Straight from the horse's mouth

Last month, 83-year-old Datuk Leslie Davidson gave an introductory talk at the opening of the Faces exhibition by Malaysian photographer Amri Ginang at London, the United Kingdom.

Davidson had an illustrious career as a planter in Malaysia during his younger days.


In 1960, Leslie Davidson arrived in Sabah to open Tungud Estate in the Labuk Valley on behalf of his employer, Unilever Plantations.

By the 1970s, faced with unproductive yields at his employer's oil palm estates, he vowed to turn things around.

Unlike other estate managers, Davidson was not convinced that palm fruits were wind pollinated despite some high ranking scientists telling him heavy rains were washing the pollen away.

True to his curious and rebellious streak, he made a resolution to "get to the root of the problem".

Davidson initiated a radical taskforce to go on a fact-finding mission to Cameroon, in West Africa, despite scepticism from many in the oil palm industry.

His gut feeling "for a second opinion" proved fruitful when the group of scientists found out that oil palms were pollinated by insects called weevils.

His sceptics were shocked. They had to swallow their pride and eat humble pie. Davidson is not that "crazy" after all.

The migration and breeding of these hard-working weevils to Malaysia was the turning point for the oil palm industry.

Below are Davidson's thoughts ... in his own words.
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I recently joined photographer Amri Ginang and other invited guests at the opening night in paying tribute to the rural farmers of Malaysia.

Anyone who studies these sensitive photographs will see that Amri is passionately involved with the rural and agricultural population of Malaysia. Both he and members of his family have been engaged in the growing of oil palms for some years which is why some of the portraits are of oil palm smallholders.

I myself have also been involved in the oil palm industry, in my case since 1951. For the first 24 years I was a planter in Johor, Sabah, Nigeria and Cameroons, and thereafter, as Chairman of UPI, in London, with the responsibility for plantations in 15 tropical countries in South America, Africa, and Asia.

This has given me a unique opportunity to compare the spectacular economic progress of Malaysia with many other developing countries. 

I was pleased to learn that Amri is a Sabahan by birth, I lived with my family in the interior of Sabah for ten years and my daughter Mary Anne was born in Sandakan.




Also displayed at the exhibition were  some copies of my book East of Kinabalu which tells of the early pioneering days in Sabah, and of the amazing multi-racial group of people with whom I worked in the Labuk Valley.

Perhaps I can read an extract from the Preface: “This book does not set out to be an official history. It has been written largely as an affectionate tribute to some of my old Sabah friends who were involved in the project.

Their names will not be found in the pages of any history book. They are the people whom Rudyard Kipling calls: "Not the rich nor well bespoke, but the mere uncounted folk, of whose life and death is none report or lamentation.”

Nevertheless, they all played a part in the pioneering days of the oil palm in Sabah. Sadly, all of these friends I mentioned in the preface are now dead and I must say so I am getting near to the age when I am due for replanting.

I would like to tell you something about them, and their children and grandchildren, with whom I am in frequent contract through Facebook. Many are still connected with the oil palm industry. It is a great pleasure to see how well they have prospered, over the years.

I must also say a few words about the role the oil palm has played in the economic development of Malaysia. My friends would, I know, be shocked and disappointed to learn that the oil palm which played such a beneficial role in their lives is depicted by the UK media as being something akin to the Black Death.

Over the past fifty years, the oil palm industry has become the backbone of the Malaysian economy, directly providing employment to over 800,000 workers in plantations and smallholdings. Importantly these jobs are in the heart of the countryside thus stemming the urban drift which is such a major problem in many tropical countries.

At a time when civil war and violence is rampant throughout the countries of the Middle East and Africa, the stabilising effect of the increased rural prosperity in Malaysia and Indonesia, the region with the highest Islamic population in the world, is something which has often been largely ignored by the Western media.

In terms of food production, the growth of the oil palm industry in Southeast Asia has been the greatest success story in the history of Tropical Agriculture. The oil palm produces more  oil per ha. than any other oil crop. That is 10 times more than soya bean.

It produces 32% of the world’s oils/fats but uses only 5.5% of the land under oil crops. The production from Malaysia in 2014 was close to 20 million tonnes. Over 30% of this is produced by smallholders. This provides the basic vegetable oil requirements for 1.3 billion Asian people, at current rates of consumption.

However, the development forced the Malaysian government to make some difficult decisions on the balance between poverty on the one hand and the environment on the other.

What is most satisfying ecologically is that this quantity of food is being produced from a perennial tree crop which provides a year-round sustainable cover and which has nearly the same rate of consumption of CO2 as tropical rainforest.

One wonders how the requirements of the above 1.3 billion people would have been met if Malaysia had been preserved as a giant nature reserve, serving as a pleasure ground for eco-tourists from Europe. 

Hundreds of thousands would be unemployed and millions throughout Asia would have suffered from serious malnutrition and relying on food hand-outs from the West.

