Datuk Davidson embodies the spirit of a non-Malaysian whose accomplishment had a deep impact on the palm oil industry, not only in Malaysia but in the region… The fruits of his labour not only extended commercial value to the enterprise but resulted in far reaching benefits to the quality of lives of not only planters, but perhaps more importantly, smallholders.
Dato' Henry Sackville Barlow
Member of the selection committee
Datuk Leslie Davidson was born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1931. Receiving his early education in Gordon’s College, Datuk Davidson served his compulsory National Service period as a young officer in Kenya. Upon completion of his National Service, Datuk Davidson signed up with Unilever, a global consumer products company, and was sent halfway across the world to the Pamol Estate in Kluang, Johor, during the height of the Malayan Emergency in 1951.
In the wake of the Emergency, Datuk Davidson was several time mistakenly reported as having been killed. He was later transferred to Cameroon and then to Nigeria in West Africa in 1957. It was in this ancestral home of the oil palm that Datuk Davidson was to make a discovery which would have a deep impact on oil palm cultivation in Malaysia and the region.
In 1960, Datuk Davidson returned to South East Asia, and was posted to Sabah to develop the palm oil industry in that state, which was very much in its infancy at the time. Datuk Davidson was an ideal choice due to his experience in Africa and also his ability to converse fluently in the Malay and Hakka languages. Travelling inland, Datuk Davidson established the Tungud Oil Palm Estate, the first oil palm plantation in Sabah. He endured many hardships and calamities during his nine year stint at Tungud, including having the attap shed where he and his family lived washed away by flooding in 1963. In spite of these misfortunes, Datuk Davidson managed to expand Tungud into a large plantation spanning over 20,000 acres. His experiences in Tungud encouraged him to write a book, “East of Kinabalu”, about his life at the plantation and the challenges he faced there as a planter.
Datuk Davidson was transferred back to Kluang in 1970, where he was appointed chairman of two of Unilever’s plantations. During this period, Datuk Davidson served on several national committees looking into issues that affect the plantation industry. He returned to Britain in 1974, having been promoted to Vice Chairman of the Unilever International Plantations Group, becoming Chairman in 1982. During his stint in London, Datuk Davidson was also Chairman of Unifield in Bedford, the first large-scale tissue culture unit; Chairman of the Tropical Growers Association; and the first Chairman of the International Centre for Plantation Studies in Silsoe.
Boosting Oil Palm Production
In the early years of the palm oil industry in Malaysia, the average plantation was a very primitive affair. Many of the processes and equipment which the industry now takes for granted had not been developed at that point in time, which resulted in a very labour intensive and inefficient effort. one of those processes was the pollination of oil palms.
Oil Palm bunches prior to insect pollination. Above: Bunch after hand pollination.
Below: Bunch after hand pollination.
Following his retirement from the Unilever Chairmanship in 1992, Datuk Davidson was appointed as a board member of Bertam Holdings, retiring as Deputy Chairman in 2001.
Datuk Davidson’s work has generated many accolades, including the 1992 World Vision Award for Development Initiative for his contribution to sustainable development, and he was conferred the title of Datuk by the Sabah State Government.
Pollination of oil palms in Malaysia was originally carried out by hand, which was laborious, inefficient and time consuming. At the Tungud estate in Sabah alone, there were over 500 people, mostly young women, engaged in pollinating the oil palms on a daily basis.
Datuk Davidson, because of his years spent in Cameroon and Nigeria, had noticed that in West Africa, pollination of oil palms was extremely efficient, approaching 100%, even during the rainy season which in Malaysia would have put a halt to any manual pollination. Datuk Davidson had at the time noticed that there were many insects clustered about the oil palm flowers, a phenomenon that was absent in the Malaysian plantations.
Convinced that the oil palm’s pollinating agent was an insect, instead of wind as previously thought, Datuk Davidson started lobbying for studies to be conducted on the subject. Obtaining backing from Unilever, he approached the Commonwealth Institute for Biological Control (CIBC), which agreed to send Dr Rahman Syed, an eminent Pakistani entomologist, to investigate.
Dr Syed and members of the CIBC spent several years in Unilever estates both in Malaysia and in Cameroon studying pollination patterns. They noticed that the plantations in Cameroon had a well-developed ecology of insects adapted to the pollination of oil palm. The most effective pollinator was found to be a weevil known as Elaeidobius kamerunicus. Extensive testing was done to investigate whether there were any adverse effects to the oil palms or to the general environment as a result of the weevil’s presence. Happily, none were found.
Following this discovery, Datuk Davidson then sought to import a batch of weevils from Cameroon to Malaysia via the United Kingdom. After several months of quarantine both in London and in Kuala Lumpur, the insects were released in Unilever’s Mamor Estate in Kluang, Johor, on 21 February 1981.
The introduction of Elaeidobius kamerunicus proved to be an amazing success. Yields increased tremendously, with the Minister of Primary Industries at the time saying that the presence of the weevils resulted in an increase of 400,000 tonnes of palm oil and 300,000 tonnes of palm kernels in the 1981-1982 period alone. The simplification of pollination was one of the key factors enabling the phenomenal growth of the palm oil industry in Malaysia, which is now key contributor to the Malaysian economy. Elaeidobius kamerunicus has subsequently been introduced to other countries in the region, including Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Thailand.
In addition to positively impacting productivity, the weevils proved a boon to smallholders who did not have the means to manually pollinate their oil palms. This resulted in increased competitiveness and productivity in all sectors of the palm oil industry.
Datuk Davidson with his daughters Catriona and Fiona on a bulldozer.
Datuk Leslie Davidson has done much for the palm oil industry in Malaysia. From his early days in the country, he has shown a tenacity and a dedication to work through even the most dangerous and challenging situations. His long years in Malaysia have resulted in a keen understanding of local plantations and culture with a breakthrough discovery that revolutionised the development of the local oil palm industry.