Tuesday, 25 September 2018 – Rice has been deeply intertwined with Malaysia’s political economy. The staple crop has typically been a mainstay in political discussions in the run-ups to general elections, whether in terms of farm livelihoods, food availability, or citizens’ living costs. Following the Malaysian 14th General Election (GE-14)’s unprecedented results, public policies surrounding rice are now under renewed scrutiny and negotiation. Against this background, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute invited Associate Professor Jamie S. Davidson from the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore to speak on rice politics in Malaysia.
From left to right: Dr Geoffrey K. Pakiam, and Dr Jamie S. Davidson (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Following introductory comments by Dr Geoffrey K. Pakiam, Fellow with the Malaysia Studies Programme, Dr Davidson traced developments in Malaysia’s rice sector over five decades, demonstrating how they have culminated in a remarkable situation where monopoly rents from rice imports have steadily accrued to Padiberas Nasional Berhad (Bernas), while concurrently over RM2 billion in federal subsidies have been disbursed annually to support local rice production in both East and West Malaysia. Although seemingly contradictory, Dr Davidson argued that both dynamics stemmed from the United Malays’ National Organisation (UMNO)’s need to stay in power, through shoring up rural political support, gratifying key coalition partners, and maintaining patron-client relations with big businesses.
Dr Davidson then considered whether the new federal government under the Pakatan Harapan coalition would be able to fulfil some of its rice-related campaign manifesto promises prior to GE-14, including revoking Bernas’ import license, supervising rice production at all levels, and increasing food security. He noted that government negotations with Bernas were still ongoing, and were meant to avoid a situation where reforms would lead to supply disruptions on the ground. Many concerns remained regarding rice stockpiling, ways to avoid import cartels from forming, the effectiveness of farm subsidies given yield growth limits and mounting federal budget constraints, as well as likely trade-offs between low rice prices and paddy farmer incomes. In light of these challenges, Dr Davidson contended that rice questions would continue to preoccupy policymakers and members of the public for the foreseeable future, even as political circumstances continue to change rapidly in post-GE14 Malaysia.
The audience included research scholars, government officials, journalists, and members of the public (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
The seminar spanned ninety minutes, with 19 people in attendance, including research scholars, government officials, journalists, and members of the public. While fielding questions from the audience, Dr Davidson covered a number of further issues, including lesser-known actors influencing rice policies, crop diversification, and possible future pathways for Bernas.