Archive for September 2014

FGV: Msia may extend duty free palm oil exports

MUMBAI (Reuters): MALAYSIA, the world’s second-biggest palm oil producer, could extend duty free exports until the end of this year if prices of the tropical oil remain at current levels, a leading palm oil producer.

Malaysia has allowed duty free exports of crude palm oil for this month and next. A further extension in duty-free exports would help it reduce stockpiles but also put pressure on rival top producer Indonesia to consider similar measures.

Indonesia has allowed duty free exports for October in response to the Malaysian duty structure.

“If prices remain at the current level, then Malaysia could allow duty free exports in November and December,” said Felda Global Ventures Holdings Bhd (FGV) chief executive officer Mohd Emir Mavani Abdullah told Reuters yesterday.

Both Malaysia and Indonesia set export taxes on a monthly basis. In August, Malaysia’s export duty for crude palm oil was five per cent, while Indonesia has set its September rate at 9 per cent compared with 10.5 per cent in August.

Malaysian palm oil futures settled at RM2,177 per tonne last Friday, after hitting a 5-year low at RM1,914 on September 2.

Palm oil has fallen a quarter since its March peak of RM2,916. The duty free exports have been helping in bringing down stockpiles in Malaysia, Mohd Emir said.

FGV is planning to enter India, the world’s biggest importer of palm oil, by setting up a port-based refinery with a local partner, said Mohd Emir, who was in Mumbai for a Globoil India conference. “We are examining a couple of proposals now.”

India’s palm oil imports in the 2014/15 marketing year starting in November are forecast to surge to nine million tonnes, compared with 2.6 million tonnes in 2005/06.

Meanwhile, editor of the Hamburg-based newsletter Oil World Thomas Mielke said palm oil price could rise as much as 10 per cent to US$750 per tonne in January-March 2015 because of dry weather.

"Oil palm growing areas are suffering from dryness in Indonesia and Malaysia. If there is continuation of dryness in October, then the oil palms will be stressed. This could reduce the number of fruit bunches in the coming months. 

"I think vegetable oil prices have bottomed out ... the growth in palm oil production would most probably be just 2 million tonnes ... the lowest in 5 years, in 2014/15," Mielke said. "Crude palm oil could rise up to the range of US$730 - US$750 per tonne, in the first quarter of 2015 from US$680 per tonne now," he added.

Ruling the roost in estates

This is written by my colleague at New Sunday Times.

Owls have been associated with wisdom and bad luck. But some oil palm plantations have been providing lodging for these predatory birds to act as rodent catchers since the 1980s, writes SUZANNA PILLAY.

AS far as sustainable farming goes, some practices are something to hoot about. For 30 years, Sime Darby (SD) Plantation has successfully run a Barn Owl programme in its estates.

“Today, there are owls in our estates in Malaysia, except for Sarawak, as well as some of our operations in Indonesia. The number of owls are estimated at around 21,000 birds in Peninsular Malaysia alone. 

"Work is in progress for us to bring the owls to our estates in Sarawak, and later in Liberia,” said SD’s head of research and development Dr Mohamed Nazeeb Ali Thambi on a visit to its oil palm estates on Carey Island and Jomalina refinery.

SD Plantation first started to consider the viability of barn owls as a sustainable and environmentally friendly method of pest control on its oil palm plantations in the early 1980s, when commercial-scale trials proved their effectiveness in the biological control of rats.

According to Nazeeb, commercial-scale implementation at SD’s oil palm plantations commenced in 1987.

“There was no purchase, or training of the owls. All we did was to set up nesting boxes for them and the population naturally increased. They occupied the nest boxes erected at the estates and will continue to do so as long as there are rats available as a food source.”

Biannual census is conducted to ascertain the population of barn owls in the estates, he added. The ratio of owls per estate is worked out based on the occupancy rate per box and the territorial range of the owls.

“Usually, there will be a pair of adult owls occupying a box for every 10 hectares of an estate. There are two breeding seasons — July to October, and November to February. The eggs hatch after 32 days. The chicks will remain in their nests until they can feed on their own after about eight to nine weeks, when they fly out of their nests and live on their own as adults.”

He said with the use of barn owls, the oil palm plantations are able to reduce rat control costs by 30 to 40 per cent. A barn owl eats an average of one rat per day. A family that comprises two adults and two baby birds could consume 1,200 rats per year.”

It has been estimated that rats consume up to six per cent of crop production each year. In severe cases, the losses can be higher.

“To maintain the prey-predator equilibrium and keep the damage caused by rats below the economic threshold, we still need some chemical intervention, albeit, in a much smaller quantity compared with when barn owls are not used.”

