I called my parents on Malaysia’s hari raya day, Thursday 3rd Nov. 2005. Actually, where I live, Eid was celebrated on Friday. I hadn’t balik kampung for hari raya for the past eight years; I simply could not afford it. This time, as my parent implored to come home and work on the land, my father is too old to work on it, and I am the only son who is still hasn’t properly settle down, not owning any property or even have a proper career. My father has a total of almost 7 acres at two locations near Tanjong Karang. A four acre plot fully planted with palm oil and a three acre plot around their home that has almost revert back to secondary bush and become trudging ground for wild pigs.
My father’s problem is common among Malay smallholders. He is too old to work on the land and none of his children is keen to work the small plot. These problems are made worse with the Malay sensitivities among the children and the custom of dividing the land more or less equally among the children upon the demise of the patriarch. If the father only owns small three acre plot, to be divided among six children, what size of land does each child get? Probably just enough to build a house on, but not enough to run a commercial agribusiness to support a family. Multiply this with millions of smallholders all over the peninsula and you get millions of acres of rundown smallholding in rubber trees, palm oil and coconut. If we drive down the coast of peninsula and see rundown rubber or coconut smallholding that is turning into secondary bush, then we know we are approaching a Malay kampung.
Let me list the reasons:
The Malays value their relationship with their kith and kin as well as their neighbours more than anything else. They wouldn’t quarrel with their siblings over a piece of land, well, there may be exceptions here, but it’s few and far between. If the patriarch died and leaves behind some land to be divided among many, most of the time the land become idle because none of the children want to work on the land for fear of hurting the other siblings’ feeling.
Most of these Malay lands are in the Malay Reserve area, where the land value is lower and ownership of one plot may run into hundreds for the older villages. This in itself presents a significant barrier to development, even in the urban areas.
Use the land as collateral to the bank? That is an absolute no-no for fear of the bank selling their land if the business goes bust. Most Malay smallholders have no capital to start a meaningful agribusiness, even though they have some ideas.
So the land goes idle while the farmers’ sons and daughters go to the cities to work in factories and elsewhere. The country is losing out, these lands could have produced enough food for the country or even for export, and instead we have to import 80 percent of our food requirements.
What could be done? These are my ideas; someone else could have some other solution that is better.
We could set up cooperatives or companies for every village, whereby the villagers could combine their holdings into one. Whatever they choose to grow, be it palm oil, vegetables, rice or oranges they could achieve the necessary economies of scale. Every villager owns some shares in the holding company, according to their size of capital contribution, be they in the form of land use or money. Land use would mean that the company could lease the farmers’ land on an annual basis for a fixed sum. I am not even suggesting that the company buys the villagers’ land, which would create more problems. Profit could be divided among the shareholders/villagers annually or monthly according to their contribution. Some of the able bodied villagers could work for the company, while the old ones could sit back and enjoy annual/monthly profit from their shares in the company.
It’s a win-win situation; the country would get food and produce from the land, the old farmers can retire and still have money and the unemployed young can get jobs in the village.
I suppose these companies would need working capital to start with, it cost money to cut down those old coconut trees, plough the land and build the necessary infrastructure for a successful agribusiness. Asking poor villagers a few thousand ringgits for working capital is like getting blood out of stone. Forget about borrowing money from banks; without capital or collateral would the bank lend these companies money?
The government could set up fund to lend money to these companies as a start up working capital, to be paid back gradually.
If a project like this could get off the ground, I suppose we need a new position in the village, the CEO kampung beside the ketua kampung and his/her JKKK.
Given chance, I would love to do this.