37 | Robert Chelliah, Lexmin and a Life Well Lived

My guest today is Robert Chelliah. Robert’s story is unreal so strap yourself in. Born in Malaysia in 1939 in a rubber plantation town. His father passed away when he was only 7, and when Robert turned 16 he left home and hitchhiked across Asia to Europe and then to England. Robert later returned home, became a social worker in Singapore, and eventually became one of Australia’s first migration agents in 1990. He built a successful business with offices in Perth, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and India. And today, while still a registered migration agent, he’s found a new passion in life. Robert at 83, is the founder and CEO of Lexmin, an organic health food farm he created in Cambodia.

In this conversation, we cover his incredible story, the secrets to his incredible success and drive, and what it’s like running an organic farm in Cambodia.

Robert’s enthusiasm and positive attitude are infectious, and there’s so much to take away from his story today. So I’m sure you’ll enjoy my conversation with Robert Chelliah!

Special thanks to Norm Aisbett and Murray Hunter for helping make this interview happen. Murray for helping me connect with Robert, and massive thanks to Norm for helping with my research and questions by provinding past research and interviews. Wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

Show Notes:

[00:00:31] – [First question] – Hitchhiking to the UK
[00:03:09] – Back to Singapore
[00:05:50] – Coming to Australia and social work
[00:13:45] – Settling Christmas Islanders
[00:17:03] – Interesting episode in India
[00:21:47] – Origins of Lexmin and health wellness
[00:25:31] – Challenges of Organic farming
[00:36:19] – Why is Robert so good at tackling and solving problems
[00:42:39] – Where Lexmin goes from here
[00:45:04] – Robert’s favourite memory across his career?
[00:53:37] – Advice for young people?

Connect with Robert:

  • Lexmin’s Website: https://www.lexmin.com/
  • Australian Migration Agents’ Website: https://austmigration.com.au/
  • Connect with Robert on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/robertchelliah/
  • Robert’s Australia (Mobile): +(61) 412 173 502
  • Robert’s Cambodia (Mobile): +(855) 1533 5259 | +(855) 1233 5259

Listen to this episode on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcherCastboxGoogle Podcasts, or on your favourite podcast platform.


Kalani Scarrott (00:31): Okay, my guest today is Robert Chelliah. Robert’s story is, honestly, unreal. So, strap yourself in. Born in Malaysia in 1939 in a rubber plantation town. Robert’s father passed away when he was only seven, and when Robert was 16, he then left home and hitchhiked across Asia to Europe and then onto England. Robert later returned home, became a social worker in Singapore, and eventually made his way to Australia, where he became one of Australia’s first migration agents. In 1990, he built a successful business from scratch with officers in Perth, Singapore, KL, and India.

And today, while still a registered migration agent, he’s found a new passion in life. So Robert at 83 is the founder and CEO of Lexmin, an Organic Health Food Farm in Cambodia. So in today’s conversation, we cover his incredible story, some secrets to his success and his drive for life, and what it’s like running an organic farm in Cambodia. So Robert’s enthusiasm and positive attitude are infectious, and there’s so much to take away from your story today. So I’m sure you’ll enjoy my conversation with Robert Chelliah. So Robert, cheers for coming on, but in as much detail as you want to share and feel comfortable with, Yeah, just tell me your story and who you are and where you’ve come from.

Robert Chelliah (01:44): Thank you for this opportunity Kalani because I, I think you are giving me an opportunity to be present in an international forum and that I think has got a number of valuable lessons, and experiences to other people because I, when I look into my own background, the way it started my life from abject poverty from a working-class background, the way I had reason with my own self-effort because there were no family members to help me. And the way I had reached the height of what I think an average person should have reached. I’m very grateful to the many, many people who have helped me along the journey and my own desire to change myself. so the fundamental drive was, as I said, I was born in a very working-class background, and I had the option not that either I got, got caught up in the same poverty, or I come out of that poverty and, and rise in life opportunity and life chances.

(03:09): So Norm would’ve told you I hitchhiked to England in 1956 at age of 16 from Malaysia, right up to the UK. And then I appeared on BBC on the 730 Frost Programme. And he asked me because I was, I had my photo in the Times on the first page, and he asked me, What do I want to do? When I originally I said, I want to study. So I did all these enormous offers, and I had the greatest opportunity to land up in a leading public school, Lancing College and at Oxford University, which gave me the opportunity in my formative years to change my life value, life opportunity, life chances. And I learned a lot because I was mingling with children from the upper crust. and, and the value that was learned in those educational situations was indeed valuable, mainly a sense of integrity, and honesty.