Aside from rats, Nazeeb said leaf-eating insects, like bagworms, nettle caterpillars, rhinoceros beetles and termites, also cause damage at oil palm estates.

Oil palm planters grow the beneficial turnera subulata to give
shelter to bigger insects that feed on bagworms, nettle
caterpillars, rhinoceros beetles and termites.
“Encouraging the presence of more beneficial predatory insects, parasitoids and entomo-fungi help eliminate leaf defoliating insects in oil palm estates, while cultivating beneficial plants and flowers that provide shelter and supplementary food like nectar will encourage the population of predators and parasites.”

Crop losses caused by such insects can be very devastating, he said. He cited leaf-eating caterpillars, which are able to strip the leaves of the palm resulting in crop losses over a period of two years following an infestation.

Another common oil palm pest, rhinoceros beetles bore into the cluster of developing spears in the crown of the palm to feed on the soft tissues. They could also bore through the frond bases into the soft tissues of young, unopened leaves. The damage caused by rhinoceros beetles will result in crop losses upon maturity.

Pests like termites attack oil palm trees by damaging the meristem in the crown and feed on the living tissue in the trunk, eventually killing the tree. Using direct bio-control agents, such as viruses and fungi to infect the pests, at oil palm estates is also a must,” he said.

Rhinoceros beetles can be killed using entomopathogenic (parasitic) fungi. The fungi’s spores penetrate the beetles’ cell tissue and secrete toxins. Entomopathogenic fungi are also used to control termites, but this method is still a work in progress for commercial use.

Pheromone trapping is efficient in controlling the population of flying insects, like rhinoceros beetles, which would otherwise require fortnightly spraying of insecticides in plantations.

“Spraying is costly and labour intensive. The pheromone attracts the beetles and traps them inside a bucket, where they will eventually die. These methods were introduced in the 1960s and, suffice to say, there have been significant savings in terms of cost as well as the improvement of our yield.”

In an outbreak of pests, where natural enemy pressure is no longer sufficient, environmentally friendly insecticides will be used until the situation is under control.

“An outbreak is deemed to have occurred when damage can be seen very clearly on leaves and pest counts have gone up above the defined threshold. Normally, one or two rounds of insecticide will bring back equilibrium. The estates practice an alert and survey system to monitor pest levels so that early intervention is possible with minimal use of insecticides.”

Pandan Chiffon Cake

It has been a while since the last recipe posting in this blog. Most cakes use butter or margarine, here's one that is baked with palm cooking oil. Of all the cakes I've eaten, the chiffon cake is still my favourite. I like it that this air-whipped cake looks like a giant doughnut. 


  • 6 egg whites
  • 125g caster sugar
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 80g caster sugar (additional)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla essence
  • 165 ml coconut milk (the smallest can)
  • 2 tbsp palm cooking oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon pandan essence
  • 120g plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  1. Heat the oven up to 160 degrees Celcius.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk the egg whites until foamy. Slowly add in the (125g) sugar until you get stiff peaks.
  3. You should be able to hold the whisked egg whites over your head without it falling out.
  4. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar (80g) and vanilla essence until it forms a pale and creamy mixture. It should triple in size.
  5. In a small bowl, mix the coconut milk, palm cooking oil and pandan essence.
  6. Add this to the egg yolk mixture, whilst whisking at a slower speed. 
  7. Once it is thoroughly mixed through, sift in the flour, baking powder, a pinch of salt and gently fold through.
  8. Add one third of the egg whites to the now green mixture. Beat it to loosen up the batter.
  9. Add the remaining egg white and fold gently into the mixture, taking care to not overwork it.
  10. Pour the batter into a doughnut-shaped cake tin. Bake for around 45-50 minutes.

Msia PM: Rich nations should do more

This is written by New Straits Times Press Bhd group managing editor Datuk Abdul Jalil Hamid.

NEW YORK: Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak told the UN Climate Summit, yesterday, that Malaysia is committed to cut carbon emissions but said rich nations should also keep to their promises.

He said at the one-day summit ahead of the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly that Malaysia was on track to cut the emissions intensity of the gross domestic product by 40 per cent, in six years, as promised.

He said the pledge made at the 2009 Copenhagen UN climate change conference was made on the understanding that parties would honour their commitments to assist developing nations in financing and technology transfer.

"That target we set in Copenhagen was conditional on finance and technology transfer from Annex I (developed) countries.

"Yet neither condition was met. We did not receive the assistance we were promised under Article 4.7 of the Convention," he said.

"Our Copenhagen pledge was made in good faith; on the understanding that parties would fully honour their commitments to assist developing nations.

“Yet Malaysia continued to cut its emissions intensity of its economy by more than 33 per cent, for the sake of our people – and our planet.

