By Carol Yong
Until recently, I thought cappuccino was made with coffee and milk, but then I saw a picture of a tin of instant cappuccino saying Palmölfrei (palm oil-free) (see photo above).
Consumers in Europe seem to be delighted with the message.
But if this label was placed on products sold in Malaysia, the manufacturing company could well end up being charged in court. Amendments to the Trade Descriptions Act 2011, tabled and passed by the House of Representatives (the lower house) in October 2021, allow for the prosecution of those promoting an anti-palm oil message in their product description.
The amendments expand the scope of the act to prohibit “statements, expressions or indications against Malaysia’s major commodities especially palm oil such as the expression ‘no palm oil’ used in any advertisement including food labels, notices and catalogues…”.
This effectively means that discriminating against or boycotting palm oil is now a chargeable offence, following amendments to Section 5 on prohibition of false trade descriptions. The penalty is a fine of up to RM100,000 or up to three years’ imprisonment.
What prompted the haste to amend the law to allow the government to clamp down on the ‘anti-palm oil campaigns’? Was the decision driven by the industry’s powerful players and political interests?
Compare this to the allegations of rape of women workers in oil palm plantations in Malaysia, exposed by an international news agency in November 2020. Surely, these allegations merit an immediate investigation – but they hardly got the MPs’ attention.
With the shallow mindset and attitudes of many MPs, ministers and deputy ministers, can we expect empathy from them? Sadly, they are more likely to make crass comments or crack sexist jokes about rape.
To me, this is a clear case of double standards.
How the government and industry players frame palm oil issues
The government and big players in the palm oil industry often highlight that palm oil is the country’s major commodity and therefore of utmost importance to the people and economy of Malaysia. They seem willing to pursue any means to ensure growing production and demand for ‘the golden crop’
Malaysia and Indonesia filed cases with the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement mechanism in January 2021 over the EU’s alleged discrimination against palm oil (now awaiting a date for the hearing). The cases relate to the EU’s policy on crop-based biofuels, in particular the drive to phase out palm oil by 2030 in its renewable energy directive.
Despite the change in federal government several times since 2018, resulting in three different plantation development ministers over this period, the ministry has remained consistent, at least in ‘upholding’ the image of Malaysian palm oil. They lubricate their words with the same grease and shore up their defences of palm oil with their familiar lines of arguments.
First, they highlight the plight of the smallholders depending on oil palm as a source of income.
Second, they attempt to debunk accusations that the development of large-scale oil palm causes deforestation and that there are human rights abuses and forced labour allegations.
And third, they argue that anti-palm oil campaigns deprive Malaysia of essential export earnings, jeopardising the financing of the country’s development plans, including poverty eradication programmes.
Meanwhile, ministerial delegations comprising Malaysian experts and industry players continue to fly to Europe to talk to the European commissioners, European MPs and ambassadors of palm oil nations in Brussels as well as major industry players such as food conglomerates and renewable energy users in some European capitals. Virtual meetings have become the norm because of the pandemic.
There is a strong zeal to counter anti-palm oil sentiments throughout European countries and to seek opportunities to collaborate with European industry in support of palm oil.
As a result, millions of ringgit in budget allocations have been spent over the years in addressing the anti-palm oil campaign at the international level rather than allocating the money for the betterment of the country’s ordinary people such as support for small farmers, fisherfolk and other vulnerable groups. Resources could have also been used to increase land for food production, ensure food security and promote wider domestic use of palm oil.
The Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities has a RM20m allocation for 2022. Like her predecessors, the ‘new’ minister wants her ministry to “take a new approach” to ensure success in countering the worldwide anti-palm oil sentiments.
As I wrote previously, while there is much ongoing dispute and concern about palm oil between Europe and Malaysia, we need to be alert about the politics and trading relationship interests on both sides. Don’t we know that new rules on climate and energy proposals, forest strategy and so on could be negotiated and agreed through the ‘backdoor’ or by greenwashing an industry (such as large palm oil development, aviation and transport, and other investments) – all this to serve the interests of the influential and elite members of political, business and financial institutions, whether in Europe or Malaysia.
Carol Yong is an Aliran reader who occasionally writes when inspired