An Interview with YB Teresa Kok

A) About YB Teresa Kok

Biography For Teresa Kok, Minister of Primary Industries

Teresa Kok is the Minister of Primary Industries in the Malaysian Cabinet which overlooks national commodities like palm oil, rubber, timber, pepper and cocoa. She is the Deputy Secretary-General of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a partner in the national ruling coalition Pakatan Harapan.



EDUCATION

She holds a Bachelor of Communication from Universiti Sains Malaysia, in Penang, in 1990, and obtained a Master of Philosophy from University of Malaya. Her thesis was on United Malays National Organization (UMNO), titled "Factionalism in Umno during Dr Mahathir's Era (1981– 2001)". She is fluent in Mandarin, English and Bahasa Malaysia.


POLITICS

Her foray into politic begun in 1990 when she was appointed as a political secretary to the then Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang. She contested in her first parliamentary election as a candidate for DAP in Ipoh Barat seating 1995, but lost. In 1999, she won the Seputeh Parliamentary seat in Kuala Lumpur.


She has held the seat in subsequent four general elections, with increased majority each time. She received the highest majority votes in the country during the 2008 and 2013 elections, with 36,492 and 51,552 majority votes respectively. She was Kinrara state assemblyman for the 2008-2013 term and Selangor State Minister for Investment, Trade and Industry, after the then Pakatan Rakyat opposition pact which DAP was part of, took over the Selangor state government in 2008.


She was appointed into the Cabinet of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad following the historical 2018 general election in Malaysia, which saw Pakatan Harapan defeating the Barisan Nasional Government after 60 years in power.


CHALLENGES

During her long political career, she endured a 7-day arrest in 2008 under the now-abolished Internal Security Act that allowed for detention without trial. She sued the Government for wrongful arrest and won her case in the Federal Court in 2017.


B) Interview Questions

1. One of the Ministry of Primary Industries’ efforts to fight on anti-palm oil campaigns that are threatening the people's livelihood is with the launching of ‘Love My Palm Oil’ campaign. How was the idea invented and what are the expectations for the campaign?

The palm oil industry is currently facing heightened anti-palm oil sentiments and negative perception globally especially from the Western Countries. Nevertheless, the negative antipalm oil sentiments have also spread among Malaysians. On this note, when I was appointed as the Primary Industries Minister, I felt the need to instil pride and awareness among Malaysian towards our palm oil, our “golden crop” as palm oil is one of the major contributors to the economy of Malaysia.


The campaign focuses on socio-economic, health and environmental aspects related to palm oil industry. The main objectives of this campaign is to inculcate the pride on palm oil among Malaysians, as well as to raise awareness, educate, recognise and appreciate the contribution of the palm oil industry to the country. This effort will be carried out through joint education programmes with schools, colleges and universities in Malaysia and our overseas students. Among the activities that have been undertaken are the Palm Oil Ambassadors Programme. Through this programme, we will encourage the young Malaysian to defend false accusations on palm oil and speak about the benefits of palm oil.


2. The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) has been made mandatory by the end of 2019 as a move towards branding Malaysian palm oil as sustainably produced and safe. The challenge is with getting all the smallholders that are accounted for about 40 per cent of the country’s palm oil production, to be certified. How does MPI overcome this issue?

Getting all the smallholders to be certified with MSPO is one of the biggest challenges faced by MPI. This is due to the fact that the number of smallholders is huge which is more than half a million. There are two categories of smallholders namely independent smallholders (ISH) and organized smallholders (OSH). Their land is scattered and remotely located which is sometime difficult to be reached. The definition of ISH is an individual that owns oil palm farm less than 40.46 hectares and manages the farm themselves. The definition of OSH is an individual that owns oil palm farm less than 40.46 hectares and the farm is being managed by an agency such as Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA), Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (FELCRA), Rubber Industry Smallholders Development Agency (RISDA) and state agencies.


In overcoming this issue, MPOB has rolled out all their TUNAS officers as well as utilizing all of their enforcement officers to be involved to reach to the smallholders and assist them to get the MSPO certification. MPOB has established a cluster system, known as Sustainable Palm Oil Cluster (SPOC) that gathers ISH into manageable groups in order to help them obtain MSPO certification. There are 162 SPOC being developed by MPOB throughout Malaysia including Sabah and Sarawak. On average, 1 SPOC contains about 1,500 ISH. The number of TUNAS officers in charge in the SPOC now has increased from 162 to 550 officers with an average of three officers for every SPOC. The KPI for every SPOC is also being set at 500 ISH for every SPOC being certified by the end of this year.


