Sawit Boss: ‘We Make Sustainability Work For Us’

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Published on: Sunday, May 05, 2019

By: Kan Yaw Chong


Sustainability is the great debate of this age. Early April, I heard Sawit Kinabalu Group CEO, Masri Pudin, articulate his successful case of sustainability in practice at a micro company level under his charge.

That triggered my interest to dig deep into this fast-rising phenomenon.

Claimed by nearly every “Tom, Dick and Harry” nowadays, has it become just a fad or is it for real? 

What does it mean actually?  The only thing clear so far is vastly differing opinions. One advocate said he googled the word and found 1.25 million results!

The most popular concept exposed

Even the most popular definition from the Brundtland Report 1983 – “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs” – has been criticised as mere inspirational but not practical, not precise, subjective, not objective, not measurable, so no one agrees on what it means and hence controversy-ridden from Day One.

The  alleged concealed error is it suggests overriding priority be accorded to solving human poverty over environmental sustainability.  

That’s no surprise it is flawed given most human constantly suffer from mistaken notions. 

The big mistaken notion is environment is a constraint to development rather than the mother of it.

Dominant dependency: Human subsystem depends on larger environmental system

What is clear now is in a complex macro system of interdependency among three famous pillars of sustainability namely environment, economic and social sustainability, the dominant dependency is the human system is a dependent subsystem of the larger system it lives within: the environment. It follows that the priority must be the environment, not vice versa, according to   

The argument is in the big order of things, if the environment collapses, both social and economic systems will also collapse not vice versa.

Old definition designed to lead problem solvers astray 

So the website actually alleged that the Brundtland definition was designed deliberately by vested interest to lead problem solvers astray, with this question insinuating manipulation:  guess who “development” benefits most, even more than developing nations? Why large for-profit corporation, of course.

Short and sweet new definition

Exposing Brundtland, came out with a short and sweet definition which reads: “Sustainability is the ability to continue a defined behaviour indefinitely.”

The application is macro as it argues that environmental sustainability must be society’s top priority instead of social and economic priority as in Brundtland.  

So in fact of three sustainability problems among three interdependent pillars – social, economic and environment sustainability, what counts first is sustainability of the larger environmental system upon which the lesser human social and economic subsystem depend.  The latest comment from WWF CEO Mike Barret affirms primacy must be given to the environment: “All our ecosystems are in trouble,” he said.

The goal: Complete sustainability  

The goal is now complete sustainability under the principle of the Three Pillars of Sustainability – social, economic and environmental sustainability which must be solved for true sustainability to materialise.  

Sawit Kinabalu’s own invention – fresh fruit bunch loader. 

New sustainability gurus: Defeat the parasitic relationship

Many people see the truism that the environment does not need humans at all but humans depends entirely on the environment to survive.    

Yet humans who are totally dependent on his environment relate to it in a parasitic manner, extracting what social and economic benefits they can and leaves a sorry trail of destruction,  creating a global environmental sustainability problem that threatens the existence of life on earth as the UN has just issued a warning that the biodiversity crisis is about to put humanity to trouble.         

So now we see the emergence of a new crop of sustainability gurus out to articulate for the defeat the predatory relation by proving the dominant dependence of the larger environmental sustainability pillar where the chase for lasting social and economic benefits in the lesser pillars are futile unless they behave in a mutual, symbiotic or a commensal manner which inflicts no harm. 

So, sustainability in the infinite sense puts environmental permanency upfront, that is it must start with  the ability to maintain rates of harvest of renewable resources, with indefinite answer to non-renewable resources pollution creation; economically the ability to support a defined level of production and the ability to function at a defined level of social wellbeing. 

CEO argues for culture of sustainability 

In that sense, Masri Pudin, Group CEO of Sawit Kinabalu, impressed me for the first time that I was listening to a guru of sustainability because he was talking about the his real practical successes on the ground encompassing the three pillars, during a press tour in the beginning of April.       

Pudin said: “In Sawit Kinabalu we believe strongly in promoting a culture of sustainability. Sustainability is the word that we want to promote among our whole company. 

“Today, a lot of people have heard about sustainability as in RSPO (Roundtable Sustainable Palm Oil) and MSPO (Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil), the biggest part of which is sustainability.”

