By: Prof Datuk Dr Ahmad Ibrahim

Certainly, Malaysians can draw inspiration from Y.M. Raja Tan Sri Alias and share a sense of pride at his many accomplishments. His unerring commitment to rural development and reform truly reflects the Gentleman’s Code #1 – Noblesse Oblige that aims to foster a culture of excellence. 

NOT many would dispute the fact that the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) was a great idea conceived to drive the nation’s rural transformation agenda.

The idea mooted by the nation’s second Prime Minister, the late Tun Abdul Razak, received worldwide applause. Many hailed Felda as a great success in social innovation for the country and maybe even for the world. Many countries submitted requests for help to replicate a similar model in their respective nations. Even to this day, bringing true progress to the rural economy remains a major challenge in many countries.

But implementing the Felda model has not been easy either. Again, credit must be given to the late Tun Razak for having the foresight to appoint the right group of professionals to run this agency.

The early beginnings of Felda were extremely difficult times. But thanks to the hard work of its pioneering managers, the challenges were overcome and Felda eventually emerged as a truly successful experiment in the rural overhaul. In a single stroke, Felda completely changed the poverty equation in the country for the better. 

Tributes are due to the early professionals who literally proved the critics wrong. Yes, when the idea was first mooted, not a few were sceptical of its chances of success. It was indeed a mammoth task. But names like Raja Tan Sri Alias and Datuk Aladdin Hashim, just to cite a few with whom I am familiar, proved those critics wrong.

In my occasional chats with Raja Tan Sri Alias, who was Chairman of Felda for many years, I learned of the many trials and tribulations they faced. These ranged from challenges to motivate the settlers, building the settlements, constructing the supporting infrastructure including roads, and bringing critical utilities like water and electricity to the new Felda towns.

Deciding on the right business model to deliver value to Felda was also paramount. This was because the World Bank loan for the project had to be serviced.

The model adopted involved investing in literally all the vertical and value-added businesses of palm oil and rubber, the two major crops chosen by Felda. The focus was therefore on the downstream and logistics support for the two commodities. Thanks to shrewd and calculating management of the investments, Felda was able not only to deliver good returns to the stakeholders but also fully paid the loan well before the due date.

At the end of his tenure as chairman, Raja Tan Sri Alias managed to steer Felda into a highly successful palm oil conglomerate. It was unfortunate that, as per the government guidelines, he had to be retired at an age when he was still able and productive. This is where we differ from the private plantation groups such as KLK and IOI, just to name a few very well managed ones. The top brains of the companies, especially the Chairman, never really retire unless they have health problems or are no longer able to think straight. In fact, I was told that after retirement, Raja Tan Sri Alias was snapped up by groups in the private sector to continue working for them.

Of late, Felda has been at the receiving end of a lot of grouses from key stakeholders. According to analysts, much of the declining performance has to do with the poor choice of investments. Experts have opined that instead of diversifying into a myriad of investment portfolios, many of which have no direct relation to its core business of plantations, Felda should stay focused on the plantation sector. In fact, there are many areas of the plantation business which can do with some improvement. One often cited is the relatively lower palm oil yield compared to the other plantation groups. This lower yield is mainly attributed to both poor agronomic management as well as poor oil extraction rate in the mills. A small percentage of improvements in such yields will mean a lot to the eventual revenue.

It may be a good time for the newly-appointed management of Felda to look back to its glory days of the 70s to the 90s, especially under the leadership of Raja Tan Sri Alias. There, they can get all the clues on how to make Felda great again.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Raja Tan Sri Alias embodied the code of conduct of aristocrat – Noblesse Oblige – and was successful in overcoming the most difficult obstacles in transforming the lives of the rural community and putting Malaysia on the world map in agriculture. Today, FELDA has become more than just a land development agency. It has improved the living standards of the rural community by providing a stable income and modern infrastructure facilities. Raja Tan Sri Alias says: “I was driven to perform by the thought that achieving the targets set would provide many with an improved lifestyle or at the very least could lessen their burdens. This was one of my primary motivations and until today, the mere sight of thriving, successful FELDA schemes provide reward enough and has been a source of immeasurable satisfaction.”

Raja Tan Sri Alias has had an illustrious career distinguished by his selfless duty, the nobility of spirit (noblesse oblige), leadership skill and intellectual capability. Together with a home-grown management team, he successfully transformed FELDA from a land settlement agency into a huge conglomerate of companies that operate beyond the shores of the country in his quest to add value to the activities of the plantations. During his three and a half decades in FELDA, he collaborated with the private sector in an effort to bring benefits to FELDA, the officers, and the settlers.

Raja Tan Sri Alias belongs to that era of Malaysians whose lives span significant and important periods in the nation’s history, namely the colonial era under British jurisdiction and the post-independence period of self-rule and nation-building. He opted for a life of public service, knowing that the growing nation had a great need for dedicated citizens with education and skills. In doing so he has joined the ranks of select individuals whose actions have left an indelible mark on the lives of many, in particular, the rural community. Certainly, Malaysians can draw inspiration from Raja Alias and share a sense of pride at his many accomplishments. His unerring commitment to rural development and reform truly reflects the Gentleman’s Code #1 – Noblesse Oblige – that aims to foster a culture of excellence.

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