Sunday, July 25, 2010


Felda has lately been in the limelight after accusations were thrown up by PAS and Pakatan politicians about ‘massive reductions in Felda’s cash reserves’, Felda is in imminent danger of going “bankrupt” and so on.

Firstly Felda is nowhere near “bankruptcy”. They have assets in excess of RM16.0 Billion, ample liquidity to meet all their short term obligations and relatively little long term obligations. And no Bank is suing Felda for late payment of anything. If no Bank is suing Felda for money, they are not likely to be “bankrupted.”

According to Minister YB Ahmad Mazlan, Felda’s cash hoard has decreased from RM4.08 billion in 2004 to RM1.35 billion in 2009 – a drop of RM2.73 billion over five years. Over the same period Felda’s current and fixed assets have gone up by RM6.2 billion from RM9.17 billion in 2004 to RM15.37 billion in 2009. Surely some (if not all) the cash was used to finance the larger asset base. I asked about Dr Tan Tee Kwong’s (ex Gerakan, now Keadilan member) claim that Felda has only RM350 milion cash left. Felda is puzzled about this number. (Lately I notice the opposition folk have some problems with numbers.) For years running, Felda’s annual cash requirement alone is up to RM1.5 billion, which they have always fully met.

Why are the Pakatan suddenly enamored with Felda? Why not Felcra? Or Risda or Mardi? Well listen to this folks. There are 55 Parliamentary seats dispersed throughout Felda’s 400,000 hectares of peneroka operated plantation land. And also about 100 State seats (ADUNs). Felda is indeed the plum in the pudding. Bukan saja ada udang di sebalik batu, rupanya ada 55 Kerusi Parlimen di sebalik Felda. It is not likely that the Pakatan can shake Sarawak in the State or general elections at all. The alternative is Felda, nicely packaged, fat and juicy with 55 Parliamentary seats and with its 2.0 million inhabitants now all facing the same issues. We will discuss some of these issues here.

Felda has over 400,000 hectares of land planted by 112,000+ peneroka Felda. Then Felda Plantations has planted a further 340,000 hectares on its own, minus peneroka. What the Felda peneroka plant on their 400,000 hectares goes to them (that is why Felda was set up in the first place). The 340,000 hectares planted by Felda Plantations yields RM1.1 billion in revenues which goes to Felda. Felda uses this income to cover its operating costs, reinvest, run many programs, replanting, scholarship programs etc.

Since the mid 1990s, no new peneroka have been created. The present Felda was the brilliant brainchild of Tun Abdul Razak, first created in 1956 at a time when economic opportunities were few and the rural population lived way below the poverty line. At that time our population would have been around 5 million people. As late as 1986 Felda was still struggling as a plantation organization. However by the late 80s Felda reached maturity and the fruits started hanging low.

By 1996, Felda had repaid the last of its World Bank loans, 16 years before due date in 2012. The Government also stopped funding for Felda in 1996. This means Felda has been financially independent since 1996.

Since each peneroka is given 10 acres of land, the 400,000 hectares (about 880,000 acres) is enough to sustain the 112,000+ peneroka. Some peneroka have also been allowed to do their own planting as well as other farming on some of Felda’s own land of 340,000 hectares. This is where some disputes have arisen because some peneroka (including second and third generation peneroka’s children) now want title to some of those lands too.

The growing problem in Felda is that there are now close to 2.0 million inhabitants living on Felda schemes. The 112,000 peneroka have expanded biologically through marriage and birth to become almost 2.0 million people. The fourth generation of citizens has now been born on Felda schemes. They have little idea of 1956, Tun Razak, the post Independence era, land for the landless etc. All they see now is this huge powerful giant called Felda whose name appears on almost everything that is relevant in their lives – from the local shop (Kedai Felda) to the plantation trucks, houses, schools, roads are all set up by Felda. The Government better wake up on this one too.

Felda has been a runaway success as a plantation organization. Critics say that Felda Plantations does not make as much money per hectare as Sime Darby or IOI. The reason for this is because Felda also plays a socio economic role. Felda Angkut provides transportation services. There is a subsidy there. There is Felda Engineering which builds roads and bridges and keeps the mills running. There is also an element of subsidy there too.

Then Felda has 5000 students under its own scholarship programs. There is even an MRSM Felda for the children of Felda settlers set up at Trolak in Perak. Until today, if the price of palm oil drops below a certain level (tied to production cost), Felda guarantees a minimum monthly RM1000 income for each settler. All this costs money too.

