The book “Land to Till: The Chinese in the Agricultural Economy of Malaysia” by Tan Pek Leng is a welcome find in the local bookstores. This book is a welcome addition because it tells about the role the Chinese have played, past and present, in the Malaysia’s agriculture sector.

"Land to Till: The Chinese in the Agricultural Economy of Malaysia" by Tan Pek Leng

Although this book contains some valuable information about our country’s history, I am not surprised by the low profile this book has been received by the public so far. Most Malaysians unfortunately have little interest in books that cover topics other than local political issues, political conspiracies, self help, and feng shui.

Hence, this blog entry is not so much of a review of “Land to Till” but to summarize the wealth of information found in this book about the involvement of the Chinese in our nation’s agriculture sector.

Early history of the Chinese in Malaysia

The Chinese have long and deep roots in this nation’s agriculture history. The Chinese came to this country from China, fleeing the political upheaval, civil strife, and starvation there. The lure of wealth drove the Chinese here to Malaysia, often bringing with them nothing more than what they carried in their little knapsacks slung over their shoulders.

They came here to become farmers, labourers, and coolies. Many failed to find the success and wealth they yearned. Instead, many of them succumbed to sickness, hard labour, and poor working conditions. Few, however, managed to climb out of poverty to become bankers, entrepreneurs, and professionals.

Early Chinese hawkers in the19th century in Malaya (photo from www.my-island-penang.com)

The Chinese migration to Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak, and Sabah followed distinctive and separate paths. In the Peninsular Malaysia, the then British colonial rulers encouraged actively the migration of the Chinese to work in the agriculture, mining, and business sectors. The influx of the Chinese into Peninsular Malaysia grew so much that in 1941, the Chinese population actually exceeded that of the Malay population.

A Chinese farmer in 1876 in Malaya (photo from www.my-island-penang.com)

In Peninsular Malaysia, the Chinese farmers chose crops that brought quick returns. Consequently, the Chinese were actively planting crops such as pepper, sugar, tapioca, and gambier in Penang, Melaka, Johor, Negeri Sembilan, and Johor. Eventually, the Chinese became actively involved in a much more lucrative crop: rubber.

In Sarawak, on the other hand, the Chinese initially came not to become farmers but to work in gold mines opened by the Sultan of Sambas in Larak. Only later when the White Rajahs came into power that the Chinese responded to the White Rajah’s concessions and land leases to grow pepper, gambier, and vegetables.

An important milestone of the Chinese history in Malaysia occurred between 1898 to 1911 when Charles Brooke sponsored four Chinese colonies to settle permanently in Sarawak for agriculture purposes. These colonies included the well-known Fuzhou (or Foochow) Methodists in Rejang Basin and the Keija (or Hakka) Christians in Kuching.

In Sabah, the Chinese were brought in by the British North Borneo Chartered Company in 1881 to help to develop Sabah. Many Chinese were involved as coolies, working in tobacco estates owned by the Europeans. The Chinese Keija Christians, however, were involved in growing maize, rice, vegetables, fruits, and coffee in Kudat. The economic boom in Sabah in 1920 saw huge numbers of Chinese influx into Sabah.

Early crops

As mentioned previously, the pioneer Chinese farmers chose crops that gave quick returns. This is because many Chinese came into Malaysia on a contract basis, meaning that their trip to Malaysia were paid by third parties. Having their trip paid meant that many Chinese migrants carried huge debts that must be paid off quickly. Consequently, the Chinese farmers avoided long term crops such as coffee and preferred quick return crops such as tapioca, sugar, pepper, and gambier.

The Chinese who made their wealth from growing such crops were Tan Chay Yan (who was also the first person to grow rubber commercially), Yap Ah Loy, Lim Lean Teng, Kee Lai Huat, Yeap Chor Ee, and Tan Hiok Nee. It is a fairy tale-like story that these pioneer planters who came into this country with little money and fame, chose to grow a crop that would eventually lead them to immense wealth and fame. Another Chinese entrepreneur highlighted in the book “Land to Till” is the “Sugar King”, Tan Sri Robert Kuok, who, in the 1970s, controlled 10 per cent of the world’s sugar market.