(04:30): These are the values that you acquire when, when, if you’re in the right company. So that’s my background. Now, I’ve came back, and then I started work in Singapore as a probation officer. Then I was handpicked, headhunted, to become what do you call industrial relation officer to smoothen the conflict between the Singapore government and the Malaysian government over the water works mainly because cultural conflict. The Chinese engineers from Singapore, the Malay workers from Malaysia, there was a cultural disconnect. and so it became highly politicized. so I was selected by a high-powered committee to smoothen that conflict because I was a social worker trained in cross-cultural community development. And I went into the job into a very highly stressful job where people like Lee Kuan Yew and so on but keeping a close eye because of the sensitive water situation, but soothened the conflict between the workers.

(05:50): And within five years, industrial relation came, everybody was happy, but I got bored. I don’t like routine, boring job. So a friend of mine said, Robert, come to Australia and we, we need people like you. Now, that was in ’75. In the early seventies, the white Australian policy was removed from the statute book. What happened is, for before that, for decades, Australians were frightened of this yellow peril, the Japanese invasion this colored people coming in, destroying your anglosaxon life, you know, all that sort of fear was embedded and entrenched into the population mind. Now, Gough Whitlam and people like Gough Whitlam and Al Grassby saw that was not to me, they have to change the social fabric, social values, the ethos or the equalitarian ethos of the Australian society. So what they did, they decided to allow a number of select professionals from Asia, both black skin and yellow skin and brown skin, to come into Australia on a trial basis.

(07:14): And I was one of the early one of those pioneers. So I was sponsored actually by Archbishop Campbell and Bishop Challen in the Anglican Health and Welfare services to do social work to the community. So I went there in 1975. And within three weeks my visa was approved. I had everything arranged. I didn’t go through the normal pressure of a new migrant coming and looking for a job and so on. And I settled very smoothly into the job. But soon, the social work I found is quite different from what the situation called for traditional social workers are trained to keep the victims accommodate the problem, to live with the problem. None of it requires an extraordinary, intuitive person to change the root cause of the problem. So the problem was not the victim, the problem was something else.

(08:18): So what I did when I was doing social work, in the poorest section of the general community, invariably I attracted Aborigines. I attracted a few migrants because of my ethnic background, my appearance, physical visibility, and so on. And I had an extra work to work with them. The biggest problem was attitudinal racism. and, and when in the ’76, the boat people arrived, and that accentuated racism at its highest, you know, and there were these organizations backed by White South Africans, the Ku Klux Klan the Skin Heads they were all in Australia. And when they saw this changing of social values, they, me, they emerged, became more visible. And to the extent they became almost violent, threatening people’s home. And I was the main target because the immigration department absorbed me into the Post Arrival Settlement Program because I could speak multiple language.

(09:41): I was trained as a community development worker. I knew cross cultural counseling. So they absorbed me into the post arrival settlement services. So the model we worked out, I shouldn’t be a public servant, I should be framed within the ngo and supported by the Council of Churches, the trade union movement, the media that’s our Norm came in and, and some benign community organizations, them to come and be involved in that controversial social change. and I became the target of these racist groups. But nonetheless, I formed the Perth Asian Community Center and youth that center to bring about additional change and a change in the mindset of entrenched bureaucracy. The Australian bureaucracy and service providers were not prepared for the sudden influx of Mekong Delta refugees and so on. They couldn’t handle the language problem, the names and so on.

(10:59): So every public department, they would send the worker to me. I was one social worker, and I would go into my office, social work NGO office, and I’ll find 30 people queuing up with all my problems from health problem to this problem and that problem, Oh my God. And I, I, and I tell you, I became the year, the nose, the year, the mouth of this enormous social disconnect to the public service. And I, out of sheer frustration, I became highly vocal very critical of the system being the inability to be sensitive. And, and I made some drastic recommendation publicly. And Norm was a senior reporter in the West, and he was very helpful. He was my agent influencer in the media. I, we worked in tandem, and the Union Trade Union Council stood by me with any award threat and so on.

