Thursday February 17, 2005 - FOR more than 20 years, Ivan Wong was theseer of Malaysia's palm oil industry, forecasting crop yields afterwalking through snake-infested plantations to count fruit bunches and tostudy soil conditions.
Today, he's more prone to studying plants in his garden, after beingforced out of work by the very industry he served - an industry thatregularly took his numbers without paying.
"I left the market because it didn't support me," the 59-year-old said."It stabbed me in the back."
Malaysia is the world's largest palm oil producer, and is also the onlyplace where palm oil futures is traded.
Since the 1980s, Wong's Palm Intelligence Services Sdn Bhd, or PALMIS, hadbeen issuing monthly estimates on Malaysian production, exports and stocksof palm oil.
The data often moved the futures market because it was the onlycomprehensive study on supply and demand before official figures releasedeach month by the Government.
PALMIS stopped service in December, with Wong blaming it on "rampantcopyright infringements."
Movie and music pirates have always been the best-known copyright thievesin Malaysia, and Wong's case brought a new group into the equation - thepalm oil industry.
"There are too many people in this industry, not just in Malaysia orSingapore, who want to get as many things as they want for free," he saidin his only interview since December.
"If even the multibillion dollar movie and music industries are fightingan uphill battle, what protection is there for a company like PALMIS?"
Wong counted Malaysia, India, China and Indonesia as among places wherehis reports were most widely read – and copied.
Ivan Wong used to walk through oil palm estates like this to do hisresearch before quiting the industry.He distributed his data through fax and email. Recipients re-faxed andforwarded them to friends in the trade, ignoring his copyright warningswith impunity.
Wong will not say how many subscribers he had. But he estimates that forevery paying client, there were 10 who got his work for free.
"If it was 50, it was not an exaggeration to say the number who werereading it were 500. So over the years, the business was stagnant orshrinking. And, of course, costs don't stay stagnant." Wong, who has amasters in economics from University Malaya, entered the palm oil tradeafter leaving his job as an economist at Bank Negara.
Through the years, he walked through dozens of oil palm estates, avoidingdeadly snakes, as he conducted bunch counts in blocks of 10 trees and thenextrapolated the numbers.
He also studied soil and weather conditions, which could affect supply,and monitored exports and use of crude palm oil by local refineries to geta realistic picture of demand.
His reports, filed from his office on the top floor of a shophouse on theoutskirts of Kuala Lumpur, were closely followed by oilseeds markets asfar away as Europe and South America.”My field was something where youneeded people with strong, deep interest, if not passion," said thebespectacled Wong. “But if, finally, there is no money to make, who wantsto carry on with this?"
Wong's departure has left a vacuum in the industry for data.
He doesn't rule out setting up an institute one day to teach others to doforecasts " if the money is right. “My experience took many years tocultivate. That's why, after all these years, I have had no competition."- Reuters