Estate Owners’ Association.

As the world’s population continues to grow, palm oil’s role as a source of affordable, quality nutrition will become increasingly important, given its high productivity rates versus other major oil seed crops. Tek says, “Over 140 countries already consume Malaysian palm oil and every hectare of land planted with oil palm produces enough oil for 200 people. With the growing global population, not forgetting nearby China and India’s combined 2.66 billion people, the world needs palm oil!”

Fully conscious that misconceptions about palm oil still abound, Tek has made it his mission to champion the need for more engagement and awareness about the industry, hence his personal commitment to IJMP’s Walk With The CEO programme. This is despite the gruelling three days/two nights itinerary on average and having to sacrifice what precious little time he has left for family and leisure, in order to provide non-planters with a better understanding of his world, a world facing mounting pressure from all sides.

It was just 30 years ago that the palm oil industry came under attack after reports linked the consumption of tropical oils to the increased risk of heart disease, which studies have now proved otherwise. Palm oil, in fact, is loaded with potent antioxidants and is cholesterol-free. “I can tell you how good it is for you,” volunteers Tek. “My family was poor growing up and I remember collecting oil palm fruitlets, slicing up the mesocarp (referring to the oil-rich pulp of the seed) and using it to fry eggs. It’s so nutritious!”

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, we are certainly convinced as Tek boasts thoroughly impressive academic credentials, being the only First Class Honours graduate in the history of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s botany faculty. “They closed the department not long after, so my ‘title’ is safe,” he laughs. Not content with that accolade, he went on to graduate with a master’s in plant breeding from Cambridge University, no less, on a scholarship from Sime Darby. “My year at Downing College was one of the happiest in my life,” he recalls. “I punted on the Cam and went everywhere on a bicycle I bought for £50. When it was time to go home, I happily sold it for the same price — not bad after a year!”

Besides studying, Tek also experimented a lot with cooking and “even grew my own taugeh so I could make my speciality — fried beehoon!” Ever-enterprising, he often spent his spare time helping out at the Cho Mee sundry shop where, he gleefully states, he was often repaid in kind. Upon his return to Malaysia, his bond as a Sime Darby scholar saw him posted to Sandakan where he met his wife-to-be Mary, who was then working as a radiographer at the Duchess of Kent Hospital. “I was warned that she would be able to see right through me,” he jokes. And if the young couple had needed approval from a higher authority, divine affirmation can be attributed to the fact that they met at, of all places, the churches of St Mary and St Joseph in Sandakan.

It is coming to six years already since Tek succeeded Velayuthan Tan, the man credited with building up IJMP virtually from ground zero. Today, the young, “boutique” plantation setup has 25,000ha of oil palm in Sandakan and 35,000ha in Indonesia. It is hard to believe that IJMP’s foray into plantations was by sheer luck. “It was 1985 and the company (IJM Corp, which, with a 56% stake, remains the main shareholder of IJMP) was in Sabah to build roads when IJM Construction was offered ex-cocoa land to rehabilitate,” says Tek. “A director had suggested planting orchids as one of the options but I’m glad we decided on oil palm.” It turned out to be absolutely fortuitous as the group’s maiden foray into agriculture with the productive and resilient crop provided the perfect buffer during the financial crises of 1997/98 and 2008/09, when other industries, construction and property notwithstanding, were hit hard.

Now, three decades on, IJMP, which listed in 2003, appears to be going from strength to strength, demonstrating highly efficient and growing productivity rates combined with sustainable agriculture management. As we make our way to Desa Talisai Estate, we stop to visit IJMP’s  Quality Training Research Centre (QRTC)  where we are shown a great many things, including how oil palm kernels are cleaned, pure crude palm oil is extracted and seeds prepared for further germination — all extremely interesting and enlightening, at which point Tek couldn’t resist cheekily sharing how a visiting Cambridge graduate once asked how oil was tapped from the oil palms. It is also perhaps the influence of my critter-loving son that made me particularly fascinated with the specimens of live predatory bugs, which serve as “biological pest control” on the estates. “We have insectariums where predatory bugs are bred for later release in the estate as oil palms have many enemies, including bag worms, nettle caterpillars and rhinoceros beetles,” he explains.