(12:13): So with that, I became very brave, and I would criticize the system so much, so the senior public servants hated my guts. but change has to come. So eventually we laboured a group team. We brought about change. It was painful, stressful. But drastic change did come about. and people like Alby supported me very, very well. And I rose up in the rank. so I was given the task of settling this cross-cultural board people. And I was able to counsel them and at the same time pinpoint where the root problem was. And I told how the root problem is to change, not the people have, not, the victims have to change. The root cause has to change. And it did change. It did change. there were suddenly I felt I’m being accepted. And when Brian Burke came into power, the labour government he straight away say, Robert, come into the Ministry of Community Services and help to cha develop policies and of access and equity to the minorities and the ethnic communities.

(13:45): And that’s where I formulated policies. and I also given the task of settling Christmas Islanders from Christmas Island, they became part of the mainland, I think in ’78 or ’79. And they were cocooned in the island with a different, they had no idea of the mainland when they had to be resettled. I had to do the social resettlement planning things like how to dispose of rubbish their rights. Yes, I mean, they were living, they were recruited from different parts of Asia and, and in island in an Asian lifestyle. And if they had to come and live in the urban setting of mainland, they needed some basic social skills, you know in housing and application, housing, health, voting, the human rights, and so on. And, and this process of empowerment. I ran into problem with the union. The, the union saw me as a threat to the absolute hold on power.

(14:56): So there was a guy called Gordon Bennett. He was a good friend, but he, he also became very threatened by my independent empowerment process. So he banned me from the island. So, yes I couldn’t go in, but Keith Wilson, who was a minister in charge of that service, is well known to me. I worked under Keith Wilson, Reverend Keith Wilson, in that he was, before he became a minister in the state government, I was doing parish work in his, He told the Islanders, Union, Union, if you do not accept Robert Chelliah, we suspend the service to the island. So one whole year, the service was suspended, but to this day, it earned me a good reputation among the islanders. Were well settled in, in the mainland because I stood up to the rights and so on. You know? it was very, very traumatic, challenging a union.

(15:59): And I stood by my principle of social work and so on. And that warned me the day so without problem. So that’s my background in Australia in 1990. I felt bored having set the program, the policies, everything. I get easily bored when the work becomes routine, when there’s no challenge, you know? So one day I came and told my wife, I resigned from my job as a principal officer, which was earning, giving me over 80, $90,000 a year. That time my wife nearly broke down and almost threw me out of the house, but nonetheless, I set up my agency, Australian Migration Agents. And, in 1992, when the law was introduced to register migration agent, I was one of the first agent to register myself as an agent. And, and I became quite a prominent agent, rapidly.

(17:03): And I had offices in South Africa, Middle East. I’ve travelled all over the world from Iceland to South Africa, to China and so on, and I like traveling. So money was not important. So whatever money I earned, I experienced the world. and then in 1992, yes, I became a registered agent, and then I had a very successful, I had seven employees. Three of them lawyers employed by my company. I went to India, this is an interesting episode. I had a contract from the West Australian government to start a TAFE college in India, in Chandigarh. And it is linked to Curtin University. And so I, as a migration agent, very successful in a town called Chandigarh, I started the agency, they prepared the school. The mafia was watching me in that city of Chandigarh. And when everything was coming to fruitation, they came and approached me.

(18:13): They want to be participant in the program. And when I did my due diligence, I didn’t like them. I said, No I’m quite alright. What they did, they faked up first information report, false report. They, I mean, the police, the judiciary, all you need, the mafia. And, and, and they came to arrest me when the minister was there. And, I got an early warning and I, they, the lady said, Run Robert, go and hide. So early next morning, I hid and, for seven days I had to decide whether I want to give them the money. They were demanding $6,000 first or take them to the court. But anyway, I decided to fight, and I told them, I’ve not lost my integrity, and I’m not going to pay something. Anyway, in the end, the case dragged on for six months until the Australian government, and the senators were convinced I am being victimized.

(19:26): My due process was compromised. So they were going to race in the Senate. what is being done to this little fellow Robert Chilleah, you know? And in the end the foreign minister think, Downer, if I’m not mistaken, he took my case to the cabinet and the Minister of Immigration state, No, what Robert has done as nothing wrong is due process being compromised. So the cabinet decided to give me a second passport and help me to flee India. Yes. So actually the embassy, they helped me. I took a midnight flight and escape. So, and, and that’s an episode that would make a very interesting chapter in my, if I write a book on it. Okay, nevermind. So that is how my migration and started and after the Indian episode, I scaled down my operation. When I came back to Australia, I had $5 in my pocket.

