The involvement of the Chinese in Malaysia’s agriculture sector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Malaysia’s education system: Waiting for Superman

“One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist.”
She said, “Superman is not real.”
I was, like, “He’s not? What do you mean he’s not?”
“No, he’s not real.”
And she thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real.
And I was crying because there was no one coming with enough power to save us.

Geoffrey Canada’s above testimony sets the tone of the documentary, “Waiting for Superman”, directed by Davis Guggenheim. This documentary exposes the sorry state of schools in America, and it was a documentary that moved me, unashamedly, to tears. Although “Waiting for Superman” is only about American public schools, the documentary’s messages pushed all the right buttons that triggers my hopes and fears for my only child, Zachary.

"Waiting for Superman", a documentary that sparked a national debate in America on the country's state of school education system.

The sad truth on American education system is America now ranks near bottom in maths and reading scores compared to other countries including developing countries. There are over 2,000 dropout factories all over America. These dropout factories refer to schools with over 40 per cent of their students who fail to graduate in time.

“Waiting for Superman” analyzes the failures of American public schools by following five students and their families. These students, except for one, come from broken families and whose families struggle daily to make a living. These families have lost their faith in American public schools and hope to enroll their child in charter schools – schools that receive funds from the government but, unlike public schools, these schools are run more independently and not tied down to the usual government rules, regulations, and statutes.

President Barack Obama greets the five children who were featured in the documentary "Waiting for Superman" in the White House, Monday, Oct. 11, 2010 (photo from: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

However, when there is not enough space to take in all the applicants, the school, by law, must hold a lottery—randomly picking out a name from the hat, so to speak—to select the successful applicants. Of the five students in “Waiting for Superman”, only two (Anthony Black and Emily Jones) were successful in enrolling in their desired (and hopefully, better) schools.

The children who were featured in "Waiting for Superman". From left to right: Francisco Regalado, Bianca Hill, Emily Jones, Anthony Black, and Daisy Esparza . Only Emily Jones and Anthony Black managed to enrol in their desired schools (photo from

However, it was the blank stares and tearful expressions of the families who failed to enroll their children in their desired schools that had the most impact on me.

The school is the most formative period in our children’s lives. Consequently, like all good parents, we desire to send our children to the best schools to receive the best education out there. However, due to lack of resources, some of us parents have to settle for less by sending our children to lesser schools. We hope at least the schools would still be good enough for our children. As mentioned in “Waiting for Superman”: “We place our children and their future in the hands of luck.”

I know some parents who are willing to buy a house near a school they wish to send their children for study. And there is also parents who would fake their home addresses (by using relatives or friends addresses) which are near to their desired school for their children.

If I had all the money in the world, my five-year-old son, Zachary, will not be studying in Malaysia. Perhaps I will send him to some boarding school in Finland, the nation with the best education system in the world and the nation that speaks English fluently, sometimes frighteningly more fluent than Malaysians.

My financial budget is also limited that I can ill-afford to send Zachary to an international school in Malaysia. One international school here, for example, charges RM30,000 per year on school fees alone for Primary One level.

That leaves my option for private schools. But which private school?

A great school is one with great teachers (photo from

One thing is certain: I will not send Zachary to a public school even though my wife and I had studied in public schools. The sorry state of our country’s education system has me worried.

Sua (2012) revealed several deficiencies in our education system:

  1. Our education system still fails to encourage the study of science and maths among our students. In 2000, for example, only 27.7 per cent students opted for science and technical education. The latest figure in 2007 reveals this figure has hardly improved, increasingly slightly to 29%.
  2. Because of the policy of “no students will be left behind”, a pass in public exams is not an indication of academic strength among the students. Lee (1998) remarked that out of 300,000 students who sat for the PMR exam, about 30 per cent of those who were promoted are considered weak students.
  3. Phasing out of skill-based vocational schools has deprived academically weak students of an education
  4. Lack of attention or opportunities given to academically gifted students
  5. School dropout is high. From 1988-1998, the student dropout rate in schools from Primary One to Secondary Year Five was 35 per cent. This figure, however, has dropped to 20 per cent from 1990-2000.
  6. Lack of proficiency in a second language, especially among students in rural areas. The Chinese and Indian students from rural areas still struggle to be proficient in the Malay language, let alone in English language.
  7. Large class sizes makes individual attention by the teacher difficult. The average class size in Malaysia is 33.6 students in 1990, and in 2005, the average class size has only reduced slightly to 32.3 students. School overcrowding is an acute problem particularly in urban schools.
  8. Disciplinary problems in schools are growing particularly when academically weak students are forced to move ahead. Students being involved in gangsterism and secret societies are not uncommon, like what happened in a secondary school in Kedah in 2007.

