THEY were called many names, they were also told they were foolish and ungrateful.
But for many second-generation Felda settlers, such as Zulkifli Md Top, ditching Umno was the best decision he’s made despite it still being the party of choice for their parents.
The rebellion against Umno by second-generation Felda settlers is critical to how the Malay party will do in the next general election, for according to analysts, Felda votes make up 15% of all total votes nationwide.
The 51-year-old Felda schemes are also spread over 54 parliamentary and state seats in the peninsula, making their support crucial for any party.
In past elections, the majority of Felda votes went to Umno and the Barisan Nasional coalition which it leads.
This time, the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition is banking that second-generation settlers who are fed up with the chaos and mismanagement in Felda, will swing to them.
Estimates vary, but it is thought that the younger generation make up 60% of the Felda settler population.
Settlers, such as Zulkifli, have no love lost for Felda which gave the poor and landless land to develop into oil palm or rubber estates.
“Its purpose was noble. The starting was good but now, it does not do what it is supposed to do. Look at Felda now. Look at the crisis and the losses it faced. What will our future be as the second-generation Felda settlers?” he said, referring to the troubles in its subsidiary, Felda Global Ventures.
Zulkifli quit his job as a mechanic in the city eight years ago to help his ailing mother care for their land at Felda Sg Sibol, Kulai, in Johor. He inherited his mother’s 4ha three years ago and RM39,000 in debts.
What he owes is small compared with others who have debts amounting to between RM50,000 and more than RM100,000, despite living in Felda for more than 30 years.
Second-generation settlers like Zulkifli refused to continue living in debt. So, he ignored warnings from Felda and decided to take back his holdings to manage them himself.
“They tried to frighten me, they told me it won’t work,” said Zulkifli.
But he proved them wrong. He did well. So well that he is able to own three cars, a new Toyota Camry, a multipurpose vehicle and an old Honda Civic, and earns enough to care for his three children.
“The old settlers, either they are afraid of change, or just too comfy with their lives.”
Under the scheme, settlers can opt to have Felda manage their holdings, from replanting oil palm trees to pruning and harvesting the fruits. Or they can take back their holdings and manage them on their own and sell their harvest to Felda.
During the two-year replanting process, settlers get RM1,500, a living cost allowance that is to be repaid once their estates start making a profit.
Just like their parents, second-generation settlers continue to be part of the cycle of debt and dependence on Felda.
Zulkifli’s colleague Zainal Md Dom said the settlers failed to see this.
“They were comfy. Told us that we are ungrateful. Stupid and foolish for not only refusing to support Umno but also for deciding to manage our own land,” Zainal said.
He said managing their 4ha was not easy but not impossible either.
“It is better to live debt-free than owning things but end up in a never-ending cycle of debt. I don’t want to inherit my parents’ debt,” he said.
Both Zulkifli and Zainal wanted the right to manage their holdings.
They said they have been denied these rights because of Umno and the politicians appointed to Felda and FGV, which run the plantations and schemes.
“The bad judgment, the losses, the dishonesty do not improve the lives of Felda settlers. It is not that we are ungrateful, we are thankful but we have paid our dues,” said Zulkifli.
Both Zainal’s and Zulkifli’s parents were Umno supporters.
“We want things to change. We want a better life for our children. It is hard to make a change but not impossible,” Zulkifli added.
They both believe that they are in the right.
“We pay our taxes, we follow the rules, we do no wrong. I am not scared,” said Zulkifli.
He is, however, worried about Felda’s future if the current leadership problem in FGV is not resolved.
The plantation company is currently in a leadership tussle after its president and chief executive officer Zakaria Arshad was told to go on leave, pending investigations into abuse of power and mismanagement.
Zakaria has hit back by accusing FGV chairman Isa Samad of the same wrongdoings.
Zulkifli worries that the saga crisis will affect the value of FGV’s shares, which his mother took a loan to buy. He has been paying RM50 a month for the past two years to pay off the loan.
Zainal is lucky that after much persuasion, his parents rejected the offer to buy the FGV shares.
But almost 80% of the settlers there took up the offer. Other first-generation settlers, such as Esa Atan, 71 and Sairi Mohd Lias, 64, rejected the FGV share offer.
Esa said unlike him and Sairi, the rest were too comfortable with their laidback life.
“They were aware of what’s happening. But were afraid of losing everything and were not well informed on things, making it hard for them to make the right decisions.
“To them, Umno is still the best party. It is hard for us as Malays. We have this attitude of not biting the hands that feeds us.
“But we forget that the food that was fed might be laced with poison that can affect our livelihood, our children.”