There have been disputes on Felda schemes. Outsiders offer better prices for fresh fruit bunches (FFB). Also they offer cash payments. They don’t suffer the subsidy element that Felda has to fork out. Some satans from PIS have been exploiting this and telling the younger Felda folk that Felda is cheating them on FFB prices.
There is also Koperasi Peneroka Felda which invests in businesses set up by Felda (like Felda Angkut, Felda Engineering etc). The Koperasi, which is owned by the peneroka can yield up to 12% dividend on the peneroka’s investments.

Tan Sri Yusof Nor did say that Felda must not depend on oil palm alone, just in case something happened to palm oil (he mentioned threats from corn oil and other vegetable oils). Hence Felda has to look at some diversification.

Granted there are economic threats in any business, but it is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future. Instead plantation companies are increasing their acreages – in Sumatra, Kalimantan etc. I don’t think this is a good enough reason for Felda to venture into unknown territories, especially overseas, including with “Indian investors”. They are facing some problems. The problem with these ‘investments’ began when Felda started investing in herbal products, silk and some other investments overseas - areas that are not its core businesses.
Felda has lost some money in a hotel investment in Saudi Arabia (about RM120.0 million) and a palm oil based plant in Cincinatti, Ohio. I have some personal knowledge about Felda’s ‘hotel investment’. After Dato Seri Najib was DPM he “took” Felda under his wings. Then about the same time, he started talking about Melayu ‘glokal’ a combo of a global yet local Malay. Or conversely ‘local’ Malays going ‘global’. The order also went out to Felda to go glokal. Since Felda was already local, this meant they had to look global.

So a friend of mine who is in the restaurant business got a call from Felda’s successful D’Saji Catering unit. They wanted my friend to help them set up restaurants (maybe under the D’Saji brand) overseas. Since I was the “resident economics and business expert”, ex NEAC pakar and all : )) with relevant knowledge of how Governmentdoes not operate, my friend asked me to sit with him in the meeting with Felda.

They were looking at opening restaurants in London and other places. Nothing came out of that meeting. But I truly enjoyed the meeting because the retired Army Colonel (Najib’s Mindef kakis who represented Felda) and I exchanged very interesting notes about the Communist Emergency.

Later I found out that Felda’s attempt at going ‘glokal’ turned into the RM120 million investment in a 200 room (?) hotel in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The 4 star hotel is close to the Masjid Haram. However in the four years or so, the hotel investment has not turned a profit. Even more strangely, Felda’s RM120 million bought only some of the rooms at this hotel (less than 100 rooms)? The rest of the rooms remain with the Arab owners. I am tempted to ask who handles the check in? If it is the other partner, wouldn’t the partner fill up their rooms first? Or is there a straight forward profit sharing contract? If there is, why the losses?

Anyway, Felda got its first overseas restaurant, located in this hotel in Mecca - which another friend of mine who has visited the place says is run by an Indonesian and is not up to standard. I find it very adventurous that a company with little hotel experience even in Malaysia could straight away invest in a hotel in Saudi Arabia (Felda’s Plantation Resorts are also quite new, check out their website here. To all jungle trekkies and snorkeling enthusiasts, these Felda resorts are superbly located).

Felda has also invested in a palm olein plant in Cincinatti, Ohio with an “Indian partner” from India. This investment has also not turned a profit. Considering Felda’s size, these investments are small (RM120 million for a hotel, slightly more for the palm olein plant). But in absolute numbers it is a lot of money. On hindsight it appears too adventurous.

I think Felda should stick closely to the business it knows best – growing oil palm, its ancillary support businesses and also those businesses where Felda already has a strong presence like Felda’s D’Saji Catering.

Why not develop Felda Angkut into a full fledged logistics company? If the Sidhu Brothers can do it, why not Felda Angkut? And aim for a listing status say in three years? Or transform Felda Engineering into a full fledged oil palm mill fabricator? If Salcon Engineering can do it, why not Felda Engineering? And bid for projects in the open market? Why not develop Felda D’Saji into a franchise restaurant? Or go into a JV with some kopitiam guys? Develop Felda Plantation Resorts even further. And do all this “in country”. Get our feet really wet inside Malaysia first before venturing to Saudi Arabia or Cincinatti. Grow organically, but with both feet planted firmly in Malaysia.

