Datu Vasco – 24 years of dedicated service with Salcra

Datu Vasco during the interview.

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THE Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Salcra) was in the red when Datu Vasco Sabat Singkang took over as the general manager in October 1997.

Before that, he was seconded to Salcra as its financial controller in February 1996.

According to Vasco, many did not realise that Salcra’s financial management then was sloppy and the organisation could not get the financial statements prepared on time. It failed to table its annual audited financial statements from 1989-1995.

Vasco was, thus, tasked to complete the exercise and get the accounts audited and tabled for the relevant authorities to approve.

As a chartered accountant, he quite understandably, found the figures far from flattering and was, in fact, rather shocked but he remained single-mindedly dutiful to balancing the books.

“Because figures don’t lie and the staff need to be paid, I have to do what I have been tasked to do,” he reminisced.

At that time, Salcra’s cashflow was low, compounded by mounting debts. But since he had been entrusted by the Sarawak government to turn Salcra’s debt-ridden situation around, which to some, looked like mission impossible, he resolved to first prove he was up to the daunting task and secondly, to justify the faith of his new bosses.

Having served in both public and private sectors at various executive levels before his Salcra appointment, Vasco’s “tengik” philosophy – similar to a never-say-die attitude – steeled him to the task at hand, unflinchingly confident that if others could do it, so could he.

It was then that he introduced and carried through his policy of good governance, committed to creating a system, founded on fiscal and financial transparency and sound monetary management to maximise returns and avoid wastage.

“I’m one of those very strict on good governance. We never pay anybody more than what they actually deliver,” stressed the British-trained chartered accountant in an interview recently.

Vasco, who retired on Dec 31, 2019, after 24 years of dedicated service, started revamping Salcra by first inculcating in both his staff and the landowners the overarching importance of increasing productivity and yield to ensure a better future.

Buck up or ship out

In the early years when Vasco first took over, the discipline and morale of the Salcra staff were low. They would come to the office late and clock out early. And while they were supposed to work, they were not pulling their weight but tackled all situations with a ‘tidak apa’ (nonchalant) attitude, preferring to chit-chat and fritter away time.

Vasco knew something drastic was needed to put the house in order and left with no choice, he had to get tough by telling his staff to buck up or ship out.

“I wasn’t that cruel as to fire them. But I had to do something – like finding ways to re-assign them to the jobs that suited them best.

“Over time, with hard work, patience and perseverance, it worked but not without my methods being called ‘mangah’ (fierce in Iban),” he recalled.

But the results were well worth it.

“Now, Salcra has a headquarters in Kota Samarahan and there is so much commitment during working hours. Gratifyingly, the staff have picked up a
good work culture to focus on productivity.

“Every level of this building (Salcra headquarters) has a pantry. It will minimize their movements for breaks and lunches. Even though we have a cafeteria on the ground floor, they will go there only during lunch break.

“No unnecessary movements of people during working hours. No office chit-chatting. This is very basic in management where good ethics and discipline prevail.”

Salcra now employs about 1,000 staff and 4,500 estate workers either on contract or pension scheme, but there are a number of new staff who prefer the Employees’ Providence Fund (EPF) scheme.

Datu Vasco (8th right) with landowners at Salcra’s training centre in Bajo, Lundu. To his right is Salcra’s former chairman Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Alfred Jabu Numpang.

Taking the bull by the horns

Vasco also made the bold move to “computerise” Salcra and its entire staff in an earnest effort to modernise and transform the ailing government statutory body.

“With that exercise, everybody has his or her computer, except for two who are retiring.

“What this means is that computerisation entails modernisation and with that, everyone will have to work on his or her given tasks. That’s one of the best things we have done together,” he enthused.

With increased productivity, revenues naturally also spiked with a concomitant reduction of expenses for medical bills and transport maintenance – which, at one time, ran into a few million Ringgit annually.

Gradually but surely, Salcra managed to slash these overheads by more than half.

“I told them, look, if you have to spend RM100 on laundry per trip, you might as well wash your clothes at home and save the money for Salcra.

“But they said they were entitled. I said no you were not entitled. I told them the RM100 was the amount my wife and I would use to buy detergents for the entire year. So, I told them it wasn’t right,” he related.

