One of the most inglorious aspects of the PH government was the unquestioning campaign on behalf of Malaysia’s internationally criticised palm oil industry by the former primary industries minister Teresa Kok (who this week also baselessly implicated Nora Quoirin’s own parents in her death).
Putting the blame on foreigners and claiming perfection for all things Malaysian may cheer up powerful local players and pander to national pride, but it doesn’t win customers or the argument in the face of facts. More to the point it doesn’t address cruel suffering and environmental vandalism caused by greed.
Over the past two years public money has been poured into advertising, propaganda and legal actions designed to persuade Malaysians themselves that the concerns voiced throughout the major western markets about the abuses in the industry were merely the work of commercial rivals.
The campaign may have worked on its target domestic audience, but it has just further blinkered Malaysians against the concern and disgust felt by the rest of the world who have seen copious evidence of logging vandalism and human rights abuses.
Teresa Kok would have had you believe that no endangered species – not one orang utan and not one tiger – has been affected by the vast clearances in Borneo and West Malaysia and that not one immigrant worker has been abused by companies who import some of the world’s most vulnerable people to work on their plantations.
It isn’t true. How could it be? At least some effort to recognise and mitigate the problems and worst abuses would have been warmly met by buyers, but all Malaysia has provided has been ludicrous denial and angry rejection.
A directive to restrict the use of palm oil for biofuel was enacted by Europe in 2019, provoked by the widespread concerns of the region’s own consumers. The response was a legal stand at the World Trade Organisation by Malaysia, claiming discrimination on the grounds that other biofuels are equally bad for the environment. It is a thin justification after so much consistent denial.
Meanwhile and inevitably, the issue of glaring human rights abuses has also come to the fore and is now finally proving to be the most embarrassing and effective block against Malaysia’s top product, after years during which the local authorities turned a blind eye or rather a dirty profit over the treatment of migrant workers.
On this matter there can be no equivalence. You don’t hear of hundreds of thousands of trafficked foreign workers trapped and toiling on the soybean plantations of America or in the rapeseed fields of Europe, although the growing evidence of instances of modern slavery is at least recognised in these places as a major issue to be combated.
By contrast there has been constant, valid concern about the huge numbers of migrant workers in Malaysia. It has been a subject repeatedly raised by Sarawak Report and others and finally thanks to the efforts of other journalists a dossier of hard evidence has reached the authorities in the United States.
Against Teresa Kok’s baseless ads it is that hard evidence which has won out with the U.S. Customs and Borders Protection, who were petitioned last year to ban offending companies and have over the past months been steadily moving to do just that.
The latest company to find its palm oil imports impounded by the United States is none other than the Malaysian government controlled giant Sime Derby, which has stretched its tentacles and plantations not only throughout Malaysia and Borneo but into Africa, where local people have also raised their objections and concerns over the rolling out of vast plantations. Imports are now effectively banned by the world’s richest market for palm oil products.
The measure taken by the US Customs & Border Agency at the end of December is a “withhold release order,” allowing it to impound all shipments by Sime Darby that are suspected of being linked to forced labour and child labour. Announcing it the US spokesman placed a shameful burden on Malaysia’s reputation:
“American consumers can help end modern slavery by choosing to buy products they know are ethically and humanely sourced.”
And of course this is not the first major Malaysian conglomerate to be hit with such a ban. Felda Global Ventures was outlawed some weeks earlier as a result of the same major investigation into abuse of workers carried out by the news agency AP. The worst treated workers on these plantations are the most vulnerable, female migrants and their children.
There is a right way to address these matters and a wrong way. Malaysia can indulge in more angry denial, more vilification of the messengers from the worlds of journalism and NGOs, more bogus propaganda and all the rest or it can address the problem and seek re-entry into markets where customers are rightly concerned about the sourcing of products connected to slavery and exploitation.
Malaysian employs one of the largest migrant worker populations in the world, which is one of the industries most open to scandal and abuse. It ought to be alert to those dangers, monitor closely and root out greedy and cruel employers, dirty slavery rings and official profiteers from the realms of government.
Instead, we have so far seen only resentment from the business and professional elites whose margins have benefitted from the cruel sweat of illegal exploitation.
Each time Sarawak Report writes about this problem and calls on Malaysia’s authorities to act rather than deny the situation a crowd of angry comments rail against foreigners who criticise this ‘perfect’ industry.
We have got used to that response. However, after years of this attitude and approach the consequences are coming through – Malaysian palm oil is now notorious worldwide and its markets are shutting down.
Malaysia must do something to address this issue or end up losing a growing number of the world’s key markets for their tarnished ‘golden crop’.