FOR how long can Malaysia go on taking a reactive and defensive approach on the palm oil issue. Most of our responses to the attacks in the West against palm oil are to complain and protest about discrimination against, banning and boycotting its use.
Palm oil is a RM80 billion export industry and a major component of our economy. With the glut and low prices caused by the attacks, the stakes are high. It is affecting the livelihood of rural people besides big industry players.
In the early 1990s, as the chief executive officer of the Malaysian Timber Council, I devised and coordinated a strategy to combat the anti-tropical timber campaign in Europe.
By the time Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad went to the global earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, we had largely turned the tables on our critics on our forest management. This issue has many similarities with our palm oil crisis.
From 2013 to 2016, I also represented the world largest think-tank and risk analysis firm, the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), headquartered in London and New York.
So what advice should I give on our palm oil crisis?
We should first understand the nature and complexity of the problem that it is not just about business or trade (with many big competitors) but about health, environment and social (like tropical timber) and politics in the West, including subtle racism (like tropical timber). Misreading critical components such as the environmental and political aspects may confuse us on how to fight this “war” in a large and unfriendly market like Europe.
We would also need to do an honest SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis on this issue. We need to identify correctly our “friends, enemies and fence sitters” (which are dynamic) in the targeted market.
Before we fight back, we would need to address any significant weaknesses in the production of palm oil.
For example, in the tropical timber case, the penalty for illegal logging in Malaysia (inherited from the British) in the early nineties was a joke (something like RM2,000) when in Thailand or Indonesia then, it was the death penalty for serious cases. So our laws were amended to show that we were serious about protecting our forests, otherwise no one would take us seriously.
The first rule about public relations is to demonstrate sincerity. The public in the West does not mind if we are not perfect as long as we are sincere and upfront about the issue.
We have to accept that we are not fighting on a level playing field with the odds stacked against us from the start. It’s like a David fighting a Goliath. So we need to be very smart and strategic if we are to win this war eventually. At the same time, we must explore plan B on developing other potential markets and plan C on crop diversification, as suggested by Dr Mahathir to mitigate the attacks against palm oil.
On the purported destruction of the environment caused by oil palm plantations, the West seems to be setting the agenda and defining the terms to suit them.
For example, they define an oil palm plantation as not a forest. Can they prove that clearing of land for oil palm is worse than that for other crops such as soybeans and rapeseed from carbon absorption (climate change) and biodiversity aspects.
When it suited their interests, the West never complained about the clearing of forest land for growing rubber trees (with rubber needed for condoms and gloves) even though rubber plantations and oil palm plantations are quite similar.
The emotional orang utan issue, used effectively against oil palm plantations, needs to be addressed.
There are also other environmentally friendly by-products of palm oil production such as biomass, which needs to be emphasised again and again.
Our opponents continue to smear, perhaps more subtly now, the health value of palm oil despite scientific studies in the West showing the health superiority of palm oil over its rivals.
Therefore, we need to counteract them on their own inconsistencies, point by point.
We should no longer take the defensive but the offensive with sound arguments. A proactive, comprehensive and offensive strategy is the only way forward.
The biggest challenge of the strategy to disseminate our arguments in Europe is how to penetrate their media, non-governmental organisations, government bodies and politicians and make our case on palm oil heard loud and clear there.
Any strategy must include having honest, competent and reliable representatives or agents based in Europe, who can provide accurate feedback and intelligence and who knows how to lobby there.
The writer is a corporate strategist and political analyst on local and global issues