"Sugar King" Tan Sri Robert Kuok (photo from 1.bp.blogspot.com)

Rubber: white gold

The Chinese farmers practised shifting cultivation, deemed by the British colonial rulers then to be wasteful because vast tracts of land are cleared for crop cultivation but only to be abandoned a few years later when the land has degraded due to intensive agriculture practices. Consequently, the British wanted a more permanent crop and settled on rubber.

Sir Hugh Low, the then British Resident of Perak, started the first rubber planting in Malaysia, and the first trees were planted in Kuala Kangsar. Henry Ridley, a botany enthusiast, invented the “herringbone” tapping method on which today’s rubber tapping method is based. However, it was Ridley’s close friend, Tan Chay Yan, who was the first to grow rubber for commercial purposes.

Tan Chay Yan, the first person to grow rubber trees commercially (photo from www.emp.com.my/eMelaka)

Starting at Bukit Lintang Estate (which was converted from a tapioca plantation), Tan Chay Yan soon established several more rubber estates including some in Singapore. Tan Chay Yan is also credited as the inventor of commercial sheet rubber.

Encouraged by Tan Chay Yan’s success in rubber, Tan Kah Kee decided to be involved in the rubber enterprise, eventually succeeding immensely to be known as the “Rubber King”. He went on to establish several rubber mills and rubber manufacturing factories to produce shoes, tires, and tubes. Tan Kah Kee is also the first to export rubber overseas, and he is one of the first few millionaires in Singapore and Malaysia.

As interesting trivia is Tun Tan Cheng Lock. Many Malaysians would know him as one of the founders of the political Chinese party, MCA. However, few might know that Tun Tan Cheng Lock was also actively involved in rubber planting. For instance, he established United Malacca Rubber Estates Limited in 1910 at the age of only 27.

The Chinese were also actively involved in the rubber milling, marketing, and manufacturing sectors, without which the rubber industry in this country would not be successful. The most important company in rubber milling and marketing was Lee Rubber, established by Lee Kong Chian. Lee Rubber is still in operation today, running 12 rubber mills in Malaysia and is responsible for 30% of the total rubber export in this country.

Two important Chinese entrepreneurs in the rubber manufacturing sectors are Loke Yew Fai and Tan Sri Dr. Lim Wee Chai. Low Yew Fai, for example, runs International Footwear, a company his late father-in-law, Datuk Seri Tan Hoay Eam, indirectly helped to establish. International Footwear was once the official equipment manufacturer (OEM) for Dunlop footwear. International Footwear also established, in 1979, the footwear Pallas, a household brand name. Tan Sri Dr. Lim Wee Chai helped to established Top Glove, the world’s largest rubber glove manufacturer, and Top Glove is considered a “one-stop centre” for all rubber glove types and uses.

The Chinese were also involved in research and development in rubber. In the early days, however, it was the Europeans who were mostly active in R&D in rubber. After the 1960s, local researchers begun to play a more prominent role. Well known scientists are such as Dr Chee Khey Hong (plant pathology), Dr Ong Seng Huat (plant breeder), and the late Lim Sow Ching (economics and policy planning).

Oil palm: golden crop

Undoubtedly, oil palm is the most important crop in Malaysia today. Oil palm currently covers over 4 million hectares in Malaysia, or nearly one-fifth of Malaysia’s total land area is occupied by this single crop alone.

Unlike rubber, oil palm is not a smallholder crop. Oil palm plantations are managed mostly by the private companies (60%), followed by the government (30%), then the smallholders (10%).

The first oil palm tree was planted in Tennamaram Estate in Batang Berjuntai in 1917 by a French planter, Henri Fauconnier. However, it was only after 1960 that oil palm cultivation began extensively, eventually overtaking rubber in terms of importance and land area by 1980.