Over the years, Vasco instilled the meaning of accountability and responsibility in his staff. And since 2008, Salcra has been able to pay bonuses, at times up to two to three months.

To summarise, Vasco categorised six main challenges he faced while helming Salcra.

First, he had to make changes to the management and staff to attain the desired level efficiency for achieving the targets set.

He said many of the staff continued to resist the inculcation of commercial work ethics when he introduced measures to improve the work discipline.

“But we had to insist on the timeline on task/job completion, dismantle the ‘cliquish’ approach, build and create office camaraderie (family togetherness), develop a resilient team and train the staff to work longer hours, adopt logical thinking and have the ‘right’ industry knowledge,” he said.

Secondly, Vasco had to focus on Salcra’s financial statements as many of the records were neither correct nor updated or missing and computed with errors. There were a lot of incomplete records and questionable transactions.

Thirdly, he had to deal with landowner participants many of whom thought Salcra accepted social approaches, gave out easy money and plenty of grants.

“Productivity was not the focus and the ‘blaming mentality’ was prevalent and could still be seen today.

“There was a communalised or watershed management. Because of that, I had experienced a lot of threatening behaviours,” he recalled.

Fourthly, he had to face the political realities of a time where community politics was “widespread and could be very tricky”.

Fifthly, from among the stakeholders, Vasco had experienced vendors and contractors taking advantage of the weaknesses and loopholes and many avoidable claims were detected.

“The public at large, in particular the native customary rights (NCR) landowners, had very little confidence in Salcra management and governmental programmes. Many were met with negativity, and due to that, I received a lot of flying letters in those days.”

And then, there was also the challenge of rough land terrain.

“Landowners normally surrendered land which is very hilly, far from the community, less fertile soil and scattered,” he explained.

Datu Vasco interacting with the landowners.

Changes taking place

As the person in charge of the whole organisation, Vasco normally spent about 60 per cent of his time in the field and area of operations which usually included inspection, discussion and decision-making.

He prides himself for not having specific office hours and rest days for at least six years (1997-2002).

“My minimum working hours were 10 hours a day and six days a week. Initially, I did this on my own as I had so much work to do. “But later, many of the staff followed the way I worked.”

Whenever the need arose, he would go to the ground in an ordinary (unmarked) vehicle and arrived unannounced.

“My vehicle did not have the Salcra logo. I showed up at odd hours of the day and night. This was part of the things I had to do to carry out spot checks to prevent abuse of the system.”

Vasco also put a lot of emphasis on financial discipline among the Salcra staff and other stakeholders.

“With every payment, documents and attachments must be reviewed and seen by the general manager.

“At the same time, we introduced a comprehensive and commercial budget with greater details; redefined the organisation chart; re-assigned duties and responsibilities; re-developed new authorities, delegation of power and responsibilities (which must be approved by the board); developed comprehensive cash and banking operation systems; closed about 30 current accounts and maintained only eight relevant current accounts for the group; re-developed a procurement system, vendor listings, contracting strategies and a comprehensive technical and financial tender analysis; re-developed more comprehensive limits of financial authority in line with government practice.”

He also created new departments and units such as the landowners’ development department to track landowners, besides installing a comprehensive landowners’ data; setting up a department to market and sell Salcra’s own fresh fruit bunches (FFBs), crude palm oil (CPO) and ruminants, among others; forming its own security unit such as the auxiliary police; developing a new strategic plan from 2002–2010 and continuously updating it.

Moreover, Vasco is credited with introducing a system to appoint certain landowners as “mandor” (supervisors in Malay) in areas where they are the landowners of the land developed by Salcra.

“All mandor are landowners. If productivity is low, then the mandor are not doing their work. With this system, they are co-employers like us. This has allowed them to work harder because they know if they produce better yields, they will have better dividends,” he explained.

He gave the landowners various incentives such as going for courses and training to improve their productivity levels and management skills.

“We even brought some successful ones on overseas trips. We wanted them to learn, and on returning, they can share their knowledge and experiences. In this way,
we too can help other participants and landowners to succeed.”

As for land titles, Vasco noted that over the years, Salcra had issued 24,000 such documents to its participants and landowners statewide.

