“I toiled through the night to finalise the draft, emphasising the importance of field visits, meeting union leaders and chairing joint consultative committees, among others.

Rising in rank amid plantation politics

WHEN I was offered the role of personnel manager at Pamol Plantations in 1973, I thought it was going to be an easy job but it was not.

As I entered the office of Leslie Davidson, the general manager of Pamol Estate, I saw him leisurely lighting his pipe, a sign he was in deep thought.

He revealed that the current manager Chia Siew Yin was retiring and he wanted me to succeed him.

“Chia is retiring, and he has done a great job. You will take over. I am arranging for you to attend a couple of courses in London, work here for around two years, and then go back to fieldwork.”

My thoughts immediately drifted to the opportunity to travel to Pamol in Sabah, relishing the prospect of escaping the early morning muster.

Chia had shouldered most of the work at the estate near Kluang following a six-month worker strike. Although it was over when he joined the company, remnants lingered, evidenced by the union’s use of loudspeakers on poles and lamp-posts to disseminate messages within the community.

Chia changed all that. He was an avuncular figure sporting baggy trousers, probably over 60 years old. Born in Raub, Pahang, he started his career at the Chinese Affairs Department before moving to the Labour Department, where he retired with a pension.

He spent a lot of time in coffee shops, listening to what people had to say. He also visited various households despite his frail appearance, engaging with the wives. He explained to them how their husbands, who were union leaders, had been adversarial towards him and the company.

His helpless demeanour softened the hearts of the women, prompting them to share any brewing issues within the company. It served as his early warning system.

“The workers still do not trust us,” Chia told me when he handed over his responsibilities. He managed personnel the way no textbooks would teach.

Before I departed for England, Davidson said: “The root cause of the strike was lack of communication. Your task now is to formalise it.”

However, before I left the room, he added: “The Incorporated Society of Planters has requested a paper on communication within the estates for their upcoming conference. I will tell them that you will do it. This will give you plenty of time to think.”

It was summer in England, and the course was to be held at Bryanston Square. I toiled through the night to finalise the draft, emphasising the importance of field visits, meeting union leaders, chairing joint consultative committees and learning the languages that the workers use and writing reports.

Upon my return, I gave Davidson a copy of the draft, but he tossed it into his in-tray, preoccupied with other matters.

“There is a problem,” he began. “It concerns the pollination idea I told you earlier. I have explained to the plantation companies in Kuala Lumpur about the insects I had seen in Nigeria and Cameroon, living among the palms. I am convinced they aided in the pollination, contributing to the larger bunches seen in Africa. However, here, we need workers to do the pollination.”

I could see Davidson was frustrated.

“However, they will not agree to fund a study. They insist, citing textbooks, that palm trees are wind-pollinated.”

I saw his point when I visited the plantation in Sabah. The palms here had to be pollinated even though they were over 10 years old, inflating costs.

I had to shelf this issue momentarily as I was facing a bigger problem upon my arrival upriver: numerous workers did not have work permits.

Anthony Wong, a senior divisional manager and Australian graduate, told me about the issue. Tall and ambitious, among the pioneering returnees, he was known for his pensive nature.

“What is the next course of action?” I asked.

“As you know, it is an offence. It could mean that as head of personnel, you may even go to jail,” he cautioned.

I discerned that Wong had strong connections in Sabah and was likely accustomed to having things his way. I realised that he could emerge as a rival in the event of any promotion.

He looked at me and continued: “But I think I have a solution. The hill tribes, the Dusun and the Murut, are facing a hard time. Their rice crops have failed due to the dry season, and they need money.

“We can organise a collection and you can persuade the company to match the amount raised. We will publicise it by presenting the donation to the state secretary, seizing the opportunity to highlight our predicament. He may agree to help us secure more time to do the paperwork and you can steer clear of any legal trouble.”

I extended my stay, rallying for contributions. Subsequently, armed with the donations, Wong and I went to Kota Kinabalu to hand the cheque to State Secretary Datuk Richard Lind amid a flurry of television coverage.

During this period, Davidson was holidaying in Scotland, his usual fishing escapades rendering him unreachable.

However, upon his return, I was summoned again.

“The cost of living has gone up, and the government has mandated for all employers to pay each worker an extra sum termed as special relief allowance. You need to work it out, and we need to inform the head office in London of its impact on our financial outcomes,” he instructed.

As an afterthought, he retrieved my paper from his out-tray, adding: “I have made some additions here.”

It turned out, the paper was substantially altered with his handwritten notes. It did not reflect my ideas but instead incorporated policies, emphasising standing instructions and the importance of having notice boards displaying new information to gain the workers’ attention.

Despite this, he was the first to commend my paper following my presentation at the conference, pointing out its potential for all attendees.

He also praised Divisional Manager Douglas Lee on his presentation of another paper titled “Management by Objectives”, whom he had provided with relevant textbooks for assistance.

Davidson further expounded on the concept of target-setting, capturing the attention of industry leaders present.

However, his satisfaction was short-lived as he was not happy with the reception from the leaders in Kluang.

“They are not with me on the idea of pollination and have refused to come up with the funds.”

Undeterred, he resolved to visit Sabah and Sarawak to see the leaders there, hoping they would be more receptive to the new ideas.

“As I will be busy, I need you to attend the Malayan Agricultural Producers Association (Mapa) meeting in Kuala Lumpur, sitting in for me as the alternate director. Usually, heads of companies attend but I can facilitate your inclusion. The meetings are mainly on employment policy matters,” he added.

However, his confidence was misplaced as Mapa responded with a harsh reply.

The writer has extensive experience in the management of oil palm plantations. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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