(20:34): All my reserves finished, all my staff. I told, they already, I told them to look for other jobs. And my two daughters said Daddy, don’t do anything. We will look after you retire. I’m not the retiring type. So I told my son-in-law, John, gimme $10,000 for one year. I will prove I can come up again. So he asked me for a business plan. I gave him a business plan, and yes, he gave me the $10,000 and he didn’t want to take it back after that. And I rose back to my same, more glorious status as a migration agent until 2018 at, I came to Cambodia from Malaysia for a holiday, 2017, and I saw the people, you very good. and plenty of land, plenty of space. And I thought, I’ll do some few migration cases, and the same time going to semi-retirement.

(21:39): And that’s how Lexmin was started. Do you want me to talk or do you wanna ask questions?

Kalani Scarrott (21:46): No, no, keep going. Yeah.

Robert Chelliah (21:47): Okay. So one of my friends, a client said, Robert, since you like gardening, there’s two hector of land, which is lying idle. Take it and do what you want to do. I love gardening. So I went and looked at the two hector of land, and I said, Okay, I will do some gardening. And I, what do I do? I say, I want to plant something which will contribute to human health. I was, at that time, about 79, 80 years of age. I said, What can I grow that will help me with my own health? You know? So I did some diligence and I studied about moringa and started that early stage. So my first pro thing was, I didn’t know anything about agriculture.

Lexmin’s Organic Moringa Farm

(22:37): So I contracted a Japanese consultant and he came and he said, We have to do this. We have to do that. And he charged an exorbitant fees, midway I realized he was not a consultant. He was a salesman trying to sell his fertilizer. He, sorry. And he’s learning. I have to teach him about Moringa, you know, So I had to terminate his service, But then I already had planted. I brought in some seeds from India from Malaysia, from Singapore and planted under different, different conditions, different soil and watched them in a very crude manner how each of the plants were performing. and kept some data and collected this data. Then a friend of mine say, Robert, I’ve got about 25 hectares of landline idle. You can take it and use it and pay me whatever you want to.

(23:47): By that time, my passion and my curiosity in agriculture has gone deep. I used to read every night up to two 3:00 AM about soil, about pest, irrigation, nutrient of plants, the physical characteristics, You know, in my own way, I used to read in the Google search and, and try to digest as much information as possible and try to apply those knowledge directly into the field. So the more I went into it, the deeper it took me out of total curiosity, wanting to further and further explore and understand the real sciences of agronomy and agriculture. And, in that process, all my earnings from the migration service, and they were quite substantial. And my own life savings I put into the project. I didn’t stop to think back on the commercial aspect. It became how can I describe? It’s like an artist at abstract artists trying to paint an abstract painting reflecting his total emotion on the canvas, you know? And, and, and that’s what it was a non-agriculture graduate trying to create an agriculture farm as best as it could be.

Kalani Scarrott (25:29): And it’s organic as well?

Robert Chelliah (25:31): Yeah, organic. Yeah. Right from the beginning, I told the Japanese consultant, If we are doing something, we are doing it best. Not halfway about it. So the Japanese consultant say, Oh, don’t worry about organic. I’ll have to sell your product in Japan. I said, No, I wanted to international global standard. By that time, I sensed the food security of the world is becoming a critical issue. Not only the food security, the nutrition deficiency of the people that then there was no endemic, no co but then there was the carbon climate change. All these three, to me, appeared to be a critical issue that’s going to confront agriculture, food supply. So I decided three things to combine into one approach. Highly nutritional crops, crops that will give nutrition, dietary supplement and food crops, organic food crops that would globally will be in demand.

Robert meeting with farm workers

(26:51): So I got this 25 hector of land on a 20 year lease, and started cultivating plants like moringa olive, for, which is constant, the miracle plan for nutrition. Black ginger black turmeric, roselle, all these nutritional crops in, in the, between the 25 actors. And there were too many traumatic challenges because organic is not an easy cultivation. and I am the first, I would say the, say the first crazy guy to venture into something unknown difficult area where nobody has ventured. There are people who have got mono crop, the big corporate, corporate cash growers single crop, the rice growers the rubber palm, this our big, big corporations big and, and they are cultivating on a large commercial scale. And one or two of them were organic for a single crop. But I am the first farmer in Cambodia to have taken the challenge to have a, a horticulture with diverse crops, horticulture crops, to meet the global safety standards of supply, both supplement and so on.