He explained: “Sustainability Culture in Sawit Kinabalu which we are promoting means various areas considered crucial to sustaining the company.” 

70 per cent of Sawit Kinabalu’s plantation are mechanised – fresh fruit bunched loaded by machine.

Maintain Productivity

“Number One, in terms of productivity, we have been working very hard to improve our productivity in this company.

Productivity you can only get it if the condition of your own business and other businesses are productive. By that I mean your yield or your production must improve.

“In this respect, for the last 10 years or more, we in Sawit Kinabalu have been working very hard on how we can improve our productivity.

“First of all, land is limited, there is no more land. Secondly, there is government commitment to zero deforestation from now on which actually means the government is committed to the principle of no more planting in new areas.”

Planting policy: Replanting without fail

“So the Planting Policy of Sawit Kinabalu must be there to fall in tandem. Tomorrow you ask the Minister (Teresa Kok, Minister of Primary Industries), we also talk about replanting. If your area is getting old you have to chop it out and replace them with new plants.

“In this company, we started replanting in 2000, every year without fail we actually replant about 3 to 4 per cent of our area, that is the sequence in the industry.

“Because the palms last only 25 years now, maybe a little bit less and because of that we need a combination of palms of zero year, one year, two years, three years and up to 25 years.

“Otherwise, like some companies all the tress are old and then they are in trouble, so we need to have a good combination of what we call Oil Palm Age Profile.

“Every year we have to plant 4pc of the areas so that we have the young to succeed the old, we have done that for the last 20 years now since 2000.

“Without fail we replant about 4 per cent of our area – 4pc, 4pc every year without fail.”

“That’s how we maintain our productivity,” Pudin articulated. 

Pudin and a thrilled Teresa at a company briefing. Also seen in background is Bentong MP Wong tack, chairman of Malaysian Timber Board. 

Cost of production must be brought down

“There are other practices we have to do – cost of production. We have to bring down cost of production throughout our systems. By doing that we managed to improve this company,” Pudin asserted. 

“In terms of production before 2012, our yield actually was three to four times below average.” 

Pudin conceded one time he was shy even being associated with Sawit. 

“In KL for conference presentation, people asked me where I’m from. I just said I am from Sabah but not from Sawit Kinabalu because our performance was two to three times below average. 

“But with efforts thrown in, by 2011 or 2012 we were already above Sabah average. We continued to improve and now our yield is about two times above Sabah average. 

“We are above average in terms of production of fruit bunches. As I said in my opening remarks, I am a Sabahan, our main objective is to stay tall. We have to be able to tell people Sabahans can do as good as some of them,” Pudin continued. 

Objective: Uplift pride among Sabahans

“So this is our objective, on top of making money we want to uplift our pride among Sabahans. I think we are doing ok, we anticipate that we will be able to improve further our production. In fact, last year we were selected one of the most highly productive estates in Malaysia,” Pudin claimed.  

Profit and sustainability inseparable

“There is one fact I always mention under sustainability – profitability,” Pudin said.

“You must make money otherwise you cannot sustain yourself. In no time whatever you do you cannot help the Orangutan or forest if you don’t have money right. And I think in no time you no longer exist in this world. So our objective Number 1: you must to be able to sustain your business to sustain this company.”

Care for people 

“Number 2: Care for people. A lot of people don’t know we have been doing that also – care for people.

“But Sawit Kinabalu has been working on this since 2012 when we started our Labour Retention Strategy,” Pudin said.

“You see to be able to sustain you need workers. To be able to sustain your business especially oil palm you need workers.”

“Unfortunately workers a lot of them come from foreign countries, the majority from Indonesia, I think 75pc of our workers are foreign the majority from Indonesia but you can’t take them for granted,” noted Pudin.

Workers’ housing – surpassing average standards. 

Labour Retention Policy defeats labour shortage  

“Workers won’t stay if you don’t look after them well,” Pudin noted 

“A lot of people complain having difficulties getting workers. This company I don’t try to be proud or whatever but the reality is that we managed to resolve our worker shortage for so long now.”

“Yes, some of the estates have this shortage problem but overall we managed to have workers compared to other plantations. Why? Because in this plantation industry, if you don’t have your retention strategy you’ll be in trouble.”