“This time must be different. This time, all countries should commit to an ambitious deal to reduce emissions. And they must follow-up that commitment with consistent action,” he said.

Najib said, since 2009, Malaysia had implemented new national policies on climate change and green technology.

“We (also) passed a Renewable Energy Act establishing a feed-in-tariff for renewables. We made adaptation and mitigation central to our water resource management. And we gazetted new forest reserves, reaffirming our commitment to a pledge we made at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit,” he said.

He said Malaysia had also taken steps towards a cleaner future besides having a more balanced energy mix.

“But this progress came at a cost. In allocating finite national resources, we have had to make painful decisions. We had to choose between adaptation and mitigation.

”Malaysia has spent nearly US$2.6 billion in the last decade adapting to more frequent floods. This is money we could have invested in green industries, or used to slow climate change,” he said.

Najib said Malaysia would continue to act on climate change by having new policies to promote energy efficient vehicles, a new corporate greenhouse gas reporting programme, a building sector energy efficiency project and a low carbon city framework.

Oil palm planters enduring severe financial burden

Malaysia's social safety laws of Windfall Profit Levy and Minimum Wages are meant to make cooking oil affordable to the poor and pave the way towards a high income nation. Unfortunately, oil palm planters are suffering from these policy backfirings, writes OOI TEE CHING.

THE Minimum Wages Order 2012, which took effect from January last year, requires employers with six employees and above to pay a minimum wage of RM900 a month in Peninsular Malaysia or RM800 a month in Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Territory of Labuan. 

As the government seeks to propel Malaysia into a high-income nation by introducing minimum wages, the blanket implementation of this figure to “basic rate” instead of “take-home pay” across all sectors had given foreign workers more money to send back to their home countries.

In an interview with Business Times, Malayan Agricultural Producers Association (Mapa) executive director Mohamad Audong said the blanket implementation of the minimum wage policy, rising bank borrowing costs and falling palm oil and rubber prices have resulted in planters being hit from all sides.

“While there is a 20 per cent increment in the basic wages, this has resulted in almost 40 per cent more money outflow from Malaysia last year. In theory, this law is supposed to help the oil palm industry become more productive. In reality, however, planters are badly hurt,” he said.

Mohamad pointed out that in 2012, foreign workers in the agriculture sector remitted around RM8 billion to their home countries. After the Minimum Wages Order 2012 was implemented last year, foreign workers sent back around RM11 billion. This year, Mapa estimates this figure to surpass RM15 billion. 

He explained that planters are facing higher production costs. This is mainly due to more expensive foreign worker recruitment fees, higher fuel and utilities, such as diesel, electricity and water.

There are also various new fees and tax hikes to be imposed by the federal and state governments. On top of that, oil palm planters also have to pay cess of RM13 per tonne to government agency Malaysian Palm Oil Board.

The bleak outlook, Mohamad said, is compounded by Bank Negara Malaysia’s raising of interest rates. This means costlier bank loans to rubber and oil palm planters. 

Since oil palm planters are price takers, their earnings are at the mercy of pricing in the world’s commodities markets. On Monday, the third month benchmark palm oil futures contract on Bursa Malaysia derivatives market added RM15 to close at RM2,099 per tonne.

“Don’t forget many of our planters borrow money from the banks and issue bonds, of which bankers and insurance companies are subscribers.”

Depending on the year of planting, Mapa calculated that palm oil production cost of these heavily-geared planters ranges between RM1,300 and RM3,000 per tonne.

“The minimum wage policy works best if commodity prices are on the uptrend, not when prices are falling,” Mohamad said.

As the government seeks to review the minimum wage ruling at the end of this year, planters appeal for a more judicious implementation of the Minimum Wages Order 2012. 

“We’re not opposing the minimum wage law. It is the way the salary is being packaged. It would be more practical if the government amends the RM800 and RM900 per month minimum figure to that of take-home pay instead of basic rate. This would streamline the Minimum Wages Order 2012 to the main thrust of existing labour laws as that interpreted by the Industrial Court for many decades,” he said.

Mapa represents close to 200 plantation companies in Peninsular Malaysia, with estates spanning across a million hectares. These oil palm planters employ some 125,000 workers in the fields, of which 80 per cent are foreigners.

In their 2015 Budget wishlist, oil palm planters are appealing for the government to streamline the minimum wage rate with existing labour laws. They also want the government to abolish the windfall profit levy and rationalise cooking oil subsidy. 

Meanwhile, Malaysian Estate Owners Association (MEOA) president Datuk Boon Weng Siew concurred that oil palm planters endure severe financial burden with the spectre of taxes and new ones to be introduced. “For every RM1 we earn, we have to pay almost 45 sen to the federal and state governments in taxes,” he said.

