Grappling with new GM’s ultimatum

WHEN the news arrived at the end of 1970 that Leslie Davidson had been appointed as the new general manager of Pamol Plantations in Kluang and Sabah, there were two reactions.

The older supervisors welcomed the news, many of whom had known him when he was a young planter in 1951 working at Pamol Estate, near Kluang. They recalled him as a warm person who used to go hunting with them after work.

However, the new staff heard a different story. Despite being known to be close to the supervisors and the workers, he was reputedly ruthless with the management and colleagues on his way up.

He had been singled out to gain experience in other countries, and was transferred by Unilever to Nigeria and Cameroon, before going on to open a plantation in Sabah (then British North Borneo) in 1961.

Stories were rife on how he had developed a plantation upriver in Sandakan from swamp land. He built an attap house and garnered support from a diverse array of people, including Kadazan, Chinese, Orang Sungai, Filipinos and Bugis from Indonesia.

During his tenure, he had dismissed many management staff, including expatriates who did not measure up. I feared that some of us may meet a similar fate.

He made his presence felt when he arrived for lunch at NS Sankar’s house. Tall and ebullient, he was dressed in a cream bush-jacket. As he entered the room, all attention shifted towards him.

“We are going to see a lot of each other,” he said.

I stood back while he engaged with the only person he knew well – David Marsh, the divisional manager for Sembrong. Marsh was the last expatriate assistant in Pamol, having been transferred from Borneo and surviving a few years working for Davidson.

“Ah, David,” he greeted warmly, “glad to see you here. We were together in Sabah. “You must gift us with all the stories again about your adventures there.”

But young David Marsh was not ready to do that yet. He was content to observe the tension building up in the room. Then, Davidson turned to another member of the management staff.

“Don’t call me Mr. Davidson. It is Leslie,” he insisted.

His wife Olive worked the room better than he did. She was a beautiful, statuesque Welsh lady with a pleasant lilting voice. With a ready smile and a sweet dimple, she looked fresh in a simple white dress that hugged her form, unmistakably embodying the figure of the mam. Prior to this, she had been a diplomat based in Singapore.

Having lived with him and their three young daughters in the Labuk Valley upriver from Sandakan, I had often heard that she gathered the wives for morning coffee, diverting their minds from the hardships of living in a remote area while their husbands toiled away supervising road construction , drainage projects and planting more palm seedlings. Now, she was thick in conversation with the wives, effortlessly drawing them into open chatter.

Meanwhile, the men gathered around to listen to Davidson speak while I tried to figure him out. It was not customary to discuss work during a party, but he inquired about the whereabouts of the old staff or workers whom he knew.

He commented on the changes he saw, updating his understanding of the situation in the area, and suggesting that there were more changes to come.

As we left, I could not help but conclude that with his arrival, all of us would have more work to do.

And it turned out to be true. The next day Sankar produced a schedule of visits by Davidson along with the dates, and I gathered my staff to brief them. An older staff, Leong Chin, reassured us, saying there was nothing to fear. He and Davidson were like brothers, having once gone hunting for wild pigs together.

Needless to say, the visit did not go well. Davidson had questions on every point, including the yield of palm bunches per hectare. He said the area could yield higher crops, insisting that productivity must increase.

According to him, we were not thinking hard enough. Ignoring the planned route in green, he drew another in red, leading to areas I had hoped to keep out of his sight of him.

There, he discovered many loose fruits hidden under the Nephrolepis ferns on the slopes, which the harvesters had overlooked. It was evident that my job was now on the line.

Visiting the field was important as Davidson checked every corner and every hill while the rest of us listened and tried to keep up with his ideas. It became apparent that his mind was working at a different pace from mine.

“You have to allocate more time for the harvesters to cut the bunches,” he asserted. They should not be lugging bunches to the roadside. That is a job for beasts of burden. “It is the buffaloes’ job.”

In a way, I had already anticipated that comment. Prior to his arrival, we had heard stories about his time in Sabah, where he witnessed a Filipino harvester using a buffalo to pull bunches on a sled, while another harvester employed the traditional method of balancing a kanda stick on his shoulders with two large rattan baskets attached. Each basket could hold about three bunches, each weighing almost 20kg. The harvester would stagger under that weight, repeating the process around 20 times a day.

“The harvesters in Sabah use buffaloes. “They must do the same here so that they can cut more bunches with the energy saved.”

It was hard to figure out if he was serious, but when he reiterated the idea later, Sankar took each of the three divisional managers aside for a private discussion.

I voiced my reluctance, explaining that I wanted nothing to do with buffaloes. Back in my village, I had the responsibility of caring for six of them every day after school. Those buffaloes were more than just animals. They each had distinct personalities, and I knew all too well that on certain days some could be quite quick with their horns.

At the end of the meeting, we all agreed that buffaloes may be suitable for Sabah but not for Kluang. Marsh, who had left Sabah before the implementation of the new system, concurred with our assessment. We provided several reasons to support our decision.

Sankar went to discuss our concerns with Davidson. It didn’t take long before he returned.

“We have to buy the buffaloes, train them, and then sell them on an installation plan to the harvesters,” Sankar relayed.

He said the harvesters will be pleased when their income goes up. “They will treasure the buffaloes like pets.”

“And you told him our opinion and reasons?”

“Yes,” Sankar replied.

“And has he agreed to reconsider?”

“No. He said if we do not agree, he wants all our letters of resignation on his desk first thing in the morning.”

The writer has extensive experience in the management of oil palm plantations.