It is an interesting thought that if the Malaysian Government had decided to plant soya bean as Brazil did, rather than palms, it would, to produce the same quantity of vegetable oil, have meant the felling of almost the entire forests of the country.

As it is, today oil palms occupy only 15% of Malaysia’s ground area. With 62% of forest cover it is still the second most heavily forested country in the world. The millions of ha of forest provides for Malaysia’s abundant wildlife.

It is a striking fact that there is no evidence of the extinction of a single species of wildlife in Malaysia: unlike the situation in UK where the powerful agricultural lobby has over the centuries brought about the extinction of such mammal species as wolves, beavers, reindeer and some species of bird life, like the Sea Eagle.

As a keen environmentalist, I believe that the introduction of the oil palm, by diverting peasants from earning their daily bread by growing low yielding annual crops, has done more to save the remaining jungles of Malaysia than any other factor. The motto of the green parties should be “Save the forests, – grow oil palms."


Perhaps however rather than by statistics, the impact of the oil palm on the rural scene might be better demonstrated by looking at the affect it has had on one rural area namely the Labuk Valley, and its inhabitants.

When I arrived in the colony of North Borneo in 1960, to develop a plantation on a long abandoned Tobacco estate, no palm oil had been produced from anywhere in Borneo. 

The Governor, Sir William Goode told me that the Labuk Valley was the least developed region in the state and ,in fact, a great embarrassment to the Colonial Government.

The Tobacco estates had closed down in 1904, leaving the land to revert to scrub or secondary forest. Their ex-workers, mostly from Indonesia were simply abandoned and left to fend for themselves. 

The locals, scattered along the riverbanks were desperately poor. They survived by growing small patches of hill paddy and collecting jungle produce like rattans, bamboo and damar. I calculated that this provided them with an income of less than 50 cents a day.

Health conditions were very bad: malaria and intestinal disorders were endemic. There were no medical or dental facilities. Since there was no school in the region upstream from Klagan, the literacy rate was close to zero. There was no road access. This would seem to be the exact scenario which the European NGOs are campaigning for.

The injection of several million dollars in wages in the first 10 years produced an amazing transformation. The difference between a plantation investment and an industrial investment is that the initial expenditure does not go into importing machinery, but on hand clearing, draining, road making, and planting which puts wages directly into the hands of the workers.

Some of the locals were directly employed by us. Others started to earn a good income growing vegetables for selling to our multi-national labour force. In later years they became oil palm smallholders.

If Sir William Goode could see the region as it is today, he would be amazed. The Labuk is now one of the most busy and prosperous areas in the State, connected by road to Sandakan, and Kota Kinabalu. There is now an airstrip, a post office: a large and thriving secondary school, with a computer section, and a cottage hospital providing emergency medical and dental facilities. Malaria has been completely eradicated.

To see how this prosperity has affected the locals, let me tell you about my friend Tasman who is mentioned many times in my book. He was my very first employee. He was the grandson of one of the Banjarese Indonesians brought over by the tobacco company in 1898.

Tasman was a very intelligent man, whom I admired. After a few years in our employment, rising to become a senior overseer, he left us to go into business. He got a loan from us to purchase a kumpit and he earned good money shipping our kernels to Sandakan port. In 1970 he planted a 50 ha. smallholding at Kampong Bayok down river.

The palms grew well but when they matured many of the flowers were not pollinated and bunches simply rotted on the trees. Yields were very low. The palms had to be hand-pollinated which was expensive.

The oil palm was not a profitable crop and no other locals wanted to plant palms in the Labuk. When our company solved the problem by bringing pollinating insects from Africa in 1980, it spread rapidly to every palm in the country. Yields improved dramatically, and the palms provided Tasman with a steady income. Many more smallholders then took up the crop.

Tasman and I remained friends long after I left the Labuk. I was so proud when he sent me an extract from the local paper announcing that he had won a prize from the MPOPA for having the highest yield per ha. of any Sabah smallholder. 

When he died three years ago at the age of 81, he was a prosperous man. He had been to Mecca three times; He owned a town house in Sandakan; Two of his daughters were col|ege-educated, and his eldest son had become a Police Inspector.

I could go on to tell you the histories of my Malaysian friends.

Titi’s daughter Susan now owns two restaurants in London. Ah Moi, the niece of Tumpeh is a very successful business woman, on the board of a company in Japan. 

Kunganathen’s eldest son Sangarasingam is the G.M of a large Plantation Co. in Indonesia. He sent his daughter Shobana to study law at Lincoln’s Inn in London and she is now a lawyer in KL. I got a photo of her new baby boy Sachin recently. This made me feel very, very old since Sachin’s great-great-great grandmother was working on Pamol Kluang when I started there as a trainee in 1951.

If not for the success of the oil palm, Malaysia’s golden crop, all of these people would still be scraping a living from jungle produce in the Labuk Valley.



The Faces exhibition in London captures the spirit of the rural people of Malaysia better than I have tried to do in a thousand words.

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