It takes another hour or so more on bone-shakingly bumpy roads before we finally reach Desa Talisai, the estate where IJMP’s story first began 32 years ago. A 4,000ha estate with a 60 tonne per hour capacity mill, our assembled group is treated to more information about the palm oil production process, from how extracted fruit bunches can be composted or turned into shredded fibre for fuel and how, more than anything, plantations actually serve as functional, self-sufficient communities in their own way, where simple agricultural success results in better lives for hundreds of people and their families.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the on-site crèche and school dedicated to the children of plantation workers. Not permitted to attend national schools due to their foreign citizenship, it is here they are cared for and educated. “Hundreds of these schools or learning centres in Sabah are linked to plantations,” Tek explains. “The fundamental right of any child is education and ours is a purpose-built school. This is important as we live in a community and this is one of the key social aspects we are focusing on.”

We are also taken to see the sports complex where almost everything, from football to sepak takraw, volleyball and carom, is catered for. “Sport is important as it builds leadership skills, strategic thinking, character and teamwork, not to mention discipline and the ability to spot crises and opportunities — all traits needed on the estate,” muses Tek. “It sounds simple but it also takes care of another important social aspect — allowing workers to stay healthy and release pent-up energies, particularly during fallow periods. Oh, and our estates also have a ‘no alcohol’ policy.” We also learn how estate life starts oh-so early — at 5.30am — when workers file in for what is termed as “muster”. Thankfully, as “civilians”, we are allowed a later start. The schedule also includes a visit to workers’ houses and the estate clinic staffed by trained nurses and a midwife, and where an ambulance is also always on standby should cases need quick referral to the nearest hospital.

We then travel onwards, another two hours by car, to Sugut, where the bulk of IJMP’s Malaysian plantations are. “This is the heartland of IJM Plantations,” Tek says, pride clearly audible in his voice. Here, we are shown how estate work is slowly being improved with the combination of mechanisation for infield crop evacuation and innovative digital supervision, in line with the Blue Ocean Strategy. Innovation is the buzzword at Sugut and we are given a demonstration of the benefits that increasing mechanisation has on the harvesting process. “The estate only earns money when the crop reaches the mill,” he stresses. “And preferably within 48 hours lest the quality of the oil is compromised.”

Not too long ago, books and ledgers that were once used for tracking and tracing were replaced by de rigueur tablets, complete with imagery options — perfect for digital supervision — while geo-spatial technology helps planters make decisions regarding slope analyses, oil palm census and site maps. Little semuts or motorised wheelbarrows are also being introduced, a step up from sturdy but temperamental buffaloes. “From field to mill — that’s the critical point,” says Tek. “Heavy crop losses due to a lack of workers in the field are real. People just don’t want to talk about it. So, increasing the mechanisation of the harvesting and evacuation processes is one way to mitigate this labour shortage.” When asked the reason behind it, he states: “It’s a mixture of policies and choice, I suppose. After all, if you can cari makan back home, why come here?”

We travel onwards, this time to see something completely different. Hitting the road once again, we cross a Bailey bridge over Sungai Sugut and pass by small forests of Bongkol trees, planted since 2007 as part of IJMP’s ongoing tree-planting project — a hint of what’s to come. Not long after, we arrive at what is possibly the pinnacle of IJMP’s conservation efforts — a showcase of forest rehabilitation, whimsically named the Hundred Acre Wood. “It measures around 40ha, which is roughly 100 acres,” smiles Tek. “It also happened that the first CD I’d bought for my daughter was Winnie the Pooh and the name ‘Hundred Acre Wood’ always stuck.” Four comfortable chalets stand on-site against a backdrop of a cornucopia of tropical trees. “We wanted an arboretum concept, so we have over 100 species of plants here,” he adds.