Unlike rubber planting, the Chinese played little role in pioneering the oil palm planting. The early oil palm estates were foreign-owned, which was later bought out by the Malaysian government and local private holders. The Chinese only became actively involved in oil palm starting from the 1970s when it was clear to many that rubber’s importance in Malaysia’s economy was diminishing due to rubber’s persistent problem of low and fluctuating prices.

Today, the two largest Chinese-owned oil palm plantation groups in Malaysia are IOI and KLK.

Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng (photo from 4.bp.blogspot.com)

The CEO of IOI is Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng who was born poor, and to help out his family, he had to, among other things, sell ice cream on his bicycle. Very few people then would foresee that this ice cream boy seller would eventually climb the ladder of success to become the CEO of a company that is the largest producer of palm oil in Malaysia. His company also owns the largest oleochemical plant in the world. Besides palm oil production, IOI is also actively involved in palm oil downstream activities, as well as in real estate and township development (such as in Puchong and south Johor).

The other large palm oil company is KLK, a company that first made its fortune in rubber before switching over to oil palm when it became clear that oil palm had a brighter future than rubber in Malaysia. Today, KLK owns 18 palm oil mills, two refineries and two crushing plants. It also owns an oleochemical plant in Rawang which is one of the largest in Malaysia. Datuk Seri Lee Oi Hian is now the CEO of KLK, and he has diversified KLK’s palm oil activities to include international retailing (such as Crabtree & Evelyn), health, cosmetics, and food products.

Other Chinese-controlled groups involved in oil palm planting are such as Foo Nyit See & Brothers, United Malacca (established by Tun Tan Cheng Lock), and the Fuzhou collective in Sitiawan, Perak, once headed by the late Tan Sri Ngan Ching Wen.

Three Chinese firms were among the pioneers in Malaysia to be involved in kernel crushing, refining, and oleochemical production. These firms were Lam Soon (M) Berhad, Lee Oilmills, and Palmco Holdings Berhad (now a subsidiary of IOI Group).

Of these three firms, Lam Soon is perhaps the most well-known. Lam Soon company was established by Samuel Kam Sheung Woo, and its company’s products such as Knife cooking oil, Daisy margarine, May soap, Labour dish washing liquid, Zip cleaner, and Drinho and Isomax drinks are among the common products found in Malaysian homes today.

Palmco Holdings Berhad, on the other hand, was established by Datuk Robert Chan Woot Khoon. Palmco is credited as the first to introduce physical refining of crude palm oil in Malaysia.

Other Chinese-controlled companies involved in downstream activities of oil palm are Carotino Sdn. Bhd. and Biotrop Organic Waste Management Sdn. Bhd. Two signature products from Carotino are the Carotino Red Palm oil cooking oil and Enffue (Environmentally Friendly Fuel) biodiesel. Biotrop company, established by Ngan Teng Ye, was setup to convert palm oil milling wastes into compost and fertilizers.

Like the rubber industry, the oil palm industry enjoys ample support in terms of research, consultancy, and extension from various organizations in particular from MPOB (Malaysian Palm Oil Board) and Applied Agricultural Research Sdn. Bhd. Key people involved in these supporting services are such as Tan Sri Augustine Ong, Datuk Dr. Choo Yuen May, Dr. Ma Ah Ngan, and Dr. Ooi Tian Lye.

Datuk Dr. Choo Yuen May, in particular, is a key researcher in the oil palm industry. With 36 patents to her name, Datuk Dr. Choo is well-known in her research and successful commercialization efforts in palm oil biodiesel. She is currently the Deputy Director General of Research at MPOB.

Another key researcher is Dr Ng Siew Kee on his work on clonal oil palm. Like Dr. Ng, Datuk Chan Yew Mun, the director of Foong Lee Plantations, is convinced of the superiority of clonal palms over hybrid palms as the former consistently produce higher bunch and oil yields.