“Planters are not required by law to provide accommodation, schools, clinics and places of worship, but many do so as part of their corporate social responsibilities.

“When you factor into these amenities and benefits to workers, such as housing, water, electricity, medical care, transportation... it amounts to about RM450 per month per worker,” Boon added.

“Now, there is a new tax called Property Assessment Tax imposed by local authorities at between RM5 and RM100 per hectare. “This burden is increasingly painful on our members,” he said.

Apart from the minimum wage ruling of unintended higher money outflow, oil palm planters’ subsidising of cooking oil is also seeing huge wastage in the form of rampant smuggling to neighbouring countries.

Under the Cooking Oil Subsidy Scheme, palm cooking oil is capped at RM2.50 per kg.

Boon put things into perspective when he highlighted cooking oil sold in Malaysia is priced at 65 per cent discount of global market pricing.

“In other words, the same 1kg of cooking oil sold in Malaysia for RM2.50, if shipped out of the country, would fetch US$2.50 (or RM8.03). Exporters could price it three times higher in neighbouring countries,” he said, adding that the billion-ringgit subsidy that goes into cooking oil sold, here, is being funded by a windfall profit levy imposed on oil palm planters.

It has been reported that this levy is unfair because it is imposed on assumed profit and not on actual profit.

The levy is activated when palm oil exceeds RM2,500 a tonne. Planters in Sabah and Sarawak pay windfall tax when the prices cross RM3,000 per tonne.

MEOA, which represents 153 small- and medium-sized estates of more than 40ha, is appealing to the government to review the cooking oil subsidy, which benefits restaurant operators, traders, smugglers and people across the border more than the hardcore poor.

The price of palm cooking oil should be allowed to float in the open market, he suggests, and vouchers can be issued to hardcore poor households to mitigate the impact on them.  

Good to buy plantation counters now

KUALA LUMPUR (Bloomberg): PALM oil’s slump to a 5-year low offers investors an opportunity to buy plantation counters, according to Dorab Mistry, director at Godrej International Ltd, who says producers are still making money.

“I am often asked these days if oil palm plantation and palm oil processing company equities should be bought. My answer is a resounding yes,” Mistry said two days ago, without identifying the stocks.

“You invest in plantations when palm oil prices are low. I prefer processing companies which manufacture speciality fats, oleochemicals, biodiesel and own consumer brands. Upstream companies will benefit when the price cycle turns.”

Mistry, who has traded palm oil for more than three decades, joins Standard Chartered Plc in recommending investors buy plantation stocks to profit from a anticipated rebound in prices.

Palm oil fell to a 5-year low, two weeks ago, as output from Indonesia and Malaysia, the biggest producers, topped demand amid a glut in global cooking oil supplies, including soyabean oil.

Global palm consumption increased 81 per cent in the decade to last year as rising incomes lifted demand, the United States government data show.

“Long-term demand for palm oil is very supportive of the sector and that supports the case for recovery in crude palm oil (CPO) prices,” said Alex Fergusson, a fund manager at Singapore-based Woodside Holdings Investment Management Pte, referring to a period of five to 10 years.

Growth in per capita gross domestic product and populations in emerging markets are the drivers for demand, said Fergusson.

Prices will drop in the next few weeks towards the cost at which growers in Asia produce the world’s most-used cooking oil, said Mistry at an oils and fats conference organised by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board and Malaysian Palm Oil Council, in Shanghai, recently.

The world is awash with vegetable oils. Futures will drop to about RM1,900 a tonne, he said. That is 9.6 per cent below Monday’s close of RM2,099 per tonne on the Bursa Malaysia Derivatives and would be the lowest price since March 2009.

“It is almost impossible to forecast a bottom at this stage of the production cycle,” Mistry said. “However, producers are still very much in the money and I do not foresee prices going below cost of production.”

Palm oil prices are expected to strengthen next month onwards on lower production, and there is a better outlook for 2015 as biodiesel demand may increase, RHB Investment Bank Bhd said in its September 10 report to investors.

The bank said it remains “overweight” on plantation stocks in Indonesia and Singapore. CPO prices dropped 21 per cent this year to RM2,101 a tonne on Monday. Prices fell to a five-year low of RM1,914 on September 2, then rebounded after Malaysia scrapped an export levy for this month and next month.

Full-year output in Malaysia, the world's second-largest grower, will probably be in the region between 19.7 million tonnes and 19.9 million tonnes, Mistry said.

In the first eight months of this year, supply was 12.76 million tonnes, 991,000 tonnes more than a year ago, while exports dropped 6.6 per cent to 10.99 million tonnes, he said.