We are here not to wander this enchanted wood, though, as Tek soon takes us a little further to visit his latest pride and joy — an extension of the original hundred acres. Spanning 422 acres this time, IJMP’s new project is built with the eventual aim of linking a forest reserve to a natural corridor of life. Working in partnership with the Sabah Forestry Department, this new conservation project carries on the literary link. Its name? The Secret Garden. “We realised we had an idyllic setting with the Hundred Acre Wood but it wasn’t very big,” he explains. “And we really wanted a place where we could bring stakeholders for dialogue while showcasing our conservation work.”

We wake up exceedingly early on our last morning as Tek himself leads a bleary-eyed troupe on a “last hurrah” trek. Living up to its Frances Hodgson Burnett-inspired name, it is indeed nature’s secret garden — a lush expanse of tropical jungle with icy cold streams, paths carpeted by velvet green moss and trees that were seemingly planted by giants. “The land is possibly home to sun bear, orangutan, small mammals and other birdlife endemic to Borneo,” he says, while stopping by now and then to show us a hidden cluster of baby pitcher plants or perhaps a recess in a tree trunk believed to have been a sun bear’s hidey-hole.

Admitting that he’s perhaps the only CEO in the country who personally directs and leads such a hands-on engagement programme twice a year for nothing less than three days each time, Tek, with characteristic modesty, says: “I’m a people person and I enjoy engaging as I still feel the industry is not opening our doors enough. I want people to appreciate planters better and I really do think an experience like this clears up misconceptions better than anything. I believe we have a good story to tell. Of course, there’s room for improvement but I also believe people should not tar the whole industry with the same brush due to a few black sheep. There is a real need to appreciate agriculture and, really, Malaysians have a shared destiny with plantations … our country’s roots are literally entwined with plantations!”

Certainly for Tek, his own roots are, literally entwined with the estate. “My mother was a rubber tapper and hers was an arranged marriage to my father, a factory worker who only came home on the weekends.” From his childhood home of Jenjarom in Klang, the family moved to Petaling Jaya where they lived in a three-bedroom house in Section 14. The eldest of three boys, he had a triple-decker bed to share with his brothers. “But the bed was in the kitchen,” he laughs, “because we had to rent out the other two rooms as we needed the money.” His hardworking mother also took in sewing until her eyes couldn’t take the minutiae of the work anymore. “We went through a lot of hardship,” he admits, “but we are a simple family and I am always reminded to be humble and to never forget where I came from.”

A smart cookie since young, Tek makes it a point to always give back — something he has been doing since his school days when, as a straight-A student, he, together with his friends, made time to tutor children at Shelter Home nearby in Petaling Jaya. Still in touch with his former “students”, Tek says, “The best feeling is seeing children grow up and do well. And so, you never know who you meet or whose lives you may touch — all that matters is you just do it!”

Having to already divide his time between Sandakan (where work is) and Kota Kinabalu (where his family, two dogs and three cats live), Tek also travels frequently to Peninsular Malaysia to visit his parents, who live next door to his second brother’s family in Putra Heights. As a proud parent himself to Michelle and Michael, 19 and 15 respectively, he takes a moment to dispense some fatherly advice to young people considering a career in plantations. “The need to appreciate nature is crucial, as is the ability to live in a close-knit community. Plantation life calls for a lot of teamwork and it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Some new recruits only last a few days,” he chuckles.

Despite having to face a barrage of ongoing threats like El Niño (and La Niña), which wreak havoc on the harvests, as well as global economic uncertainties, distortive speculation and, worst of all, falling crude palm oil prices, FY2017 looks set to be a record year for Tek and his team. The harvests from IJMP’s Indonesian estates look set to come in soon in a big wave and if, fingers crossed, CPO prices do go up, “it’ll be a super year for IJMP”.

Tek says, “But, above and beyond all that, the industry still has a long way to go. Good doers need to be affirmed while black sheep need to be addressed. The palm oil industry needs to raise the floor and ceiling while adopting best practices. Sustainability, after all, is simply the balance of planet, people and profit.” Sounds like the perfect game plan with which to step confidently into the next hundred years, we say.