“A lot of people complain but yet they are not doing anything, put the blame on the government and government policy.”

“One time we were just like anybody else. Every year we had our worker abscondments. Imagine Sawit has 11,000 workers, sometimes like 30pc people ran away, which means to say you have to recruit another 3,500 every year to replace them – not easy task to do  right?  Very, very difficult.”  

“The fact is you have to look after your own workers. That’s why we put up our Workers Retention Policy back to 2012!”

Number 1: Look after workers’ home

“Number 1, under this Labour Retention Strategy, we had to take care of their home – that is, take home pay must be there.

“No worker will stay in estate if their take home pay is not there, they say we are coming over here to earn money, nothing else, so if you don’t look after them well, then you are in trouble.

“But this issue we have been sharing with other plantations and companies, including how we manage our workers.”

Make sure pay in competitive 

“One way we can actually do it is make sure that the workers earn consistent above the minimum wage,” Pudin said. 

“This is not something we just talk about but we have a system on how we can ensure every month these people are earning above the minimum average.”

“Of course, they need to work to earn that money. If you turn up only 15 days out of 25 then don’t blame us that your take-home pay is that. But we understand that this is the key – you need to make sure that their take home pay is competitive. 

“This is challenging but this is why Sawit Kinablu so far has managed to minimise abscondment because the pay is competitive.”  

Number 2: Provide superior housing 

“Number 2, housing. You look around, on the way up (Sungei Pin Estate headquarter), that is not staff housing, that is workers’ quarters. Other company people come to our plantation they say, ‘wah – are these workers quarters?’ 

“But, yes, those are all workers’ quarters – our current standards, that is quarters we are using three rooms 12’ x 12’. We must make sure housing is important. I think we surpassed the requirement in our planning for quarters. There are some minimum standards because these standards are for the next 50 years.” 

Own ambulance 

“On top of that you see the ambulance that does not belong to the Health Department. Our target is if anyone is sick we can pick them up and send them to the hospital.  

Key difference in management of workers 

“And one particular important issue in managing our workers – workers in Sabah, they don’t just come from Indonesia. They come mostly from Sulawesi, this is different from West Malaysia where foreign workers prefer to come mostly alone without the family, for what reason I don’t know… maybe government requirement. But in Sabah, no, they prefer to come over here with their family members. 

“Of course, to be able to bring them over here it is very costly because you need to sponsor these people. Our policy we sponsor 100pc of our workers’ administrative costs plus even the non-working dependants. So for Sabah our workers are not the same as West Malaysia, people from Bangladesh coming over to work without family but not Sulawesi where the sponsorship costs will be high and the housing. 

“These young people, you must also take care of their future. They cannot go to government schools so what we are doing is we are actually providing over 30 learning centres in all our estates. 

“We work with the Indonesia Consulate on their systems, together with the Sabah Education Department. That’s how we manage our workers. We must take care of workers. If you don’t have workers you are to be blamed.”

Care for the environment 

“Number 3: The environment – care of the environment. This is something new. People talk about conservation, deforestation, people talk about wildlife and orangutan the most sensitive part of it. 

“But many people don’t know, we started the Round Table Sustainable Palm Oil in 2012. By 2000 we had already started our conservation before RSPO. The conservation area now we must take care of have expanded to about 2,600 hectares with an allocated cost of RM100 million. 

“This is our contribution to the people of Sabah on the environment but now we are expanding the activity. In any other part of our company we are also allocating areas which cannot be planted, for example, riparian areas, steep areas above 25 degrees, low lying areas which we classify all those un-plantable areas as conservation areas. We also have to plant trees for the orangutan.”  

The imperative of mechanisation

“Number 4: Machinery is something you can’t afford not to have. Without machines, you are in trouble. In 1992 we started our mechanisation and we continued to improve. Today, 70pc of our areas are mechanised except in some areas planted long ago, the rest – new areas and replanted areas can be mechanised. 

“We bring in the machines, our initial mechanisation started early 1992 but we and kept improving the system. That’s something we learnt – to be able to reduce cost because what we learned we improved, overcoming problems, using our own machineries developed by Sawit Kinabalu, our own design, our first in Malaysia invention which we can share with others.”

Source: Daily Express

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