THE Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) was once hailed as the most innovative model for poverty alleviation, thanks to the forward thinking of second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.
Many around the world flocked to Malaysia to study the Felda model. Many developing countries tried to replicate Malaysia's agricultural model as they struggled to reduce poverty among their people.
Those were the glory days of Felda, when settlers diligently planted rubber and later oil palm to lift themselves out of poverty and build a better life.
They came from all corners of the country to join the scheme. The professionals who ran the scheme then did well, so much so that the World Bank loan that financed it was settled well before time.
When the pioneering professionals left, only to be replaced by less-competent teams, the glory days of Felda began to slowly wane. The reasons for this decline were known to many, but few dared to speak up.
We have lost count of the attempts made to reform Felda. There have been no shortage of white papers proposing plans and blueprints to revive the ailing agency. The listing of some businesses under Felda has not delivered the desired outcome.
Instead, smallholders continue to be burdened with massive loans, which they find hard to repay with their uncertain income.
It was a big relief when the government finally created the instrument needed to take the financial burden off the backs of smallholders once and for all.
The promise made two years ago is now sealed and delivered. With the recent takeover of Felda by a new leadership, it is time to stop the politicking and move forward with programmes to bring back the glory days.
The suggestions for reform are not new. Experts have long prescribed the measures needed.
Top of the list is that transparency, accountability and good governance must be enhanced through robust internal controls, regular audits, and clear policies and procedures.
This involves implementing measures to prevent corruption and ensure that funds are utilised effectively and efficiently. Felda needs to foster a culture of integrity and ethical conduct throughout the organisation.
Financial restructuring and debt management need strengthening. It can do with the right partnerships with financial institutions and experts to analyse and optimise Felda's finances.
Implementing effective debt management strategies is necessary to reduce the debt burden.
Felda must continue investing in diversified income-generating activities beyond oil palm cultivation, such as downstream processing, agrotourism and renewable energy projects.
This was done well in the early days, but had somehow waned.
It is good that innovation and research in developing high-value products and by-products from oil palm is a continuing exercise. So are the initiatives to foster entrepreneurship among settlers.
Agricultural productivity is a major concern. We know the productivity at Felda are inferior compared with other plantations.
This is where Felda should invest in capacity-building programmes to improve agricultural practices, including efficient resource management, and adoption of advanced technologies.
The wellbeing and welfare of settlers should be prioritised by providing access to quality healthcare, education, housing and social services.
Enhance community engagement and participation in decision-making processes to ensure inclusivity and empowerment. Forge strategic partnerships with the private sector for joint ventures, technology transfer and market access.
Seek international collaborations to gain insights and best practices from successful land development and agricultural initiatives globally.
Environmental, social and governance (ESG) compliance is now a business mandate. There is need to integrate sustainability principles into all aspects of Felda's operations, including environmental stewardship, social responsibility and economic viability.
Felda must, therefore, adopt sustainable agricultural practices, including responsible land use, water management and biodiversity conservation.
Ensuring compliance with national and international sustainability standards is crucial to enhance market access. And of course, a robust monitoring and evaluation system to track progress, measure performance, and identify areas for improvement cannot be compromised.
There is no doubt that implementing these strategies requires collaboration, dedicated leadership, stakeholder engagement, and a long-term commitment to revive Felda and restore its prominence.
It is not impossible to bring back the glory days of Felda.
The writer is a professor at the Tan Sri Omar Centre for STI Policy, UCSI University