Part One: Exclusive Sit Down with Malaysia’s Palm Oil Minister, Zuraida Kamaruddin


Recently, the editors of the Malaysian Palm Labor Facts – hosted by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council – sat down for an exclusive interview with Zuraida Kamaruddin, the recently appointed Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities. In the first of a two-part series, Minister Kamaruddin talks Poverty Reduction, China, Europe’s anti-palm oil campaign and more.  
This is the first in a two-part series. 
Q: How do you assess the state of the Malaysian Palm Oil sector? 
In a nutshell, it is a strong, resilient and innovative industry that is of strategic importance to the country. The industry is the key driver of Malaysia’s agriculture and agro-based sectors. Malaysian Palm Oil and its products are now sold in more than 200 countries, generating about RM73.3 billion in export revenue in 2020.
Malaysia has steadfastly worked towards promoting the important message that palm oil is a nutritious and affordable food for all. Our scientists – who also collaborate with renowned research institutions worldwide – continue to explore new technologies to ensure that the industry remains dynamic, spawns high-income jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, and raises export earnings. At the same time, the government is striving to establish a zero-waste industry that is sustainable, well-regulated and mindful of the needs of end-users.
Malaysian Palm Oil has had an overwhelmingly positive impact at home, by decreasing rural poverty, increasing employment, and improving the quality of life of small farmers and their families by bringing infrastructure, education and healthcare to even remote areas. It is a decades-long story of achievement and social progress. This is an unassailable fact that has been documented by the United Nations and World Bank, among leading international bodies.
Q: What is your view of the palm oil trade in the Asia-Pacific region, China and India?
These markets hold significant promise.
In 2020, India and China imported a total of 5.5 million tonnes of palm oil. From January to August 2021, they imported 3.16 million tonnes, which accounted for 33% of Malaysian Palm Oil exported over this period.
China and India are expected to become the largest markets for Malaysia’s palm oil industry in the foreseeable future. A vast population of 1.44 billion in China and 1.39 billion in India will support increased imports of vegetable oil. Malaysian Palm Oil products, which are readily available and competitively priced, are poised to meet the growing demand.
Malaysia is already right at the doorstep of the Chinese consumer market with the establishment of the Palm Oil Research and Technical Service Institute of Malaysia in 2005, which we believe will expand the use of Malaysian Palm Oil in the formulation and manufacture of China’s food and non-food products.
Q: When we talk about regulatory threats, the discussion usually veers to actions initiated by Brussels. What can you tell us about your plans to address the ongoing legislative and regulatory threats from the European Union?
The EU is an important market for many of our largest exporters given the inter-connectedness of the global supply chain. Some of the biggest customers of Malaysian Palm Oil are based in Europe.
The main challenge is that the European Commission and European Parliament are seeking to regulate Europe’s imports of palm oil. This is associated with the trade protectionism agenda of the EU as a rapeseed oil producer. However, the production of rapeseed oil is not as competitive or environmentally friendly as that of palm oil. There is no doubt that Malaysia has a superior product in terms of productivity, versatility and price.
It would be better to have a relationship based on trust and fair trade rather than geo-political tensions. This is what I will seek to build. Malaysia has always adopted a diplomatic approach in addressing trade issues relating to palm oil. We will therefore continue to engage the EU constructively to resolve issues.
Malaysia’s environmental stewardship and leadership has been acknowledged by the world over. Brussels should therefore also accept the progress made by the Malaysian Palm Oil sector to drive sustainability. If improvements are deemed necessary, the EU should consider offering assistance – technical or financial – to move matters forward.
As for Malaysia, the consultation process over the upcoming EU Due Diligence proposals will provide an opportunity to ensure that our trade interests are incorporated into regulations. We will also utilise various avenues to exchange unambiguous information with the EU on the sustainability of our palm oil industry. These include the ASEAN EU Joint Working Group on Palm Oil and other collaborative projects.
Still, the ‘softly-softly’ approach may not always work out, and Malaysia must be prepared to take firm action whenever required. This has happened with our attempt to engage the EU via the WTO over the latter’s stance against the use of palm oil in biofuels. This did not produce a mutually-acceptable solution.