(28:22): And I chose, and I did look at the land in Malaysia and so on. Cambodia has got a geographical index land. Now, geographical index land, as you might know, is a prime land in few spots in the world where anything grown there is a superior quality. So my, I chose a farm in a area in the foothills, which is geographically indexed land, where the soil was mountain soil. And that has paid me in the sense it got the recognition of this enormous challenge from the last four years, which I achieved, which amazed many people who have tried but did not succeed. But I have succeeded, by and large to the extent that Cambodian government recognized something in me, in my farm. They entered into an MOU with me to train, yes, to train other horticulture farmers to cultivate similar crops under safety standards, not so much as pure organic.

Cambodia Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) Visit to Lexmin Farm

(29:38): We are organic to the extent we are certified by Eco Cert. Eco Cert is France based, not Asian-based, and recognized by USA Europe, Canadian and the Australian by default. These are the world’s standard audited eco cert. We have Australian vegan we have about 10 certificates, that good agriculture practice from Europe, the good manufacturing practice from London, all the 10 certificates that is our calling cart now, which is being recognized as a valuable asset of the company. and it shows an achievement of a 83 old guy who didn’t know anything about agriculture, but as brought up an entity, the framework, the, the, the infrastructure ready to meet the global demand. in that it has absorbed almost every penny of income. now, I, I am not able to go forward to the next level because lack of fundings. so we are looking at ways and means how to generate this cash flow income.

(31:05): And my friend here, Murray, who has sacrificed his comfort zone from Thailand and has come here to help me stabilized the company in whatever way, and its knowledge extensive knowledge in all the aspects of startup companies, agriculture, and so on, Icon is highly valuable and, and useful. And it’s given us some very highly constructive suggestions, which we are implementing now. We, our product, it takes about five years for a agriculture company of our nature to turn around to smell the first dollar. So we are just about in the fourth year, unfortunately, the Covid came and disrupted. Otherwise we would’ve achieved faster. Our, So our product is beginning to go into Japan Australia Europe and now we are talking seriously to a China company. And China is looking at big volume.

(32:24): Our nutrition, our nutrition supplement is considered one of the best. So we also have a contract with the European company to supply minimum for the 50 tons of ginger, Galangal, chilli, turmeric, you know, and July we supply Ginger and turmeric. Because of problems, we couldn’t supply them the minimum required. we could only supply 70% of what we had to supply of the two items. Now we have to improve our organic processing. Organic cultivation is one of the most difficult agriculture. We cannot use a drop or a grain of pesticide unlike conventional. and when, when we get heavy rain the soil becomes eroded, erosion of its nutrient, and the pest becomes invasive during the wet season, and we cannot manage the pest. So we had to quickly go into adaptive agriculture that I had to find the money to put four or five large net houses for a 10 meter by 50 meter.

(33:52): And we are been to cultivate this crops within the net house in a protected manner, and it’s in the early stage to see how successful they’re going to be in. I’ve also brought Moringa seeds from the World Bank, how I escort a Moringa World Bank seed. I’ve brought in seeds from 14 different countries, and we are going to test which of this variety is most best suited for the Mekong climate. And if it’s established, well, we will use that to local. I’m being recognized as a good pioneer in organic farming, and I’m, I’ve been invited to panel discussion in Singapore last month on the global women’s empowerment thing. I didn’t know what I was doing among all the women.

(34:54): And I’ve got this Cambodian government’s investor program on the 22nd where they’re talking about successful investors, Australian investors in Cambodia. I must say there are one or two ministers very interested in what I’m doing. seemingly they are supportive. So far, I have not received any material assistance either from the Australian government or the Cambodian government or anybody. so I, maybe I’m not forceful in demanding thing, but the important thing is I do what I had to do, and I want to make my farm viable, and it’s going to be viable because in my life experience, I’ve never failed. by and large, I’ve never failed in any project I had undertaken because I always follow my motto, do one thing and do it best and, and achieve success. So roughly that is my background. And you can ask any questions. Kalani,

Kalani Scarrott (36:13): Where do I start? It’s so good. Yeah. But it just seems like you’re always problem-solving, like always.

Robert Chelliah (36:18): Yes. Yeah.

Kalani Scarrott (36:19): And the root of the problem as well, Like, is that just something you learn or practice or?

