New deal for Felda under Pakatan
Terence Netto Feb 21, 10 8:00am
Felda settlers will enjoy a new deal under a Pakatan Rakyat government, one that would incorporate elements of social democracy as distinct from the capitalist thrust of present arrangements under an Umno-led BN administration. PKR deputy president senator Dr Syed Husin Ali told a national convention of Felda settlers at Kampong Temin in Jerantut yesterday that new swaths of land will be opened up for cultivation in contrast to the existing policy of no new land openings.
He said priority for cultivation of this new land would be accorded to the landless and unemployed among second and third generation descendants of the original settlers. “This is to overcome the twin problems of unemployment and poverty among this group,” said Syed Husin to some 1,000 settlers who attended the one-day convention in this town in the Pahang interior, surrounded by Felda schemes.
At its incorporation in 1956 and actual launch two years later, Felda was a scheme to enable small and impoverished farmers who usually owned uneconomic plots of less than two acres to open up new land and progress towards ownership of viable plots of 10 acres in size. The plots were cleared by this pioneering band and planted with rubber, with the produce providing them with a living.
From the profits, the pioneers paid the holding agency (Felda) installments towards eventual ownership of the land. But in 1960, Parliament passed the Group Settlement Act which changed the way Felda schemes were managed. Land clearing and seed planting were undertaken by the Felda board which then charged the costs to each settler, who had to clear the debt over a 15-year period at 6.25% interest per annum.
With the Felda board deducting at source these dues from the monthly earnings of settlers, the latter were frequently mired in debt, especially in periods when the price of rubber nosedived. Settlers' woes were worsened by their being barred from transferring ownership of the land during their lifetimes or willing it to heirs at death. In short, the Group Settlement Act transformed Felda's band of settlers from the status of aspirant owners to permanent tenant farmers.
Ownership of land issues became more complicated in 1995 when Felda Holdings was incorporated. Ownership in most of the 323 Felda schemes in the country was now subsumed under Felda Plantations. Many of Felda's pioneers were cajoled, persuaded, and even coerced, to give up their ownership rights to Felda Holdings, in return for shareholding rights. Thus the original purpose of setting up Felda schemes to combat poverty by enabling impoverished small farmers opportunities to cultivate, and later own, land on economically viable scales was lost.
All this would change under a Pakatan government, said Syed Husin. “We will give priority to the second and third generation descendants of Felda pioneers to acquire the skills and qualifications to become important in the ownership, cultivation and management of Felda schemes,” he asserted. “A more equitable system of distribution of profits garnered by Felda holding companies would be devised such that settlers would obtain better returns on their labour,” said Syed Husin.
He said an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 people comprised the second and third generation of descendants of Felda's pioneering settlers who were now the flotsam of rural society. He said many of the unemployed were involved in social ills, like theft, drug abuse, and other destructive behavior, that commonly characterise the shiftless. “Under a Pakatan government, Felda would return to its original aim which is to uplift rural society by empowering small farmers to work in economically viable agricultural schemes to boost income, reduce unemployment, and promote ownership,” said Syed Husin.
He said a Pakatan government would do all this not because it viewed Felda settlers as a potential vote bank, but because these measures conformed to the imperatives of the new economic agenda espoused by PKR under the common policy framework of Pakatan.