Sowing the seeds to palm oil greatness for Malaysia
What do these brands Drinho (pic), Knife cooking oil, Zip detergent, Antabax soap and Daisy margarine have in common? They are all manufactured by Lam Soon Group.
But did you know that the man who helped make the Lam Soon a global brand, Samuel S.W. Kam, is one of Malaysia’s oil palm pioneers and helped build the vibrant oil palm industry into what it is today?
Samuel Kam the man, the icon
Kam might not be a household name among Malaysians. But among his peers in the oil palm industry, Kam is an icon who helped develop it into what it is today.
Though he is now 99 years old, Kam’s mind is still sharp. He is articulate, witty and revels in walking down memory lane, remembering details as though they happened yesterday.
This interview is aided with excerpts from his book Through Wars and Peace which contains memoirs and excerpts of his life encapsulating his achievements.
Samuel S.W. Kam, is one of Malaysia’s oil palm pioneers and helped build the vibrant oil palm industry into what it is today.
The early years
Kam was born in 1915 in the Guandong province of China, the second of six siblings. After his early education, he left to do his degree at the University of Hongkong, which he completed in 1938.
After the war, he went to the United States of America to do a master’s degree in chemical engineering at the prestigious University of California, Berkeley. Following this, Kam took up an offer extended by a varsity mate, Whang Tar Liang, to head to Singapore to help develop Lam Soon Cannery, a family business started by Whang’s grandfather, Ng Keng Soon in 1929.
Kam arrived in Singapore by ship in August 1955 and took up the post of chief engineer.
Back then, the company was not doing financially well. Initially a producer of soy sauce, it expanded rapidly and added cooking oil, laundry soap, canned food and coffee to its product line. Unfortunately, the move backfired as it chalked up loses year after year due to poor machine maintenance, and lack of worker training, among others.
Under Kam’s guidance, the company dropped the production of soya sauce, coffee and canned food and instead concentrated on becoming a full-fledged cooking oil and soap producer under a new name, Lam Soon Oil and Soap Manufacturing Pte Ltd. He also improved its manufacturing processes, and invested in new equipment.
That turned out to be the turning point of the company which returned to profitability and charted new growth areas. It expanded into a fully integrated group of companies in the palm oil industry spanning plantations, oil milling, refining, soap and detergent manufacturing, to oleochemicals and distribution of branded consumer products
Lam Soon ventures into Malaya
After three years with Lam Soon Singapore, Kam moved to Malaya in 1955 to spearhead operations here. In 1958, he became CEO of Lam Soon Malaysia and was instrumental in planning the construction of its landmark factory in Petaling Jaya.
“I felt it was my duty to envisage Lam Soon’s future and direction in Malaya and one thing was certain and that was we were going against multinational giant Lever Brothers (now known as Unilever), which had well-established brands such as Planta and Lux.
Lam Soon’s new factory, built on a three-hectare plot of land in Petaling Jaya in the late 1950s, had an oil mill and refinery, a margarine section, a soap section and a glycerine treatment plant.
Palm oil versus coconut oil
Despite this, Kam was not satisfied and felt Lam Soon Malaysia should expand into the cooking oil market.
At that time, cooking oil was dominated by coconut oil extracted from copra, and peanut oil.
Kam saw an opportunity to break into the cooking oil market as copra had to be imported from Indonesia due to insufficient local supply.
“The availability of an increasing supply of crude palm oil in Peninsular Malaysia in the 1960s caught my attention as here was a cheaper raw material right at our doorstep,” says Kam.
In those early days in the absence of palm oil research, palm oil was not widely used as a raw material and prices were low.
Kam was instrumental in bolstering the refining of palm oil into cooking oil.
The switch to using palm kernel oil in the manufacture of cooking oil marked Lam Soon’s venture into the palm oil business as well as blazed the trail for other companies to follow.
Pioneer in the palm oil industry
“Malaysia produces lots of palm oil every year so I tried to find out how to turn it into cooking oil. I was also looking forward to using palm oil to produce soap. We started with palm kernel oil and moved on to producing cooking oil from palm oil,” says Kam.
Lam Soon built the first oil fractionation plant to manufacture cooking oil in the country as well as other products such as margarine and shortening, and sales of the palm oil-based products grew.
“After all its early troubles, Lam Soon is a huge success today,” he says. Kam built Lam Soon into a global brand with a reputation for quality products and innovation.
Kam, who became a Malaysian citizen in 1969, adds that he would like to think of the switch from coconut to palm oil as a small contribution to society.
The setting up of Porim
Once the country began to know the value of palm oil as a healthier alternative to coconut oil, the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia (now known as the Malaysian Palm Oil Board) was set up in 1979 to carry out research in this industry such as crop generics, dietary fat nutrition and process engineering.
Kam sat on the board for 12 years and was one of the advisors for the research programme. He retired from Lam Soon in 1982, at the age of 67, but stayed on as one of its directors until up to about five years ago.
Going upstream into oil palm planting
Following Lam Soon’s success with palm oil fractionation, many local and foreign investors set up palm oil refineries in the country which resulted in a surge in crude palm oil price.
As crude oil prices grew due to greater demand, Lam Soon took the lead to go into oil palm cultivation, opening up plantations in Pahang and Sabah.
Blazing a trail
Kam and Lam Soon helped to blaze a trail to elevate Malaysia’s palm oil industry into what it is today.
Palm oil is now the second most important edible oil in the world, after soybean oil, and has been the cornerstone of the country’s industrial growth.
Kam said the country would also have suffered a greater setback in the 1997 South East Asian financial crisis if it not had been cushioned by the solid performance of the palm oil industry.
Products derived from palm oil have found wide acceptance in the food industry worldwide, and no small thanks goes to Samuel Kam for betting Lam Soon’s growth on the many benefits of palm oil.