The Government also gives 100% MSPO incentive for the ISH to help cover the cost of training, auditing, chemical store and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Apart from that, we are also working closely with state agencies in Sabah and Sarawak i.e Agriculture Department of Sabah and Sarawak as well as local associations and NGOs like DOPPA, SOPPOA and many more to help us to get in touch with the smallholders to get them aware and proceed with the certification processes.



3. Besides curbing and fighting European Union (EU) ban on palm oil, other challenges in the country itself is within the indigenous community as there is groundless rumour that palm oil industry threaten their livelihood. Could you briefly explain in regards with MPI plan to counterattack the rumour?

First of all, I would like to emphasize that my Ministry is working seriously and working very hard to ensure that sustainable cultivation of oil palm and sustainable management of the entire palm oil supply change become the accepted norm for Malaysian palm oil. I am glad to inform that, in March 2019, the Government of Malaysia agreed with the Ministry’s proposal in ensuring our oil palm is cultivated in a sustainable manner. These measures include:


  • oil palm cultivated area to be capped to 6.5 million hectares;

  • to put a stop on conversion of permanent forest reserved area and peatland for oil palm cultivation;

  • to further strengthen regulations with regard to existing oil palm cultivated on peat; and

  • to make available oil palm plantation maps for public access and to demonstrate further transparency in our supply chain.


All of these measures will not only help in ensuring our natural environment is preserved but also address various conservation measures that are now required to sustain our wildlife populations.



We are also taking into account the needs and wants of the indigenous communities throughout the country who also enjoy specific privileges on land matters for example. Once again, I would reiterate that we are against any destructive actions that threaten the livelihood of the indigenous people as well as the biodiversity in our natural forest. We urge all our industry players to uphold the sustainability practices as a norm in all their operations and work together with the Government towards creating a viable and sustainable industry.


4. France had stressed that they are not the enemy of palm oil and have decided that the market for palm oil will continue to be opened. With that, France has called for a close dialogue with Malaysia and also on collaboration in agriculture. Could you briefly explain this cooperation between Malaysia and France? What are the next steps?

France has been long recognised as one of our main trading partners among EU Member States. They thus represent an important market for palm oil and palm-based products. For the record, last year, 2018, France imported 25,957 tonnes of palm oil and palm-based products which is equal to RM140.5 million. In terms of collaborative efforts, Malaysia and France have formally established in 2013 a Malaysia France Joint Cooperation on Palm Oil. This kind of collaboration is essential as to provide a platform especially on giving a clear and accurate information to France on the true picture of the Malaysian palm oil industry.



Apart from that, the joint cooperation also specifically discuss on various palm oil issues and on how both countries can collaborate to improve and develop the industry further which covers the aspect of sustainability, smallholders, research and development and many more.


In the near future, I am looking forward for Malaysia and France to continue to collaborate in programmes especially on encouraging our smallholders to move towards sustainability practices especially through Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification. We could also collaborate on how this certification can be recognised internationally especially in the EU. Despite these collaborative efforts, we were very disappointed when the French parliament independently took a vote to ban the use of palm based biofuels by January 2021. This has created much concerns even among industry partners in France who need palm oil in order to ensure that their businesses remain profitable.


5. What is your opinion regarding Germany recent statement on their decision not to ban palm oil trade from Malaysia? Do you think other countries in European Union (EU) will follow the exact steps as German and France?

In general, Germany appears to be one of the few European Union (EU) Member States in which anti-palm oil campaigns and measures have so far been very limited and where the Government is actively supporting sustainable palm oil. Germany is also one of the signatories of the Amsterdam Declaration who are committed to promote a fully sustainable palm oil supply chain at the European level.



For the record, in 2018, Germany ranked the 4th largest importer of palm oil and palm based products among the EU Member States, with total import about 370,430 tonnes (RM413.8 million). Thus, the recent statement made by German Ambassador to Malaysia, Nikolaus Graf Lambsdorff came as no surprise to me. However, with recent development of the EU RED II as well as the increasing pressure from NGOs and green movements back in Germany, their national policy makers may have in future decide to adopt a different position on this. This also means we have to work more closely with the German administrators to ensure fair treatment of Malaysian palm oil.


Undoubtedly, Germany will face challenges if they proceed to totally ban palm oil. However, like France and other European Countries, Germany is also looking at reducing the dependency on palm oil. Replacing palm oil with other oils is not a solution. Producing such other oils and fats requires a much larger cultivated area.


In this regard, I would like to reiterate Malaysia’s commitment towards sustainably produced palm oil through the mandatory implementation of Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO). Also, we will ensure our palm oil meets the standards set by EU. On this note, it is important for Germany, France and other European Countries to not just discriminate palm oil in total but to support sustainably produced palm oil.


