Poser on whether Malaysia is doing it right for palm oil

Augustine Ong Soon Hock

Zaidi Azmi
Written by Zaidi Azmi

Malaysia faced a massive disinformation campaign against palm oil in 80s, which  was initiated by the American Soybean Association (ASA).

The edible oil war, which broke out when the country was the largest palm oil exporter, lasted three years.

While ASA initially had the upper hand, Malaysia did not sit idly by.

Unlike ASA, Malaysia did not spend billions on catchy propaganda but it instead sent a small team to fight on ASA’ home turf while enlisting renowned scientists to do more research in order to counter the smear campaign against palm oil.

In the end ASA apologised, admitting that it had “resorted to such negative promotion” in highlighting the positives of soy oil. A “peace treaty” was signed between the ASA and Malaysia.

Today, Malaysia faces a similar smear campaign by the European Union (EU), but unlike the 1986-1989 struggle, the present one has been going on for almost two decades.

So what gives?

KUALA LUMPUR — April 1, 2019: He will turn 85 this September, but Professor Tan Sri Augustine Ong Soon Hock has no intention of retiring, particularly from that of his life’s dedication; palm oil.

Last year, Ong published a ground-breaking discovery in the edible oil field. Palm oil, Ong said in an interview with The Mole, is “just as healthy as olive oil.”

This was so despite the polar opposite of fat saturation between palm and olive oils, the former is in the higher end of the spectrum, Ong enthusiastically explained.

“We have carried out studies in Malaysia, China and Australia. All have yielded consistent results,” said Ong, adding that the study done in Australia was conducted by researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

“I thought my work would help our palm oil industry’s image but sadly no one seems to be interested in it,” lamented Ong, who led the small team of scientists who won the war against a ruthless palm oil smear campaign in the 1980s.

Ong, who is the president of the Malaysian Oil Scientists’ and Technologists’ Association was right on that note, as findings of his research would have added more oomph to Malaysia’s ongoing battle against the anti-palm oil campaign by the European Union (EU).

Similar to the earlier smear campaign by the American Soybean Association (ASA), the current one by the EU had also pushed a similar narrative about the palm oil industry; that it is bad for health and the environment.

However, while the ASA had focused more on palm oil’s already-debunked negative side effects, the EU’s propaganda relied heavily on the alleged rampant and massive deforestation caused by palm oil cultivation.

In August last year, controversial environmental advocacy group Greenpeace International, aired a cartoon video that highlighted the “dark side of the palm oil industry.”

The one-minute video titled, Rang-Tan: The story of dirty palm oil, depicted how habitats of Orangutan and indigenous peoples were being ruined by the palm oil industry, hence the need to boycott it.

Despite Greenpeace and the EU consistently claiming that a ban on palm oil would be purely an environmental concern, Ong saw such a ban as being merely a form of trade war with EU trying to protect its rapeseed oil industry.

Ong’s contention that the deforestation argument against palm oil was a mere front was supported by latest available World Bank‘s figures, which stated that Malaysia, despite being the second largest palm oil exporter, still has 67.6 per cent of its forest compared to France’s 31 per cent, Germany’s 32.7 per cent, Italy’s 31.6 per cent and the United Kingdom’s 13 per cent.

“The one industry that uses a lot of land and produces a lot of carbon dioxide is the cattle industry. But they don’t attack it because they want their beef. They don’t attack because it does not compete with their rapeseed oil industry,” said Ong.

According to World Bank, the livestock industry uses most of the world’s agricultural land, at 71.27 per cent or 3.5 billion hectares whereas the oil palm industry only used 0.32 per cent of the world’s agricultural land.

The EU has been waging the proverbial war on palm oil since 2001 but it only gained traction over the past few years.

Last year, the European Parliament passed a resolution to phase out palm oil exports from the EU biofuel programme from 2021. 

Responding to the move, Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok repeatedly lambasted the EU on, essentially, how heartless such a ban, which will greatly affect the livelihood of many Malaysian palm oil smallholders.

However, there was no indication that Malaysia will employ the same tactic that it used to combat the smear campaign in the 1980s. Instead, the government had lunched a massive awareness campaign that targets Malaysians.

Among others, two weeks ago, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad urged Malaysians to profess their love for palm oil by consuming a tablespoon of it per day while Kok presented a laundry list of PR blitz that her ministry intends to do.

The campaign also includes forming the Palm Oil Ambassadors Club, organising college-level excursions to palm oil plantations, wall-paintings as well as video and photography competitions across the country.

“I myself knew about the benefits of palm oil when I became the minister. It was funny, before this I used to fry my fishes with olive oil. The people must know more about our palm oil so that they can help defend the industry,” said Kok in an interview with TV3 three weeks ago.

Although Ong remarked that the government’s initiatives could be useful, he believed that there were more effective countermeasures to deal with the EU’s anti-palm oil movement and one of it includes getting European experts to talk about the science of palm oil.

“You have to understand human psychology. In a white man’s world, let the white man speak. If Malaysians talk, then people will think that we’re bias. That is why it is important to be friends with scientists from across the globe.

“When we presented one of our palm oil research in China, the journalists there asked whether their scientists were involved in the research. Luckily they did. So we asked them to speak up,” said Ong.

As he believes that the anti-palm oil movement is just a form of trade war, Ong said the government could also strike a trade deal with the EU.

“We’ll import some of their rapeseed oil and they’ll import our palm oil. We are not selling them poisons, we are selling food. There is enough data to show that palm oil is not bad and that it does not cause heart diseases,” said Ong.



About the author

Zaidi Azmi

Zaidi Azmi

If Zaidi Azmi isn’t busy finding his way in the city, this 26-year-old northern kampung boy can be found struggling to make sense of the Malaysian political scene. Zaidi can be reached at zaidiazmi91@gmail.com.