Stockpiles will continue to rise and peak in December. Reserves in Malaysia jumped 22 per cent to 2.05 million tonnes last month from July, the biggest percentage gain since October 2009, Malaysian Palm Oil Board data show. 

Incentivise good corp governance

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (Maicsa) is proposing that tax breaks be accorded to companies for expenses incurred for good corporate governance compliance.

Maicsa president Chua Siew Chuan told Business Times that the government can incentivise good governance among corporate Malaysia by according tax breaks in the form of tax deductible expenses under the 2015 Budget.”

“Expenses incurred in ensuring transparent and ethical ways of doing business will result in sustained participation from investors and stakeholders,” she said on the sidelines of the Maicsa 2014 conference last week.

Corporate governance is about how company directors make decisions and put them into action. Measures to enhance ethical business practices include the setting up of a whistle blowing department within the company, strengthening of internal audit and appointment of chief governance officer.

Since 2012, the Malaysian Code on Corporate Governance had placed greater emphasis of good governance on public-listed companies.

Good corporate governance is integral in balancing the interests of the many stakeholders in a company, namely shareholders, management, customers, suppliers, financiers, government and the community.

“We’re no longer confined to the traditional passive job of preparing the minutes of meetings. We’re a lot more proactive since Bank Negara began to recognise company secretaries as gatekeepers of good governance,” Chua said.

“Nowadays, company secretaries are expected to guide their board of directors in ‘walking the talk’ on integrity and transparency in their daily business decision-makings,” she said, adding that corporate directors have increasingly turned to company secretaries for advice on procedural and regulatory requirements. Company secretaries also help the chairman in determining the annual board plan.

In view of the expanded role being undertaken by company secretaries, she said it is timely for the government to consider introducing a dedicated set of laws for this profession.

“Many countries already have a Company Secretaries Act, including India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It would be timely for Malaysia to have a dedicated set of laws to give due recognition and properly regulate this profession,” said Chua.

Established in 1959, Maicsa is part of The Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (ICSA) headquartered in the United Kingdom, which has 36,000 members in more than 70 countries.

Malaysia help fight Ebola, donates medical gloves

PUTRAJAYA: (Bernama) Malaysia is sending 20.9 million pairs of medical gloves to five African nations, which have been badly hit by the deadly Ebola virus.

The Prime Minister's Office, in a statement yesterday, said Malaysia would be shipping off 11 container-loads from Port Klang, each holding 1.9 million pairs of medical rubber gloves, to help fight the disease that had claimed so many lives.

Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea will each receive three containers while Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo will receive one each, it said.

Najib (L) in the handing over ceremony to representatives of Ebola-hit countries in Putrajaya on Sept 15, 2014. Among those present to receive the contributions are (from right) Guinea High Commissioner Dr Alpha Diallo, Republic of Congo Ambassador Francios Balumuene and Negeria's High Commissioner Bello Shehu Ringim. BERNAMA
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak handed over the medical supplies to Nigeria's High Commissioner Bello Sheuhu Ringim, Republic of Congo Ambassador Francios Balumuene and Guinea High Commissioner Dr Aloha Diallo. Also present at the ceremony were Deputy Foreign Minister Datuk Hamzah Zainuddin and Advisor in the Prime Minister's Department Tan Sri Dr Jamaluddin Jarjis.

Balumuene thanked Malaysia for the humanitarian gesture in donating medical gloves."This gestures goes a long way in helping the affected countries," he said.

"Malaysia is making this vital contribution to help fight against this contagious haemorrhagic fever called Ebola. We hope this contribution will help prevent the spread of this deadly disease," said Najib, adding he is saddened that 4,453 people had suffered from the Ebola virus, including 2,263 deaths.

A total of 13 glove-making companies have contributed to this cause, including the world's biggest Top Glove Corp Bhd. These companies sourced natural rubber latex from four plantation giants; namely IOI Corp Bhd, Sime Darby Bhd, Felda Global Ventures Holdings Bhd and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd.

Top Glove Corp chairman Tan Sri Lim Wee Chai said the RM1.8 million worth of much needed medical gloves will reach the respective health ministries of the affected countries, in six weeks.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry (Wisma Putra) laud Corporate Malaysia's humanitarian initiative in such times of dire need. "It reflects caring relations and co-operation between Malaysia with all five West African countries," it said.

West Africa has been hit by the Ebola outbreak in the past six months. It started out from the south-eastern part of the Republic of Guinea and became a widespread epidemic in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Nigeria and more recently, Republic of Congo.

Lady in red

I recently covered a conference organised by the Malaysian Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators (MAICSA), of which Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz was a guest speaker. While she has long retired from government decision-making posts, she continues to command respect from the business community.