“This is a massive boost for Salcra. With the titles, landowners are happy they finally got what they hoped for. This is another great success story for us.

“For those who haven’t got theirs, especially the new participants, we will give them after 10 years as stipulated under our 10-year Clause. It’s part of our land policy.”

He pointed out that his role as general manager meant he had to deal with the vendors and other stakeholders such as the contractors.

“I have to do a lot of balancing act. With the staff, I have to be like a father figure who truly cares about them, even though they may think I’m fierce and stubborn.

“As for the politicians, I have to be able to interact with them meaningfully. And the landowners – yes, I have to engage with them from their perspectives — so too with our vendors and contractors.”

Datu Vasco’s farewell speech to the staff.

Passed with flying colours

Vasco said there were a lot of success stories that Salcra and its group had achieved.

He highlighted the following:

(1) Financial management

As general manager of Salcra, he implemented comprehensive financial limits of authority guidelines.

“We also implemented various management accounting techniques for tracking business activities, cost prudence, production costs, contribution margin towards profitability and prompt preparation of financial statements for the relevant authorities’ decisions and approval,” he said.

Vasco highlighted that as a group, Salcra had generated more than RM14 billion in revenue for the past 24 years and was given a four-star rating in financial management for the last eight years by the Auditor-General, Malaysia.

(2) Oil palm estate operations

For the last 20 years, Salcra has been sourcing high yielding oil palm seedlings and keeping comprehensive estate data.

“Oil palm estates are managed on industry and commercial practices with sound agronomic practices and fully compliance of environment and sustainability estate practices,” Vasco said.

(3) Palm oil mill management

This is done on sound commercial enterprise and fully managed by Salcra’s own staff with one Dayak female mill manager.

For the last 24 years (as at December 31, 2019) the palm oil mills had processed more than 18 million tonnes of FFBs, generated more than RM9 billion in revenue and raked in over RM600 million in profits.

(4) Development and acquiring new headquarters

In 2008, Salcra acquired a new headquarters — Wisma SALCRA — after renting an office space for more than 30 years.

“Despite the adverse comments from our critics, the office space was slowly getting too small as businesses and operations expanded,” he recalled.

(5) Land participants, net proceeds and land titles

Currently, Salcra has more than 23,000 landowners participating in the land development programme, mainly on oil palm.

The total revenue generated by Salcra’s landowners for the last 24 years is about RM5 billion and the net proceeds distributed to the landowners are about RM1 billion. So, it is a fact that Salcra has created several millionaires from its 25-year programme.

“As at 2019, more than 20,000 Section 18 land titles had been issued to the landowners. This is on-going as more land is being developed.

“Comprehensive engagement with the landowners through the AJPLS, who now meets quarterly, involves the preparation of budgets as well as continuous visits to and inspections of their estates with the manager and the review of operational performance annually,” Vasco said.

There are many landowners or their children directly employed by Salcra. At the same time, it keeps comprehensive landowners’ data and information.

(6) Malaysian Sustainability Palm Oil (MSPO) Certification

All Salcra oil palm estates and palm oil mills were MSPO-certified in 2018 and most probably, Salcra is the only government agency which has both its estates and palm oil mills MSPO-certified.

(7) Human Resource Development

With the completion of the Bajo Training Centre, Salcra now can comprehensively focus on training, development and imparting knowledge to its staff, workers and landowners.

(8) Information Technology (IT)

There is comprehensive usage of IT in all its operations, finance, human resource, marketing, estate operations, palm oil mills and engineering. Drone technology is utilised in mapping estates.

(9) Development of Ruminants and Aquaculture

Currently, Salcra has more than 2,000 heads of cattle in the estates and the number will be increased in the future.

Salcra has also developed fish-cage farming where tilapia and patin fish are kept in more than 500 cages.

(10) Salcra net worth

According to Vasco, Salcra and its group of companies could easily have a net worth of about RM2.5 billion as of 2019.

(11) Representing Salcra and Sarawak government

During his time with Salcra, Vasco sat in various organisations and agencies relating to the palm oil Industries such as the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council (MPOCC), Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) and Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owners Association (SOPPOA).

