Focus again on agriculture, former Sabah strongman tells Putrajaya

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KOTA KINABALU: Malaysia’s economy is going down the drain because the federal government continues to implement policies that do not match the country’s capability and potential, said former Sabah chief minister Harris Salleh.

Speaking exclusively to FMT, the veteran politician said Malaysia need not be too dependent on imported food if the government introduced large-scale agriculture.

Currently, Malaysia is importing RM40 billion worth of food, mainly from Australia, to fulfil its domestic demands.

“If we are talking about economic development to reduce food imports, they (the government) have failed,” he said.

He said the only agricultural success story is oil palm and, more recently, the durian which is being planted commercially to take advantage of high demand in China.

Even the generous subsidies to padi growers, he said, had failed to attract more people to become padi farmers because there is no policy in place to educate the people into realizing the potential of farming as an occupation.

“There is not much increase in any other economic field. Oil and gas are gone, with the price plummeting by at least half.

“They claim we have furniture for exports, but not much has happened.

“The problem with our leaders in KL is they like big things. They like to say we are number one here, number one there, but all have failed.

“Look at the 1Malaysia shop. I can show you one in Beaufort. They built a store, spent RM3 million. Till now, after almost three years, it has never been used.”

He also chided the government’s tendency to compete with Singapore, such as constructing an integrated petroleum complex in Pengerang when the right move should be to ensure Singapore’s survival and that it continued to have an amiable relationship with the island state.

He proposed that the government start looking at other crops that could help reduce the country’s dependence on imported food and help people boost their income.

Pointing to planting durians as an option, he said it would take at least three years to bear fruits for export.

“Meantime, we are importing chilli from Australia. Can you imagine? No taste, no aroma, not spicy and they are sold for RM25 per bottle. We can grow chilli here in the meantime,” he said.

All the government has to do, he said, is to provide a centre to process the produce for distribution and for export.

On top of that, he urged the government to fix the price of chillies to encourage villagers to plant it.

Harris said there were many other things Malaysia can concentrate on when it comes to agriculture, instead of focusing on being like Singapore.

“Can we be like Singapore? Singapore is not an agricultural country. It is a trading country.

“Malaysia is not a trading country; it is an agricultural country. So you must accept these facts.

“You try to compete with Singapore … you cannot become like Singapore because the government there is different from the Malaysian government.”

Since agriculture is the future for Malaysia, Harris said the government must redesign its economic policies and conduct studies on why the country is importing more than RM40 billion worth of food every year.

Harris insisted that Sabah is primed for meat and dairy production and the right policy could see the state become the main supplier for the products.

Furthermore, the government has to appoint the right people to be in charge and not base their appointments solely on how close the person is to the politicians.

Nevertheless, Harris said, the whole idea will go down the drain if the people do not want to participate in the economic activity.

The problem has a lot to do with the current pricing arrangement by the market which does not protect the local producers, thus leaving the rural folk discouraged from venturing into anything meaningful, he said.

“They plant something but there is no market. When there is just a bit of a glut in the market, the price plunges. If they produce too much padi, the price is reduced,” he said.

The only way to avoid such problems, he stated, is for the federal government to guarantee the prices through its processing centres.

He insisted that with the current facilities already in place all over the country, it was not hard for the government to use parts of its buildings in the rural areas as processing and distribution centres.

“Then we can talk about exports, talk about being number one.”