Retiring from politics in 2013, Rafidah diligently tracks the pulse of international trade and investments as patron of the Malaysia-Europe Forum. She currently serves as the chairman of three companies; namely AirAsia X Bhd, Megasteel Sdn Bhd and Pinewood Studios.

As she took to the stage, she received a rousing round of applause when the moderator of her session, Philip Koh, introduced her to a roomful of near 1,000 company secretaries.

As soon as she started off her speech, Rafidah's hand gestures became more animated, sweeping from left to right ... sometimes up and down, like a music conductor guiding an orchestra. The crowd before her listened in rapt attention.

Philip, who was sitting up straight at the beginning of her speech began to gradually relax with his head tilted. One hand was hooked to the back of the seat and the other, loosening his necktie.

Half way through her animated presentation, Rafidah's voice started to become hoarse and she cleared her throat.

Suddenly, the very relaxed-looking Philip leapt to his feet. Like a superhero, he swoop up a champagne glass filled with mineral water and quickly walked towards the lectern.

Rafidah, without skipping a beat in the delivery of her speech, slipped in a double entendre. "Don't, Philip .... or I'll get wet."

Philip stopped dead in his tracks and looked at his feet. He tried hard to stifle his laughter but failed miserably.

Rafidah smiled and turned her attention back to the audience. "No, you see ... if he put the glass of water on this sloping lectern, it will slide off and I'll get wet, isn't it?" The audience broke into a raucous laughter.

She continue to tickle the crowd when she added, "It is so nice to be served by a gentleman ... now, who says chivalry is dead? Thank you, Philip." She beckoned to him and gave a slight curtsey.

Philip laughed and reciprocated her show of respect.

From there, Rafidah move on to a topic close to her heart -- the palm oil industry. She asked the audience if they had palm oil companies as clients. A show of hands emerged from the crowd. She recalled, in her early years as Malaysia's Minister of International Trade and Industry, she visited a palm oil refinery.

She noticed logos of alarm clock, a sexy woman and an airplane on the labels of cooking oil bottles. Curious, she asked the refiner, "Why an airplane? Where are these batch of cooking oil headed for?"

The refiner replied that the airplane logo signifies technological advancement and people in the Middle East took a liking to that brand of cooking oil.

"Now, that was in the early 1990s." She wagged her finger in the air and said, "the branding strategy that worked then may not necessarily work now. I hope that refinery is no longer using the airplane logo on their cooking oil bottles," she said, adding one must move with times in order to survive.

Soon after, she ended her speech. As she got off the stage and greeted her enthusiastic fans, I managed to "ambush" her near the entrance of the grand ballroom.

After I introduced myself and the media agency I work for, I willed myself to be thick-skinned and blurted out, "Tan Sri Rafidah, I've been warned that you'll scold me.

She turned and looked squarely into my eyes, "not unless you ask me relevant questions. Did you do your homework?"

I didn't want to say no, so I just smiled sheepishly.

"Ok, what is it you want to ask me?" she tilted her head and arched one of her eyebrows.

I fired away my questions and she answered all of them in a forthright manner.

A soon as I fold up my writing pad, the crowd of fans surrounding us jostled with their handphones to have selfies taken with Rafidah.

In the midst of frenzy requests from her fans to pose for photographs, I commented out loud to Rafidah that her baju kurung, lipstick, ruby jewelry, handbag and shoes were all in matching red --- the corporate colour of AirAsia.

She smiled broadly and replied "Of course ... I've always walked the talk, right?"

Tasty fried mooncakes

Pastry chef Irene Gan makes spiral-shaped Teochew mooncakes which she deep-fries using palm cooking oil, writes Ooi Tee Ching

KLANG, Selangor: THE Mid-Autumn Festival is an important Chinese festival. It falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month and this year the Chinese community celebrated it a couple of days back. Mooncakes and Chinese tea are usually served at this time of family gatherings.

Traditionally, the crust of this delicacy is filled with a sweet paste of lotus seed yam, red bean, pandan and mung bean. Salted egg yolks are often placed in the centre to represent the moon.

I Bakery House founder Irene Gan says Teochew mooncakes are easily distinguishable from the more common Cantonese variety as these have a flaky, crispy crust.

The 34-year-old started her home-based business seven years ago. She has since obtained a diploma in Patisserie from Taiwan and mastered the art of making breads, cakes and desserts. As her business expanded, she moved her bake-from-home business to a mini factory in Klang.

“As a mother and health-conscious consumer, I make sure that my pastries and cake are tasty as well as nutritious. I don’t use preservatives. As for flavourings and colourants, I use natural sources such as pandan and fruit extracts,” says Gan, who adds that her daughter Chloe Khoo is her biggest fan.

