Many have been told that a new organisation is expected to take over the role of Padiberas Nasional Berhad (BERNAS). Malaysian Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Minister, Salahuddin Ayub said a working paper is expected to be completed in September 2018. He shared that a technical committee has been given the responsibility of studying and coming up with the new model which will be used after the end of Bernas concession as the sole importer of rice in the country in 2021. Apparently, the move, according to Salahuddin would lead to a more open market and healthy competition.
Healthy competition, in what sense?
To point out, the move to quickly ‘dismantle’ Bernas by the current government is rather peculiar and raises the question, why the hurry? Many would believe that since they came into power, the PH government is under pressure to fulfil its many untenable promises claiming and convincing the paddy farmers before the General Election 14 that BERNAS was not doing its job to protect them.
Is that really the case regarding BERNAS?
Prior to the existence of BERNAS, the paddy industry was mainly controlled by middlemen with fluctuating prices. BERNAS, which took over Lembaga Padi Nasional (LPN) was tasked by the government to eliminate the middlemen’s control and helped the government to set a set pricing. Besides being a stockpiler and central importer for rice for Malaysia, there are many other functions of BERNAS involving paddy price subsidy management to the farmers, rice distribution, seed and farming, paddy procurement, rice processing, maintenance of quality and standard of rice besides others.
Weedy rice issues have always been the main problem for the paddy farmers as they bear very high losses. However, many may not realise that BERNAS also buys all paddy delivered to them, good or bad even though they are at their full capacity, ensuring the nation’s rice growers welfare is always looked into.
Moreover, BERNAS funds the entire purchase of paddy stock sourced by Bumiputera millers, providing assistance and transforming these millers into competitive ones.
Will this remove the central importer concept?
What is the practice of other regions? Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore also practice the central importer system that also acts as the gatekeeper of the rice commodity. One system to manage and control the essential item in a more efficient manner. It is hard to fathom that by appointing more companies to import rice, this would help to solve the problem of pricing and benefit the consumers. It is common sense that with more players in the market, the possibility of a cartel controlled price is inevitable. What about the welfare of the farmers? Will these multiple rice importers be tasked or care to look into the plights of the farmers?
The government should not rush to ‘fix what has not broken’ for the sake of showing the citizens that it is coming good at its promises. If we were to judge the government based on their promises, then they have failed to fulfil their part based on their own 100-day timeline and ‘empty’ promises. The citizens voted in hope for a just and fair government in the General Election. It is based on this hope that calls to remove the central importer concept should be taken a closer look at as it involves the interest of the nation, paddy farmers and their welfare.