Date Vasco stressing on accountability when serving in any organisation, be it public or private.

Expanding horizons

1. Revenue target

Before leaving the organisation after 24 years of dedicated service, Vasco threw the new management a challenge – achieve an annual revenue of RM2.5 billion by 2030.

He believes the target is achievable since Salcra has almost 100,000 hectares to be developed for oil palm and other crops — plus the fact that it can double its fertiliser inputs over the next 10 years.

“Since we have a lot of lands, my challenge to you all is that in 10 years, you should be able to hit RM2.5 billion in gross revenue for the whole group. If you don’t do that, you don’t do yourselves justice. That should be your challenge.

“So, my tall order for the new management is RM2.5 billion revenue in 10 years,” he said at his recent farewell luncheon at Salcra headquarters in Kota Samarahan.

He reiterated that Salcra’s staff, especially the younger ones, must think outside the box to enable the organisation to produce better results.

“You’ve about between 80,000 to 100,000 hectares to be developed over the next 10 years. On top of that, there should be two more palm oil mills to be built from the current five. And your fertiliser outputs can also be doubled. So, you should be able to see this in the next management coming from you young fellows,” he told the gathering.

Vasco advised Salcra’s staff to adopt modern technology now available in the industry.

“Keep on learning and acquire as much knowledge as possible. The bottom line is never stop learning. Life itself is a learning process.”

He urged the staff to adopt a positive working attitude to gain a better standing in the organisation and make it one of the best in the oil palm industry.

“Please be committed in your work – don’t just look at it as 9-to-5.30 kind of job. So, I would advise you all to make Salcra one of the best in the industry, not just in Sarawak but throughout the country.”

In his parting advice to the staff, Vasco reminded them to venture out to the fields.

“There aren’t enough jobs in the headquarters but plenty out there. So, I would like to challenge your officers to go out there and develop new areas.”

He also clarified Salcra was not just about palm oil but actually “anything to do with agriculture.”

“A lot of people misperceive that Salcra is only about making ladang sawit (palm oil plantation) on NCR land. That’s not correct. Read the Ordinance — it’s anything on agriculture undertaken on its own or in a joint venture.

“That’s why we moved away from that norm. I hope the younger staff can change the misperception otherwise we’ll lose out.”

2. Downstreaming

Vasco said to expand, Salcra must diversify its business portfolios downstream.

“There are lots of things Salcra can do – fish-rearing, livestock-rearing and fertiliser-manufacturing, among others. Fish and cattle rearing alone can easily bring in RM200 million annually if you know how to do it.”

According to him, Salcra also owns a commercial outfit for digital economy purposes.

“It’s IT savvy for rural development — different from the government collecting, processing and packaging centre (CPPC). This is our own where you can do e-marketing and e-business.

“I asked an IT guy how much it costs to build a communication tower and was told probably about RM500,000. So Salcra could build one for this purpose,” (e-marketing and e-business),” he suggested.

The retired general manager observed with its proximity to the new airport, the organisation could do a lot of online transactions for both local and foreign markets.

“It will be like the Lazada or Alibaba type of business model. This has been prepared but it depends on whether the government of the day sees the potential.”

Vasco said Salcra now could venture into anything related to agriculture and compete in the international market if Salcra could digitize its marketing. To him, digitization is the only way forward.

Appreciation

In retirement, Vasco plans to do the things he loves — reading, photography, travelling and appreciating arts and nature.

“But the love of figures will always be with me until I have enough of it. And should my services be needed by the authorities in the future, I don’t mind sharing my experiences, especially in plantation management.

“For now, I prefer doing what I love, including spending more time with my cucu (grandchildren),” he beamed.

In parting, Vasco likes to record his highest appreciation and thanks for the support, guidance, advice and share of knowledge during his time in Salcra.

He especially extends his appreciation to the federal and state governments, their respective ministries, agencies, departments, the chairmen and board members of Salcra and the subsidiary companies, the shareholders, the management and staff of the group, Ahli Jawatankuasa Pembangunan Ladang Salcra (AJPLS) and the landowners participants, bankers and professional bodies and former colleagues.

“And of course, my own family members who are consistently my biggest supporters,” said Vasco. — DayakDaily