When making pastries and confectionery, she says solid fats help give them structure and texture. This is achieved either by using butter or vegetable shortening. Many food companies incorporate palm fats in their natural form to make bakery fats, shortenings and margarine. Palm shortenings, which can withstand high heat of even 200°C, have superb baking characteristics.

Asked about her venture into the mooncake business, she says: “This year, I made four types, including this unique Thousand Layers variant. I usually start making them about a month before the Mid-Autumn Festival. My team works longer hours as the orders stream in closer to the festival date. Mooncakes are so irresistible that I even have clients placing orders after the actual festival date.”

To a question on the Teochew variant, Gan says: “I’ve always enjoyed eating the spiral mooncakes myself, as the crispy pastry wrap is tastier when deepfried.”

The making of the thousand-layer mooncake is a labour of love. The pastry has two layers — an oil-based skin and water-based skin. Gan patiently kneads, folds and rolls out the oil and water-based pastries in thin and round slices and sets them aside.

As for the filling, yam is cut into small pieces, steamed and stirfried in wheat starch and some sugar to taste until cooked. Gan uses palm oil as it is able to withstand stir-fry temperatures better than other vegetable oils such as olive, soya bean, corn, canola and sunflower.

She then places a thin pastry slice on one palm before wrapping salted egg yolk and the yam filling into a spiral design. The process of sealing the dough is tedious.

She then fries the mooncakes. The secret to getting the mooncakes to bloom like a snail shell, according to Gan, is by frying them in oil of low to medium heat for about 20 minutes.

“Palm oil performs better at high temperatures compared with other oils. The end result is very rewarding. The pastry is crispy, crunchy and light,” says Gan as she turns the mooncakes to ensure they cook evenly.

Nutritious cooking oil

PETALING JAYA: MANY households in the country use palm cooking oil without realising that its nutritional value is just as good as other vegetable oils.

Palm Oil Refiners Association of Malaysia chief executive officer Mohammad Jaaffar Ahmad (pictured) says palm cooking oil has been a kitchen staple since the 1980s, when farmers planted more oil palm, harvested the fruits and processed the oil for export.

Over the decades, the refining technology has improved to yield palm oil that retain much of its phyto-nutrients such as vitamins A, D and E. “Although palm oil has a shelf life of two years, it is best for consumers to use the oil within a year,” he says.

Is palm oil less nutritious than other more expensive cooking oils?

One tablespoon of palm cooking oil contains 120 calories and 13.6g of fat. With a balanced combination of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fats, palm oil is made up of 44 per cent oleic, 10 per cent linoleic, 40 per cent palmitic and five per cent stearic acids.

While palm oil is the cheapest cooking oil in the world, it is nutritionally comparable to olive oil in its cholesterol-lowering effects.

Palm oil is packed with carotenes such as beta-carotene and lycopene — the same nutrients that give tomatoes, carrots and papayas their reddish-orange colour. Palm oil has the richest natural source of the supervitamin E called tocotrienols. Olive oil does not contain any carotenes or tocotrienols, yet it is marketed as being heart-healthy.

Does palm cooking oil contain cholesterol?

Like all vegetable oils, palm oil does not contain cholesterol. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration has allowed palm-based products sold under the Smart Balance brand (containing up to 50 per cent palm oil and 50 per cent local oils) to carry the US patented label “To help increase HDL (good cholesterol) and improve the cholesterol ratio (HDL/LDL)”.

What kind of oil should I use to deep-fry?

When frying, it is important to choose an oil with a very high smoking point. Fats and oils with a higher smoke point can endure higher heat during the cooking process. The smoke point is the temperature at which the cooking oil will begin to break down, producing a bluish smoke.

High heat changes the structure of the fat molecules, making them toxic and unusable by the body. At this point, the oil becomes harmful to consume.

Palm oil is the most commonly used oil for deep-frying because of its high smoke point.

Govt allows 2-month duty-free CPO exports

KUALA LUMPUR: THE government has approved duty-free quota for crude palm oil (CPO) exports for September and October 2014, in the hope that it will help shore up prices of the commodity.

“At current five-year low prices, the government has decided to allow export of duty-free CPO for two months, namely; September and October,” said Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas, here, yesterday.

“This is a pragmatic move on the part of the government to boost CPO exports by 600,000 tonnes and help reduce stock level to 1.6 million tonnes by year-end,” he told reporters in a briefing.

MPOB figures showed Malaysia’s palm oil stock level for July stood at 1.68 million tonnes.

“Although some want to export duty-free CPO until the end of the year, the government is only agreeable for two months. We need to to assess the impact of this stop-gap measure.”