6. Talking about IR 4.0 Technology, it has been implemented in various industries around the world and enhancing those industries performance in many ways. What do you think of Malaysia palm oil industry moving pace in adapting the IR 4.0 Technology and are there any improvements needed so that the industry could benefit from the technology?

To alleviate the current problem of labour shortage in plantations, efforts are always geared towards enhancing the implementation and adoption of IR 4.0 technologies into Mechanization and Automation in plantation operations.


Besides that, new and emerging technologies which include Robotics, exoskeleton and unmanned vehicles should actively be pursued remotely via the Internet of Things (IoT). This is part of the IR 4.0 strategy to incorporate the use of Artificial Intelligence, Sensors, image recognition via Satellite GPS signals and GIS which should enhance the shift towards precision farming, thereby minimising labour inputs and increased productivity. The industry should always be open to these new technologies, despite being high in initial costs but shall garner the interest of many industry players which will definitely reduce the capital costs over the long term.


The IR4.0 will create a deeply integrated relationship between technology and business. It will be no different for the oil palm industry. The industry has to adopt the unprecedented innovations accompanying the IR4.0, for it to be relevant and sustainable well into the future. In this respect it is heartening to note that some elements of the IR4.0 are already evident in the management of large oil palm estates, such as the use of inexpensive drones and information technology. There is a growing initiative to monitor palm health and yield profiles with precision at small plots and even at individual palm level. This allows corrective measures related to disease control and fertilizer applications to be quickly made on the ground.


Exploitation of big data, especially genomics related information, has also provided dividends, as useful DNA based diagnostic tools have been developed and are being used to improve oil palm breeding and clonal propagation practice, as well as commercial seed production. With the likelihood of improved innovations under the IR4.0, chances of having smart oil palm mills and refineries that operate almost non-stop throughout the day with minimal labour requirement is also very high. I believe increased investment in R&D is needed to realise the full potential of 4th industrial revolution in the industry.



Areas that can benefit from increased R&D expenditure are the use of genomics-based technologies in plantations and also mechanization efforts. Although mechanization has been introduced to some extent, full scale mechanization to the extent that it can significantly reduce dependence on foreign labour continues to elude the industry. In addition, I personally would like to see more collaboration in the industry (within and outside Malaysia) especially related to information sharing.


Exploiting the collective big data using appropriate computational tools will be key to cope for example with climate change, consequences of which Malaysia has experienced during the El Nino phenomenon. Also, when yield and other relevant data are interconnected from the various growing regions in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America; market price prediction will be much more accurate, and as such, decisive decisions can be made which will benefit all players in the industry.


The 4th industrial revolution will likely transform many industries and I believe strongly the oil palm industry will be part of the revolution.


7. Off the topic, our Prime Minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has expressed his desire to invent a national car that is significant in terms of automotive development and new technology. By any chance, is this idea influenced by the European Union’s ban on palm oil industry in Malaysia?

As mentioned by our Prime Minister, the national car project is important and will help to further develop our automotive industry. However, the idea of new national car project is not driven by the EU’s ban on palm oil industry.


8. Last but foremost, is there any advice that you wish to share with the palm oil industry players?

As we are all aware, the palm oil industry is constantly facing various challenges where it is linked to issues such as deforestation, loss of biodiversity and even labelled as unhealthy. We believe that the issues related to sustainability and health will continue to dominate in the major importing markets. Therefore, to overcome all the challenges, it is important for our industry players to ensure the quality along the supply chain is maintained and the safety aspect of our production of palm oil is not compromised in any way.


This will help to ensure that palm oil products are of the required quality and meet the international market standards and demands. I urge members of the oil palm industry to adopt sustainable production practices, to enhance productivity and to reduce carbon footprints throughout the palm oil supply chain. The commitment and cooperation from members of the industry will provide the “bullet” to tackle the challenges faced by the industry internationally. We must continuously engage our stakeholders in our existing markets to ensure that Malaysian palm oil’s market access to these markets will continue to increase. While maintaining our traditional markets, we should also be aggressively promoting ourselves in emerging and new markets such as Eastern Europe, Central Asia Republic and the African Continent to ensure wider market access for Malaysian palm oil products.



I also believe the Malaysian Palm Oil industry is at a crossroad, where we are facing challenges from all fronts, from stagnating yields to negative campaigns related to the sustainability of the crop. After decades of yield stagnation, there is a glimmer of hope that yields can increase across all sectors with the application of DNA based tools and improved plantation management among others. As such, it is imperative that the industry moves forward aggressively in applying and adopting new technologies, so that we can “produce more from less”, which is a vital part of sustainable agriculture. Undeniably, Malaysia’s strength in the industry is its R&D focus and plantation expertise and I believe that if we as an industry continue to nurture and grow these strengths, Malaysia will remain a major player in the global industry well into the future.

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