What I hear is that Felda is involved with the same “Indian partner” (from the loss making Cincinatti investment) in another beef venture here. Wouldn’t it be wiser to turn the Cincinati investment around first before spending new money with the same “partner”. If it were me, I would not even start another venture with someone whose earlier joint venture is not a success.

There is a new Felda Building being built for RM622 million near the KLCC – which has also been criticized as wasteful. It is now about 25% completed. Felda has so much land and assets at Jalan Semarak. They have various buildings already. I don’t know how well justified is another building that is 50 storeys tall, especially when the Chairman said that they decided on 50 stories to commemorate Felda’s 50th anniversary. This is not a very business minded approach towards property investment.
If Felda is 75 years old, does it imply the building would be 75 stories tall? Do the economics of the building and the office space requirements of Felda justify a 50 storey building? Will they have to rent it out? Having said that I think the investment will still be fruitful because the building value is bound to appreciate. For starters, Felda bought the land at about RM935 psf. It is now worth close to RM1,500 psf already. The usual questions have also been raised about moneys paid up front to the vendor (Naza TTDI?).

I see two big issues at Felda. Firstly it is a victim of its own success. Felda has plenty of cash and assets. However plantations alone do not provide avenues for Felda to make new investments. (You may ask “Why not? Just plant more and more land.” I thought so too)

Felda must be careful how it diversifies and who are its partners. Stick to tried and proven business principles and the risk should be manageable. Even to diversify, stay close to the business that you know best and pick people who are trustworthy (No. 1 consideration) and who can deliver.

The second issue is much more complex. This has to do with 112,000+ agricultural peneroka having multiplied themselves over 50 years into a 2.0 million population who live under a distinct entity and identity called Felda.

It is a great big job to manage any company with even five workers. And in all companies the workers from 9 am to 5 pm and then go home to their families after work. Unfortunately the same does not apply to Felda. The “peneroka” and the 2.0 million inhabitants of Felda do not go home after work.

I cannot even begin to imagine the complexities of managing a giant with 740,000 hectares of plantation land and 2.0 million dependents who live and work on this land, who also give birth to children, who need homes (all Felda’s responsibility), who need schooling, water and electricity (Felda even builds its own water treatment plants) and a gazillion other things that are needed by 2.0 million people. All of this is Felda’s responsibility.

Agriculture alone cannot sustain a very large human population. To sustain a higher population, the human race went from hunter gatherer to nomadic planting. Then (step 2) when populations grew again, the human race invented farm agriculture – hence starting wars for land and territory. When farm agriculture could not provide enough employment opportunities the human race invented science and technology (step 3) and people worked in factories and businesses to meet human needs. Mechanisation (step 4) also meant that more output could be derived from farms with even less people at cheaper cost. I think Felda has long passed even step 4.

There is simply not enough economic opportunity in Felda based on palm oil and
rubber alone to sustain 2.0 million people. Many people do leave Felda schemes and “escape” to the cities (We have employed some girls who were children of Felda settlers). But a very large number do not have mobility and remain stuck on the Felda schemes.

There are also social ills that are looming. Tan Sri Yusof Nor was being protective and perhaps defensive when he quoted figures that drug addiction and other problems in Felda were below the national average. The numbers may be smaller but they are focused inside a small area called Felda. That implies a concentration, which means more serious undercurrents. I have long heard about other social ills in Felda from NGOs. We should not take them lightly at all.

Tan Sri Yusof Nor pleaded that Felda is not the Social Welfare Department, the
Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Education. It is a plantation outfit. Yet Felda is responsible for the lives and standard of living of 2.0 million people in places like Trolak - Perak, Bandar Muadzam - Pahang, Lahad Datu – Sabah and elsewhere.

I see the problems confronting Felda being similar to issues our country faced in its early years. We need to provide new types of jobs and other economic opportunities for Felda’s 2.0 million population. We need to introduce factories, shops, supermarkets, new townships, businesses etc into the Felda areas – just like we did in the other parts of the country. And this cannot be the sole responsibility of Felda anymore.

Felda can open up “designated commercial areas” for investment and development from outside, so that Felda’s 2.0 million inhabitants will have diversified economic opportunities.

As for all you Pakatan supporters out there, do not even think for one minute that the PIS boys know anything better – or anything at all. They have just most successfully covered up huge losses at the Kohilal Koperasi. If they get their hands on Felda, the word “angkut” will acquire an entirely new meaning.
In the final analysis, Felda is a resounding success. It has grown into a middle aged giant. More vigilance is therefore necessary.

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