Discovering Malaysia’s YB Tan Sri Dato’ Lee Shin Cheng And The Value Of The Oil Palm

wealthymattersMe? I love visiting malls and market-places and make it a point to visit them every place I go. Nothing gives me a better understanding of the local people and visitors, their likestyle, likes, preferences and aspirations than visiting malls and marketplaces.

Visit Malaysia, and if you are anything like me at all, its unlikely you’ll not likely take in the IOI City Mall. Pause to ask what is IOI ? And you will hear of IOI Corp Berhad, the largest producers of oil palm related products in the world and the name behind many real estate developments in Malaysia and of course of Tan Sri Dato’ Lee Shin Cheng, the oil-palm king, the man behind it all. Dig deeper and you will hear the very inspiring story of his life.

Lee grew up in a rubber estate in Jeram, Kuala Selangor, where his  father ran a small Chinese food shop .When he was eleven years old, Lee stopped schooling to help supplement his family income by selling ice cream from a heavy, metal box perched at the back of an adult’s bicycle. When it rained, the paths in the plantation would get really muddy, welding his bicycle wheels to the ground. Unable to pedal on, the young Lee would support the ice-cream box with his shoulders till help came along. Guarding his ice-cream was a priority for it represented a precious day’s earnings. It was such tough situations that moulded and honed Lee’s strengths and pioneering spirit. Lee eventually went back to school, realising that the only way out of the cycle of hardship was through education. This conviction makes him contribute much for education in Malaysia.

Lee attended Chinese school, so he picked up his English here and there. After reaching Senior Middle Three ,equivalent to Form Five, he applied for a job in Dunlop Estates, an English-based plantation company . At that time, most of the plantation companies were managed by orang putih (White people). He went for an interview but was rejected due to his poor English, even though he could answer almost all their questions on plantations. Lee was very disappointed but he decided to work harder and not give up. He then found a field supervisor job at another smaller plantation company, in 1961,when he was 22. He learnt everything he could and gave his best at work. He rose through the ranks and worked all the way to become a full-fledged estate manager. As a manager, he picked up even more skills from planning planting schedules, estate management and even construction, since he was responsible for building the estate’s labourers’ quarters. All these experiences and skills contributed to his success in the later years.

By 1982 Lee Shin Cheng was in control of a small company and used it to buy a listed gas outfit, Industrial Oxygen Inc. Two years later he set out to create the palm oil industry’s blue-chip player. In 1995 he changed the name to IOI. Thus the rather strange name for this palm oil cum real estate development company of today. In 1989, when he had made enough money, Lee acquired the Dunlop Estate. The very same company that rejected his job application 28 years before. As he puts it :” determination is  very important. We should never give up on our dreams. If we work hard enough, we will achieve our dream or goal one day.” He marks the acquisition of Dunlop Estates was one of the significant achievements in his life. He often retells the story of how some analysts came to see him soon after the acquisition and asked him why was he was buying a plantation company, considered a sunset industry then. His reply then : “Today sunset, tomorrow sunrise.”

Lee adopted a hands-on managerial style at IOI and focused on maximizing palm oil yields. Lee’s walkabouts on IOI’s 152,000 hectares of oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia earned him the “tree talker” moniker among journalists, rival plantation companies, and bankers in Malaysia. In his words, “Each tree has her own characteristics. If one produces well, I  tell her ‘I love you’, if a tree is not productive I tell her that I will give her six to nine months to bear the quota of fruits. Surprisingly, they tend to bloom to expectation.” If they fail to produce, he would the tree, “I’m sorry darling. I will have to chop you down….”

Starting in 1982 as a small local company, within a short span of less than 30 years, IOI Group transformed into one of the world’s leading palm oil players with operations in seven countries and steadily moved up the palm oil value chain over the years and  became the most fully integrated plantation company in the world,a world-class player in the multi-billion global oils and fats industry.

When Lee first started out in the plantation sector in 1961, oil palm was a secondary crop, far behind rubber in its scale and revenue contribution to the Malaysian economy .In the 1970s and 80s, it surpassed rubber to become the most important commodity crop for Malaysia. For many years in the 1980s and 1990s, Malaysia was the largest palm oil producer in the world. During the 1997/98 Asian economic crisis, palm oil was the second largest foreign exchange earner for Malaysia and helped the country to recover quickly from the crisis. Also the palm oil commodity sector has now evolved into a multi-faceted industry with products encompassing many sectors such as food ingredients, personal care, detergents, plastics, energy and health care. Its byproducts, namely, the EFB (empty fruit bunches) fibres, kernel shells and effluent are spawning a whole range of uses covering fuel, paper pulp, furniture and electricity.Lee is very optimistic about the future of palm oil and believes it will be good for the next 100 years because palm oil is environmentally-friendly, sustainable and very versatile, both for industry uses as well as being an edible source.

India and Malaysia were both once British Colonies and both had White-owned plantations. Somewhere along the way, we Indians have started discounting and denigrating plantations. After all we no longer have the thriving Cardamom, Coffee ,Rubber etc plantations of the Raj Era. And see plantations as environmentally damaging, exploitative of labour etc and best left in the past.So hearing of a modern era fortune based out of plantations was indeed an eye opener. Discovering that palm oil might be a substitute input for petroleum by-products was another eye-opener. As they say, ‘live a little, learn a little’ and most definitely travel to get a different perspective on the world.

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Unseen Malaysia | 41 Bucket-list-worthy Destinations

Unseen Malaysia | 41 Bucket-list-worthy Destinations. View the interactive version here


About Keerthika Singaravel

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