Ahmad Shabery: Time to fall in love, appreciate Felda as it embarks on future-ready initiatives

It was a gathering among media practitioners and senior editors at Restoran Seri Kunyit, an authentic Malay eatery in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

Guests were greeted by the pungent smell of durian, freshly harvested from the farms. That turned out to be the main attraction on the menu.

Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) chairman Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek hosted the affair at the restaurant, which also belonged to Felda. Right after savouring the durian, he went on stage to address the guests.

Ahmad Shabery started by reminding everyone of his love affair with durian when he was Malaysia’s Agriculture and Agro-based Industry minister between 2015 and 2018.

“When I was the minister, I told people that durian brought joy. It brought happiness. When I was young, and each time I headed back to my hometown, my mother made it a point to buy durian. It was a symbol of love,” said Ahmad Shabery.

“And when I became minister, I saw the potential of durian. No one buys a durian and eats it alone. They share the durian with their family members, their neighbours, their friends. You’d be called crazy if you bought durian and ate it quietly in the kitchen all by yourself,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

That passion of his saw his ministry creating the Malaysian Durian Festival in Nanning, China, in 2017. The event drew some 150,000 people, as the China population had already acquired a taste for durian, particularly the more expensive Musang King. It wasn’t just about durian but the spinoffs from the fruit, and the eco-system around it.

Fast-forward to June 19, 2024, China agreed to allow imports of fresh durian from Malaysia after it met sanitary requirements – a decision that puts a smile of satisfaction on Ahmad Shabery’s face.

Is Felda venturing into durian? Not at this point in time, but Ahmad Shabery emphasised that the land development authority must come up with ways to get people to fall in love and appreciate Felda. The people need to know what Felda was all about, and how it was different from its competitors.

“Felda is part of the nation-building initiative. It was to provide opportunities in rural areas, to ensure that there wouldn’t be a massive movement of people from the outskirts, to the major cities. It has transformed from rubber and palm oil … and it’s still evolving, as today, we are having conversations about turning palm oil waste into biomass, and how Felda can play a role in the energy sector,” said Ahmad Shabery.

“I built a story that durian is about love and happiness. Now I’m with Felda, and it’s the same. I want to get people to fall in love with Felda.”

He said the best way to showcase the government agency’s future-ready initiatives was through the upcoming Karnival Segalanya Felda. The carnival is scheduled for July 12-14 at the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park Serdang (Maeps) in Selangor.

Some 500,000 visitors are expected to throng the carnival, and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is set to join them.

Ahmad Shabery stressed that Felda usually spends RM3 million to host the annual Hari Peneroka (Settlers’ Day), a one-day affair.

“Karnival Segalanya Felda is not just about celebrating the settlers, but the entire Felda population … the children, the in-laws, the family members. We want to include the second, and even third-generation Felda settlers, as I see them as citizens of the ‘Felda nation’.

“Here, I’m using the same RM3 million allocation for a three-day, two-night carnival that will celebrate the youths, celebrate those who love sports, and upskill people via masterclasses, among others. Obviously, the RM3 million won’t be enough for such a big event. So, what do we do? We raise money, with the end game being that everything we do, will benefit those involved in the carnival, and the settlers.”

Felda has embarked on a series of initiatives. This included a fund-raiser via a golf event in February, in which close to RM3 million was raised. Several big brands have committed to the carnival as main sponsors. They include the Albukhary Foundation, U Mobile, FGV Holdings, and Maybank, among others.

The carnival would also see settlers setting up booths to showcase their cooking skills, with vendors selling their latest products. Felda is also keen to show off its sustainable ventures.

This includes featuring electric trucks at the venue.

Ahmad Shabery reminded those present that Malaysia had committed to net-zero emissions by 2050. He added that the influx of investors, mainly to set up data centres in Malaysia, would mean requiring the country to produce greener energy. Felda, he said, can play that role by using palm oil biomass.

“So what does this mean for the settler? Another economic opportunity. It simply boils down to empowering our greatest asset, our settlers,” he added.

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