Vegetables, fruits, flowers, and rice

Vegetable and flower farming in Malaysia are dominated by the Chinese. Cameron Highlands, in particular, is an important farming area for vegetables and flowers, where 83 per cent of the farmers there are Chinese, followed by the Indians (15 per cent), and the Malays (2 per cent). The Chinese vegetable farmers in Cameron Highlands are the pioneer uses of rain shelters in the 1970s.

Cameron Highlands is an important farming area where the Chinese farmers make up nearly 85% of the farming community (photo from www.cameronhighlandsinfo.com)

Another important development in Cameron Highlands today is the rapid growth of organic vegetable farming. Among the actively involved in organic farming there are Grace Cup Sdn. Bhd. and Cameron Organic Produce Sdn. Bhd., where the latter was established by five farmers.

The bulk of flower farmers in Cameron Highlands today are also the Chinese. They were the first to commercially grow flowers, beginning in in 1952, at Yuland Farm in Ringlet, a farm which is still in operation today.

The Chinese are also actively involved in fruit farming, growing in particular pineapple and dragon fruit. Introduced only ten years ago, dragon fruit is attracting a lot of interest from farmers because, like pineapple, there are a lot of opportunities for downstream activities for the dragon fruit.

In Malaysia, most rice farmers are the Malays. However, Sekinchan is an unusual rice bowl in Malaysia for two reasons. In Sekinchan, not only are the rice farmers mostly the Chinese, Sekinchan is also a highly productive rice production area, producing rice yields of 10 or more tonnes per hectare which is higher than the average national rice yield. Sekinchan rice farmers are well known for their ingenuity and self-reliance. For instance, they developed a direct seeding method for planting rice as one method to overcome labour shortages in rice fields. Sadly, increasingly more Sekinchan rice farmers are turning to vegetable and fruit cultivation due to low income and controlled rice pricing.

Sekinchan is a highly productive rice bowl in Malaysia, where the rice farmers here are nearly all Chinese (photo from mycoolholidays.com)

Unlike those in rubber and oil palm, farmers of vegetables, fruits, and flowers have little support services in terms of marketing, extension, and research. Consequently, they often have to rely on their own efforts or their network to solve their problems and difficulties. These farmers also complain about the support services from MARDI and FAMA that are far from adequate.

The Farmers’ Representatives, for example, headed by Chay Ee Mong and Liew Yow Fatt, explained that the common problems faced by farmers are: lack of land and land security, lack of research and extension support from the government, rising costs of production, poor marketing infrastructure, and increasing competition from imports (particularly from China).

Lack of land area and land security are two acute problems for vegetable farmers. Most vegetable farms are located in peri-urban areas (areas just outside urban areas), where competition for land is stiff. Consequently, many vegetable farmers grow their vegetables on illegal lands or on lands where the land tenure is short. Nationwide, 70 per cent of vegetable farmers are working on such illegal or rented lands. Only Johor and Selangor have allocated substantial land area for vegetable farming.

Concluding remarks

Although I found the writing in “Land to Till” somewhat dry (akin to reading a collection of Wikipedia articles), I commend the book author, Tan Pek Leng, on her research and efforts to record the diverse roles the Chinese had participated (and are still participating) in Malaysia’s agriculture sector.

I can imagine it had not been easy for her to arrange and conduct the interviews with the many key people in her book. However, these interviews probably meant that some information reported in this book can only be found here in this book and nowhere else.

Books like “Land to Till” are immensely useful and timely because it is a book written not with the intention to be in the bestseller list, but written more to educate the lay readers on a less appreciated topic on the Chinese involvement in our country’s agriculture sector.

This is particularly important when there are unfortunately some people out there who still see the Chinese (as well as other races) as immigrants in Malaysia. The Chinese may have once been immigrants but no longer. The Chinese have contributed significantly to the security, progress, and harmony in this country, as so exemplified in “Land to Till” book. For all the Chinese in this country, it is Malaysia that they call home.

Tan Pek Leng’s writing of “Land to Till: The Chinese in the Agricultural Economy of Malaysia” was sponsored by the late Tan Sri Ngan Ching Wen. The book was published by the Centre for Malaysian Chinese Studies in 2008.

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