The recent rise in cost of living coupled with low returns from uncertain harvests in the oil palm and rubber sectors over the past few years have upped the pressure on Felda settlers, the majority of whom live in rural areas far from city centres.
Those who spoke to MalaysiaNow also voiced disappointment at what they described as a deterioration of their relationship with the Felda management.
For them, their experience of late has been that of a community pushed to the margins.
Arifin Husin, the former village chief at Felda Palong Dua in Gemas, Negeri Sembilan, said the initiatives and assistance offered to the settlers appeared to have diminished, while efforts to maintain their facilities have been on the decline.
On top of that, the settlers are still smarting from the recent decision to increase the allowance of the Felda Global Ventures (FGV) chairman.
“Before this, whenever we had problems, Felda would always offer us assistance in the form of initiatives and so on,” Arifin said.
Now, though, even the Hari Raya aid which used to see each household receive RM1,000 is far less than it used to be.
And for the past two or three years, he said, there have been zero efforts by Felda to meet with the settlers for an exchange of views or to offer an explanation of the drop in assistance.
Arifin said not many might realise that Felda settlers were having a tough time since palm oil prices had been doing well.
As for those who work on rubber plantations, he added, the situation has been even harder.
“There are two groups of Felda settlers — those who work on palm oil plantations and those who are rubber tappers.
“It’s the rubber tappers who are facing the most significant problems. The workforce is shrinking, harvests are not as good anymore, and the prices are going down,” he said.
At Felda Palong Dua itself, another big problem for the settlers is the water supply, especially during festive seasons when their relatives return to the area to celebrate.
It is understood that the trouble with their water supply began a few years ago. At that point, though, the settlers were promised that it would be taken care of through the construction of two giant water tanks.
According to Abdul Rahman Ahmad, the chairman of the federal village development and security committee for Felda Palong Dua, construction of the tanks began in 2019 and was supposed to end after two years.
But due to the movement control orders implemented during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the project was suspended and remains in limbo until today.
It is their unhappiness with problems such as this that has fuelled their discontent with the recent increase in allowance for the FGV chairman and board members.
On June 24, FGV passed 13 resolutions at its annual general meeting (AGM) which saw the allowance of its non-executive chairman increased from RM300,000 to RM480,000 per year.
This is equivalent to a boost of RM15,000 a month — a move that will continue until the next AGM.
Meanwhile, the remuneration of the non-executive director was raised from RM120,000 to RM150,000 a year — an increase of RM2,500 per month.
This was met with anger from the settlers who urged FGV — an entity owned by Felda by virtue of an 80% stake — to reconsider the decision.
Arifin and Rahman said the settlers were not completely against the increase, only that they believed it had come at an inappropriate time.
They said Malaysians in general, especially the Felda settlers, were facing pressure due to the rising cost of living.
When FGV announced the decision to raise the allowances of the executives, they said, it had come across as a self-centred move.
Felda had on June 24 defended its decision, saying the board of directors had gone a long time without a review of their allowance.
The move was also linked to FGV’s positive performance which had brought in after-tax profits of RM1.175 billion.
“The price of palm oil doesn’t go up every day,” Arifin said. “But when the allowances go up, there is no way they will ever come back down.
“We have been affected not because of the drop in palm oil prices but because the cost of goods is going up. Chicken, cooking oil, flour — everything is more expensive now. What are we supposed to eat?”
He said Felda settlers were not interested in riches but only wanted an improvement in their quality of life. If they were given this, he said, Felda and FGV could do as they pleased in terms of allowances.
“Where else do we have to go?” he added. “This is our home.
“Don’t just think about profits. Think about the settlers — their harvests come from us.”
MalaysiaNow has contacted Felda and is awaiting a response.