Let’s start with a Sabahans First policy on agriculture
Published on: Sunday, October 10, 2021
By: Datuk John Lo
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Sabah’s Agriculture Has Enriched Many Outsiders, Our Farmers Remain Poorest. I like to follow up on my 26th September 2021 article on food security which is a very important aspect of agriculture but not by any measure the only one. 

Agriculture is critically important to many Sabahans’ economic welfare, better lives, livelihood, economic dignity and land ownership.

Crafting a Sabahans First Policy in agriculture can be most meaningful and beneficial for many Sabahans. An effective agriculture policy is the best way to eradicate rural poverty and prevent rural migration. 

Whatever may have been said and done, the following bottom results are pretty obvious and need urgent redress –

[a] Sabah has lost control of ownership of vast area of valuable agriculture land to outsider oil palm plantation owners. 

[b] There is little or no downstream multiplier economic benefits from oil palm for Sabah especially employment. 

[c] Sabah’s farmers are among the poorest in Malaysia. But Sabah’s agriculture has produced many non-Sabahan multi-millionaires and ballooned the wealth of many billionaires who have not lifted one finger to assist Sabah’s fight against the Covid19 pandemic.

[d] Majority of small holdings are uncultivated or under cultivated. 

[e] A well organised agriculture industry can plug 2 very serious financial leakages for Sabah 

[i] profit outflow in the billions to W Malaysia.

[ii] substantially reduce importation of food especially rice which is an absolutely critical crop. Tan Sri Harris managed to attain 80pc rice sufficiency as CM. Since then, it has deteriorated to only 25pc which is very frightening. Things have gone terribly wrong after Harris.

Sabah’s agriculture must produce a new dream, a new model to address the many shortcomings of the present model. 

Looking forward, I hope the Department of Agriculture will be empowered with sufficient authority, financial and quality human resources with the emphasis to shift from the big oil palm plantations to high value crops and smallholder Sabahan farmers.

Some Suggestions for Sabah’s New Agriculture Model in Sabahans First Policy Context.

[a] Large oil palm plantations must contribute for Sabah’s economic development. 

Large oil palm plantations should be made to contribute a lot more towards Sabah’s economic progress and development. Two things must happen. First, they must be made to develop down stream industry in Sabah.

This is no longer an option. It is a necessity as Indonesian government may uplift its moratorium on oil palm plantings soon.

Second, they must be made to produce more food to meet Sabah’s food security and self-sufficiency. This requirement will prove a blessing for these oil palm plantations as they will develop and diversify their business and income. 

Many high value crops can fetch better income per acre than oil palm. They will need to be given the big stick, if needs be, to encourage them to emerge from their attitude of taking Sabah for granted.

[b] Empower Sabahan small holders.

It is a sad fact that most Sabahan small holders are the poorest, living below poverty line in Malaysia. They have been the most neglected. This situation is shameful and must be rectified. The best way to eliminate poverty in this group is to empower them, avail them the opportunity for self-improvements and eventual financial independence like those in NZ, China and many countries.

[c] Agriculture, Food Security, Food Sufficiency and Rural Economic Welfare.

Vital for Sabah to give recognition to the aforementioned factors which are intractably interlinked. Individually and combined, all of them must be managed properly for the interest of all Sabahans. Sabah’s problems in agriculture must be seen as a Sabah issue for all Sabahans to resolve.

Small Holdings can be Beautiful and Viable. 

As is proven in Sabah’s experience, big can be ugly, can bring in environmental degradation, devoid of economic benefits like the oil palm plantations. There are numerous high value crops that are suitable and viable for small holders. 

Sabah has the unique assets of temperate highland and tropical lowland to produce a vast variety of exotic foods, fruits and animals for meat. 

The opportunities are endless from durians to avocados, from vegies to herbs, essential oil and perfume, from sheep to cattle. 

The opportunities are endless. All that is need are political leadership, vision and management/organisational skills.

Consult UMS which has an impressive collection of knowledge on most of these items.

Implement Land Reform.

Sabah is being strangled economically by unplanned, chaotic and countless illegal land thoughtless alienation within foreshore and riverine reserves, on hillsides with dangerous slopes. 

For agriculture to be productive at the small holding level, there must be an extensive land reform that will allow planting of high value crops, accessibility and logistic support.

A bold visionary land reform will transform many NTs into productive lands. 

From Farm to Table Policy.

This is a common policy that every successful country in agriculture has. Sabah must have one.

Role for Financial Institutions and Private Investors.

Almost impossible for small holders, NT owners to gain access to financial facilities and/or private investment. Neither is there any official encouragement for organised processing, marketing and export facilities.

Greater Role for Agriculture Department.

Sabah has tremendous potentials in agriculture for food security, sufficiency, export to earn foreign exchange, employment and a balanced prosperous society in the context of Sabahans First Policy. 

To achieve all these, the Agriculture Department’s roles and responsibilities must be expanded. In tandem, it must be allocated sufficient funds.


Padi field in Kodudungan, Penampang’s last padi growing area.

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