8 February 2023

Rethinking Tun Razak’s lasting legacy

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By Hui Yee Chen, Michael Hoe

“Land for the landless, employment for the unemployed; fertile land for deserving people,” that was the goal Tun Abdul Razak had in mind when he first created FELDA. At the time of its founding, FELDA’s schemes of resettling the rural poor and modernizing Malaysian culture were seen as perfectly viable. But as the world and society changes, there is the growing concern that this older strategy will only lead to complications such as gentrification and the pushing out of older traditions. As such, it is vital that we find a new method of achieving the same goal.

But what exactly is holistic inclusive development and how does it benefit rural communities, farmers and settlers whilst simultaneously promoting Malaysia’s economic growth?

Established on July 1st, 1956, under the Land Development Ordinance of 1956, the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) as a form of holistic inclusive development, described by Dr. Mohd Zufri bin Mamat of Universiti Malaya’s (UM) Department of Science and Technology Studies as a concept that involves several aspects such as the economy, society, management and even personality. The agency’s initial goal was to promote the country’s economic growth, eliminate poverty and reduce the poverty gap between urban and rural communities. As UM’s Chris Chang puts it, “The FELDA model was constructed deliberately to suit the status of socio-cultural and lifestyle of the Malay community by taking into accounts the balance between social and physical development.”

FELDA’s primary purpose at the time of its founding was to resettle the rural poor into newly developed areas (usually within the rural agricultural sectors, the primary contributors of Malaysia’s economic growth at the time), opening up smallholder farms growing cash crops such as palm oil and rubber with the idea that the rural poor will be attracted to the new employment opportunities and resettle in the planned villages. Basic community services are also provided in FELDA developed areas, such as schools, mosques, clinics, police stations and playgrounds to further entice settlers. As part of this scheme, FELDA had also attempted to diffuse Science & Technology (S&T) knowledge to rural farmers and settlers, with FELDA’s staff, officers, technicians and management teams playing an essential role in the transfer, diffusion and dissemination of such knowledge in an effective manner. It was hoped that by modernizing farming methods and technologies, the settlers will have a faster, more efficient and effective means of growing and harvesting their crops, thereby increasing agricultural productivity and yields.

Though largely successful in its initial plans, in recent years there is a growing concern that FELDA’s original schemes is leading increasing urbanization in rural areas and a growing divide between the urban poor and rich that is further exacerbated by rural-urban migrations. As our cities become more modernized, it is inevitable that the younger rural populations will move towards the city centres, leaving behind an aging population in the rural agricultural areas and thereby reducing manpower. Meanwhile, those rural migrants may find themselves in a low-income situation, adding to urban poor populations and widening the rich-poor gap. In this modern age, FELDA’s older methods and schemes are no longer viable and require an overhaul that is better suited to addressing today’s problems.

Dr. Zufri proposes that rather than forcing rural communities to fully adopt “modern values” and abandon their traditions, FELDA can instead teach them how to combine traditional and modern cultures and values in a complimentary manner, creating new rational values. “The media can provide some general concepts such as “the need to change for betterment”, “readiness and willingness to change” he explains. “With the aid of the media, the FELDA settlers can be exposed to promote their traditional values while improving the rational values as described in a Malay proverb regarding commitment and determination – “Kalau takut dilambung ombak jangan berumah di tepi pantai – If you are afraid of the waves, then do not live by the beach.” Dr. Zufri concludes, “Media is always a good tool in promoting the advantages of S&T in the modern working world and production system to the public.”

Equally important is to establish trust and a strong social cohesion and rapport between the public authorities and rural community. From Dr. Zufri’s standpoint, “Appreciation of and understanding the traditional values and cultures amongst the rural communities is the best form of communication to be delivered from top to bottom level”. “Despite changing their traditional values to complete modernization, the government will put extra effort into combining both values to increase the settlers’ willingness and openness to adopting the changes” he continues, “There various formats in which communication can be delivered. One such example is a formal professional relationship between the manager and the settlers during committee meetings; another example are informal events such as gotong royong (literally “mutual assistance”, a gathering for mutually accomplishing a task or for communal fundraising), kenduri kahwin (marriage ceremony), Hari Raya open houses and many more. All of these activities will build a stronger trust and rapport amongst the rural communities and FELDA officers and managers” Dr. Zufri concludes.

In order to better understand our current rural development situation, we can look towards other countries’ own rural development schemes, learning from their mistakes and successes. Nigeria is one such example, possessing one of highest growth rates in the world resulting in an enormous increase in rural-urban migration. Kanu Ejikeme Johnson and Ukonze Ifeoma of University of Nigeria’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning highlight the importance of granting rural communities the same basic amenities as urban areas, stating “People in the rural areas have no need to migrate to the urban centres, if basic social amenities and other variables to make them comfortable are provided for in the areas.” They also note, however, that changes in government leadership will often lead to previously implemented rural development plans being abandoned. In some cases, the development plans are poorly implemented, benefiting the corrupt officials rather than the actual targets (rural communities). From this, we can tell that proper governance is a key part of successful rural developments.

Ultimately, the policymaker (which in this case is FELDA and the Malaysian government) needs to listen to the voices of the rural communities in order to gain a better understanding of what they want out of rural development, for it is the communities that play an important role in determining the direction of development for the agricultural sector and settlement planning. As such, granting settlers and rural communities some degree of involvement in the decision-making process will help sharpen the government’s point of view when it comes to making decisions regarding our nation’s economic and social policy. FELDA must also learn to better balance between the horizontal (e.g. socio-cultural status, industrialisation, modernisation and basic needs) and vertical (e.g. top-down and bottom-up) dimensions when formulating new plans and methods that are better suited for an increasing urbanized world. As Chris Chang notes “development (rather than growth) is the main strategy of the scheme, encompassing both social and economic perspectives.” And finally, though we cannot stop the tide of urbanization, we must ensure that everyone is provided with the necessary commodities and amenities to ensure a comfortable living.

FELDA needs to adopt new standards and practices in order to better resolve the issues of our current era, rather than sticking to what worked back during its founding.


Hui Yee Chen is a postgraduate candidate at the Faculty of Science, Universiti Malaya; while Michael Hoe is a Research Assistant at the Institute of Research Management and Services, Universiti Malaya. The authors may be reached at michaelhoe.hoe@gmail.com

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