Of oil palm, douches, insects and Tamil songs

YOU can always tell a planter’s hands.

They are big, calloused, wrinkled and very, very strong.

When I first shook hands with Datuk Leslie Davidson, a 77-year-old former planter, I was left with numb fingers before blood resume flow into my right hand.

In an interview with Davidson and Mahbob Abdullah, his friend and former subordinate, both talked about their upcoming books. Scheduled to be launched in early 2009, the books tell of their amusing and poignant experiences as planters in the tropics between the 1950s and the 1980s.

Davidson was also in Kuala Lumpur to receive the Merdeka Award from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for his outstanding contribution to Malaysian people. The Merdeka Award, a Petronas initiative co-founded with ExxonMobil and Shell, came with a trophy, certificate and RM500,000 cash.

Davidson’s contribution could be attributed to efforts 30 years ago when he initiated efforts to get weevils, insects from Cameroon, to pollinate oil palm trees in Malaysia. Since then, the oil palm trees have been merrily producing more fruit bunches, making Malaysia the world’s biggest palm oil exporter.

As Davidson sat himself down beside Mahbob, he said, “the Merdeka Award is actually a team effort”.

I stole a glance at Mahbob.

“My boss is right. Maybe the award money should be divided among team members, too,” he said, and laughed, “there were thousands of us”.

In chapter 10 of Mahbob’s book titled “Planters Tales” and chapter 37 of Davidson’s “East of Kinabalu”, they tell how oil palm companies had to spend a lot of money to hire hundreds of workers just to manually harvest pollen from male flowers of oil palm trees to pollinate female flowers.

Teams of workers patrolled the estate daily searching for male flowers to collect the pollen. This was then issued to other teams who went around pollinating every receptive female flowers with hand puffers.

“Ironically, by trial and error, we found the ideal instrument for this delicate operation to be vaginal douches,” he said.

When Davidson submitted orders for vaginal douches, Unilever headquarters in London was very surprised and immediately questioned if he was carrying out birth control programmes among his estate workers.

Davidson promptly replied, “Oh, quite the contrary, we’re actually trying to increase fertility rates among the trees to get them bear more fruits”.

While top management approved of the orders, Davidson was constantly reminded that Sabah estates’ oil palm yields were lower than in Johor and Cameroon.

Undeterred and unconvinced by textbook knowledge which claimed that palm fruits were wind-pollinated and that heavy rain washes pollen away, Davidson arranged for more research to prove that pollination in West Africa was largely due to weevils which were not found in Malaysia.

Under Davidson’s instruction, Dr Kang Siew Ming, Zam Karim, Dr Tay Eong Beok and Mahbob went to Cameroon to assess the work of Dr Rahman Anwar Syed, the entomologist who was assigned to study oil palm pollination by insects in Africa, especially the elaieidobius kamerunicus specie.

“It ended up with the two ladies Dr Kang and Zam climbing the oil palm trees,” Mahbob said.

Asked what he and and Dr Tay did while the ladies were up on the trees, Mahbob replied, “we stood underneath and made sure they didn’t fall down” and grinned, “but we didn’t look up.”

Jokes aside, Mahbob is most probably remembered among members of East Malaysia Planters Association for being the very persuasive money collector for the RM2 million weevils project.

The Unilever Group was the first to pay but Sabah Land Development Board was the biggest contributor.

Incidentally, the estates that Davidson and Mahbob used to work and live in Johor and Sabah are now owned by IOI Corp Bhd. To this day, the almost 70-year-old IOI Group executive chairman Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng still makes his regular rounds at these estates. Lee’s talent in serenading Tamil songs to his oil palm trees may seem surprising to many but it reflected Incorporated Society of Planters (ISP) requirement that all planters must be proficient in commonly-used languages at the estates.

Davidson recalled preparing for the Malay and Hakka language tests almost 60 years ago. At that time, the ISP examiner said, “You will find Hakka very useful in North Borneo,” and asked, “Nyi thuk-ko-kai shu, han ki-tet mau? (Do you still remember your studies?)”

Davidson replied, “Yit pan ki-tet, yit pan mong-ki liau." (Half remember, half forgotten.)

The examiner liked what he heard and Davidson passed the Hakka test with flying colours.

Mahbob was also lucky. In his second book entitled “Planter Upriver”, Mahbob told how he was slow to start learning Tamil but eventually aced the test. At that time, Mahbob’s contract as an assistant manager at Tanah Merah Estate in Tangkak, Johor, required him to pass the Tamil language test. He found a very patient tutor in Krishnan, an 18-year-old son of a worker. Also, Mahbob’s love for Tamil and Hindi movies might have helped.

Asked if he is able to sing Tamil songs, he winked and smiled, “If Tan Sri Lee invites me to his estates, I certainly don’t mind a duet”.

6 Responses to Of oil palm, douches, insects and Tamil songs

  1. Great piece. Eye-opening, nostalgic, a trip down memory lane. Never knew douches could be used for that.
    Do the oil palm estates now accept used douches?

  2. The Merdeka Award should be shared half:half
    with Mahbob Abdullah as without his relentless
    highlighting of this Weevil introduction through
    his writing, discussion with the press and ISP,
    Leslie Davidson will NEVER NEVER get this recognition
    as the Weevil introducer in Malaysia.

  3. BTW Uncle..the insect pollinator has taken over the function of pollinating the female oil palm flowers. Hand pollination is completely done away with. Hence the douche is obsolete

    Re: the Merdeka award

    In my opinion Mahbob deserves an award not so much for his publicity subsequent to the introduction of the weevil but rather prior to it which is for his relentless effort in raising the necessary funds to finance the research & introduction of the pollinator. In other words for his effort in implementing Leslie's groundbreaking idea that some insects in Africa must be responsible in oil palm pollination. Leslie deserves this award as without his idea & his push for further investigation no reseach & introduction would have been carried out.

    The Ministry of Plantation Industry, MPOB or MPOC should look into an appropriate award for Mahbob Abdullah not only for his role in the pollinator but also his other contribution to the oi palm industry

  4. I still think sharing a portion of the Merdeka Award to MBA is most appropriate. Leslie should do what is appropriate.....as ,no doubt MBA deserves to be recognised for his contribution.
    The industry cannot simply creat another award on the same subject.. You know there are another hundreds of people out there waiting deservedly
    for some recognition and some kind of award....

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