At the current palm oil prices of below RM2,250 a tonne, the minister said this short-term measure is unlikely to have a negative impact on downstream players such as refiners and specialty fats, oleochemicals and biodiesel manufacturers.

He confirmed that refined palm oil will remain tax-free.

After the expiry of approval of duty-free CPO end-October, Uggah stressed that, from November, the palm oil export duty structure goes back to what it was ranging between 4.5 and 8.5 per cent, depending on the CPO prices. 

If palm oil price hovers between RM2,250 to RM2,400 a tonne, the tax is 4.5 per cent. And if palm oil price were to rise beyond RM2,400 a tonne, the tax is five per cent.

To stem falling prices, the minister is proposing to the Cabinet to implement the B7 mandate (blending of seven per cent palm biodiesel with petroleum diesel) nationwide in three months.

“We hope to do this by December. We want to increase local consumption of CPO via the B7 programme,” Uggah said. “Hopefully, these cummulative measures will help support prices. I pray that prices will recover and perhaps average at around RM2,200 until the end of the year.” 

Yesterday, the third month benchmark palm oil futures jumped RM52 to close at RM2,030 a tonne.

Hamburg-based Oil World executive director Thomas Mielke, who was speaking at the Palm Oil Industry Forum held here, yesterday, believed that palm oil prices are close to bottoming out and are set to recover in the months ahead.

“At current low prices, consumption of edible oils for energy is increasingly rapid in many parts of the world. This would provide impetus to CPO price recovery,” he said.  

Averting price war

PETALING JAYA: MALAYSIA must get on the dance floor and tango with Indonesia to avoid a price war, said Palm Oil Refiners Association of Malaysia (Poram) chief executive officer Mohammad Jaaffar Ahmad.

Last month, the Indonesian Palm Oil Association reportedly urged its government to slash refined palm oil export duty from 12.5 per cent to zero. This would further widen the export tax gap between its crude and refined oils.

Poram has urged the Malaysian government to be vigilant. “The government must take a more dynamic approach. We cannot afford to repeat the mistake of staying on the sidelines when Indonesia makes a move,” said Jaaffar when asked about the prospects of Indonesia changing its palm oil tax structure.

“The last time Malaysia hesitated in 2012, we fell into a lose-lose situation, of which downstream players bled losses and planters in both countries suffered from a price war.”

Two years ago, Indonesia, in its efforts to boost exports, slashed its refined palm olein tax to seven per cent and retained its crude palm oil (CPO) duty at 15 per cent.

As a result, stakeholders throughout the palm oil value chain in Malaysia took a beating. At that time, decades-old partnerships between millers and refiners in Malaysia broke down as refiners bled losses for every tonne of CPO refined. Jaaffar said to stem losses, refiners unwound long-term contracts, which then slowed down purchases and resulted in a rapid build-up of CPO inventories.

This, in turn, caused CPO and crude palm kernel oil prices to tumble, affecting planters in Indonesia and Malaysia. With cheap CPO and low duty export for packed products, Indonesian exporters sold their products at reduced prices, thus grabbing the market share from refiners in Malaysia.

When Indonesia moved and Malaysia took a 'wait-and-see' approach in 2012, the local palm oil industry lost an estimated RM9 billion in export revenue. 

“We cannot afford to remain static again. Ideally, it’s best for Malaysia’s tax gap between crude and refined palm oil to mirror that of Indonesia. If and when Indonesia widens its tax gap, Malaysia must also follow suit.

“We need to move in lockstep with Indonesia, like the way dancers hold hands and do the tango. That way, Malaysia’s refiners can continue to compete on a level playing field and hopefully, oil palm planters in both countries can avoid the dreaded price war.

“The yesteryear thinking of ‘We’re better than the other’ is over. In the spirit of the Asean Economic Community, it’s time for Malaysia and Indonesia to adopt a mutually beneficial approach of ‘We’re better together.’

He said if Indonesia widens the tax gap between crude and refined oil by a certain percentage, Malaysia’s CPO tax must be immediately amended to match the gap. This will allow oleochemical and specialty fats producers here to also benefit from the competitive prices. 

Palm oil prices have been on a downtrend for six months. Last Friday, the third-month benchmark CPO futures on Bursa Malaysia Derivatives Exchange traded RM49 lower to close at RM1,930 a tonne, below the psychological comfort level of RM2,000.

On the current downtrend, Jaaffar said it is wrong to assume that refiners and planters are engaged in a zero-sum game. “It is a misconception that in times of falling CPO prices, refiners are happy at the expense of planters. As refiners, we are margin players. It doesn’t matter if palm oil prices are high or low.

“In fact, everybody will win if the price of CPO is high. That is the role of the refiners in supporting the price of CPO by being able to buy and process every drop of CPO in the country,” he added.