Malaysian school classroom (photo from

As a university lecturer, I get to see the product of our school system. My observations are dire. Most of the university students I have met have the following characteristics:

  1. Lack of ambition – no clear plans on what to do after their graduation
  2. Poor command in English language. Students can often speak in English if they read from a text, but to answer an question or to speak from an unprepared script, these students often have to resort back to Malay language.
  3. Poor reading skills. Students often do not fully understand what they have read. They may understand the individual words in a given text, but they would oddly fail to understand what the whole text is saying.
  4. Poor research skills. Students must be spoon-fed with information. They often fail to find the relevant information even if they are using the internet search capabilities. Even if they are given a book, they would fail to find or understand the relevant information. Because of this deficiency, students are usually not independent enough to solve problems.
  5. Lack of scientific thinking. Students still believe that science is just a subject to study at school or university. Many do not practice a methodological, inquisitive, and skeptical kind of thinking. Many students still believe in superstitions and in the supernatural.

Local universities today, however, cannot take a high stand and claim to be faultless. From a university’s standpoint, it is not solely garbage-in-garbage-out in terms of the quality of university graduates.

When I joined my university as a young tutor nearly seventeen years ago, I was told I am a teacher first and a researcher second. Today, I am told I am a researcher first and a teacher second. My roles have been reversed in the last few years. Previously, my university was worried about issues like the number of our graduates who could obtain jobs within three to six months after their graduation. But today, that issue is of much less concern.

Today, my university, like all other local universities, are worried about things like university rankings, the number of patents, commercial products, and the number of research papers published. Lecturers, like myself, are now worried about our H-index, a measure of how much our research are cited or used by other researchers. Now, not only are the universities competing with one another to be numero uno in  the university ranking, lecturers are also competing with one another to see who is top dog in research.

For 2011, I am one of two lecturers who was recommended by my faculty to receive the Anugerah Pengajaran Putra (APP), an award given by the university for being the best lecturer. But in an odd detached way, I feel little pride or honour for being recommended for this award, even though I was selected out of a pool of over 100 potential lecturers from my faculty.

The university priorities are now such that it is easier to gain recognition and awards in research than in teaching. For research, there is countless research medals and awards one can earn, sometimes several in a year. But for teaching, there is only one award given per year. And to win that award (APP) involves several convoluted steps which includes preparing an encyclopedic-thick teaching portfolio and giving a lecture, ala American Idol style, to be evaluated by a panel of assessors who will sit in in one of your classes. And, like the American Idol singing competition, there can only be one winner for any one year. For research, there are several gold, silver, and bronze medals handed out, so you can have many simultaneous gold medal winners from participating in a research exhibition, for example.

Today I may be told I am a researcher first and a teacher second, but I like to believe I am a father first. My only son, Zachary, is five years old this year. Soon, he would be going to primary school. My wife and I are scouting for good and affordable private schools nearby. It can be a headache choosing the right school, fearing our selection is a wrong one and would cause long term penalties to Zachary’s future.

After watching “Waiting for Superman” documentary, two issues became very apparent to me.

One of them is the importance not to solely rely on schools for our children’s education. Parents must be concern on what happens in their children’s school and in their children’s daily study. In other words, parents must be involved in their children’s education and not drop the responsibility solely on the teachers and school.

Parents must be involved in their children's education (photo from

Switch off the TV and iPad. Teach your child the love of reading. It will pay itself many times over in your child's lifetime (photo from

The second issue is what Daisy Esparza said in “Waiting for Superman”. In one scene, she was asked what she would say to someone who wants to dropout of school. To that question, she gives out her pearls of wisdom: “Well, pay attention instead of being bored. Just look at the teacher and find different ways to make the learning fun.”

The wise Daisy Esparza in "Waiting for Superman" (photo from

Thank you, “Waiting for Superman”. I am forever changed.


  1. Lee, N.N.M., 1998. Malaysia: review of educational events in 1997. Asia Pacific Journal of Education 18 (2), 87–93.
  2. Sua, T.Y. 2012. Democratization of secondary education in Malaysia: Emerging problems and challenges of educational reform. International Journal of Educational Development, 32:52-64.