Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak yesterday said he is handing out RM1.591 billion (S$510 million) in fresh aid to his Malay vote bank in the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) farming community, amid expectations that he would call the general election in the next few months.
The funds are to be paid out to Felda landowners by the end of next month, amid murmurs of unhappiness with the government at ongoing graft investigations involving Felda's management and the collapsed share price of its listed arm, Felda Global Ventures (FGV).
Mr Najib announced the six incentives to some 25,000 Felda settlers gathered under tents in a Putrajaya square, to rousing cheers.
He earlier cut a traditional pulut kuning (Malay glutinous rice) cake to celebrate his 64th birthday. "Putrajaya would not have existed without the Felda settlers," Mr Najib said.
Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox
The RM1.591 billion allocation is on top of the regular annual aid given by the government to Felda landowners, whose multi-generational families total some 1.2 million people and form the majority of voters in 54 of Malaysia's 222 parliamentary constituencies.
The progress of Felda, one the world's largest managers of oil palm plantations,has a special meaning for Mr Najib - Malaysia's sixth prime minister - because his father, Malaysia's second prime minister Tun Razak Hussein founded Felda to help poor Malays own land.
Land was given to 112,635 settlers in 317 land schemes covering 550,000ha nationwide, lifting 100,000 families above the poverty line, Bernama news agency reported yesterday.
THE SIX INCENTIVES ANNOUNCED BY NAJIB
1 94,956 families to each get RM5,000 (S$1,600), totalling RM474.78 million.
2 Government to pay the balance of 77,934 settlers who took loans to buy FGV shares, totalling RM128.1 million. Those who have paid their loans will each get RM1,820.
3 To ease loans taken by settlers to replant, government will give each settler RM5,000, totalling RM519 million.
4 RM300 million to set up a replanting overdraft facility debt.
5 RM166.6 million to set up a replanting grant of RM7,500 per ha for five years from 2017.
6 Allowing the construction of more than one house on a plot of Felda farm owned by a settler, benefiting 70,506 farms.
But Felda and FGV have in recent months been plagued by scandals over deals worth several billion dollars and are mired in a leadership tussle. Felda and FGV's chairman, Mr Mohd Isa Samad, was replaced by the government last month.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has launched a probe into the purchase of a luxury hotel in London by Felda Investment Corporation (FIC) at an allegedly inflated price.
Meanwhile, the shares of FGV closed at RM1.67 last Friday, a far cry from its initial public offer price of RM4.55. This has trapped thousands of Felda farmers who took out loans to invest.
Seeking to cool anger towards the government, new Felda chairman, Tan Sri Shahrir Samad, promised yesterday that the land agency will be managed with "integrity".
"I want to bring back the aspirations and the original values so that integrity and focus are practised to bring Felda to a higher level," said Mr Shahrir.
Six months for 'errant settlers to toe the line'
There has often been speculation about anger at the government among Felda landowners, even though the government has dished out aid to them for five decades in the form of replanting subsidies, free fertilisers for their oil palm and rubber plantations, and cheap prices for homes built for them.
Yesterday, for the first time, the government revealed the actual number of the original 112,635 "settlers" - as the original landowners are called - who oppose the way that it is managing the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda).
Prime Minister Najib Razak's figures show that 15.7 per cent of the settlers do not send their products to Felda, and that some have sued the agency.
He gave them six months to "return and make peace" if they want part of the RM1.591 billion (S$510 million) in new aid from public coffers that will be handed out for free by the end of next month.
He said 94,956 settlers whose land is managed by Felda and whose products are sold to Felda are eligible for the incentives announced.
"In the name of graciousness and in the spirit of togetherness - for the first time officially - I wish to announce that we will be giving a chance to 17,679 settlers who did not send their products to Felda, and settlers who have sued Felda, to return and make peace with Felda," said Datuk Seri Najib.
"However, the time for returning to Felda is six months starting August 2017, and they must fulfil the conditions set by Felda," he said in a speech in Putrajaya yesterday. "So if they manage to fulfil these conditions, then they would be eligible to receive this incentive package."
He did not explain why some are suing Felda. He said those who return to the fold would be able to enjoy the incentives from February.
The multi-generational families of the original 112,635 settlers number some 1.2 million people, and they form the majority of voters in 54 of the 222 constituencies represented in the federal Parliament.