Robert Chelliah (36:23): it is brought into my, from my early age you know, I look back into my life. How did I come from an estate kid, labourers child, to where I am, where I have been and where I am? it’s an inbred curiosity. You know, when I was schooling in Malaysia in a village school, we were taught about snow and Shakespeare and mountain cat in all that alien culture, you know, Whereas we were living in a village, in a tropical village overgrown with weed and poverty. So it’s like a two unfocused image in the mind during the formative years, and that got more worsened. When I walked back from my school, I used to pass an Australian military camp, and these military soldiers used to throw the comics books in the bin. I don’t think it’s in your time. Maybe you have seen them.

(37:33): The Beano, The Dandy, The Topper, these are the comic books for kids, you know, And I used to accelerate them from the dust bin. And when I, I used to look after about six or seven cows. I was a cow herder. I used to read all these comics and, and get these images of sausages, you know, scenes of European culture which to me is only in the mind, not in reality. so that created an insatiable curiosity where you, you live in a different world, but your mind has been cultivated into a different value system, you know? So that motivated me to change. So I remember collecting a few dollars from my friend and, and getting a rucksack, and hitchhiking to my widow mother. She had no control over me at that time. Poor thing. because I mean, I couldn’t be anything worse than where I was at that time, you know?

(38:42): So that courage set me off on the world journey. And, and then looking back at it, some of the people I mixed with became Michael Foot. I don’t know, you know, Michael Foot, the labor guy from UK, his son was with me studying in Lansing college. He was a good friend at that age. Haile Selassie’s son was my hostel mate. I mean, this kids of high class. and in the weekend, people will come to the private school, they will pick up their children. And because I was there, and I get picked up with one them as well, I go to spend the weekend. So that created a fusion of value of it changed my inner value construct, which helps in life, you know that is more than any university education, I would say that change over of, at, at general change.

(39:50): and the other thing is that impacted my life was Bishop Challen in the West Australia is a libertarian Christian. He’s not a theological, He, he believe in Christianity ethically. So he sent me on a tour to ARC Action Resource Center in Melbourne. It’s, it’s a center that taught people how to become empowered, not to be frightened by bureaucracy, how to handle threatening situations confidently, you know. so I became a very, very effective social worker. I used to challenge some of the bureaucratic thinking until Charles Court, the premier of Western Australia, He publicly called me. I’m a communist.

(40:53): He called, he called Archbishop Bishop Challen and told him, Who is this guy coming to teach us how to suck eggs? He sounds more like a communist, you know? So, and we, and and bishop Challen say that’s the kind of a social worker we need, you know, in Australia and only. So, I mean, those are the adventures of being an agent, provocateur of social change. you have to be brave. you need not be sensitive. You are only accountable to your own conscience your own value. you don’t worry about what others say and what others think. The moment if you do that, you become subjugated to other people’s subjective expectations. So that, that’s how I’ve been able to do what I think is the right thing to do and do it rightly with, with with commitment. so that’s, that’s, and my achievement, which is the farm. Now, Lexmin is at a very precarious situation. It can fall either way because of lack of funding, lack of movement for to the next level. So I have to have very careful, and I have full support and confidence with my friend here, Murray. and he’s bringing in some one or two other people to help to, to see how we can move forward. Yes.

Kalani Scarrott (42:39): Yeah. So what problems moving forward? Is it just logistics or, I don’t know. Yeah, with Lexmin.

Robert Chelliah (42:45): our factory is 80%, I would say 60%. The machines are lying [idle]. They’re not being unpacked from the casing. They have got to be joined. We need funding for them. small thing, like we need filtered water to wash the vegetable, the crops. we don’t have that in the farm, so we have a, well, 75 feet deep, but the water is slightly heavy content, heavy metal. They’ve got to be filtered and usable on food. Then there is this climate change, which requires more net housing and the soil heavy rain as bleach the soil, because the soil is, yes, it’s on a slope. heavy rain creates both surface erosion and underground erosion. So there’s uneven distribution of soil nutrient. That means it, the, the soil has got to be slightly reconditioned. now we are going to go cultivate organic vegetable.

Lexmin’s Farm Workers

(44:00): There’s no one in Cambodia cultivating and supplying certified organic vegetable. And Murray has identified that gap. And we are now going to cultivate organic vegetable for the market consumers. And I brought in seeds, organic seeds from Queensland, like cucumber, cabbage, leafy vegetable, tomatoes, and we are going to cultivate them and distribute them for the local consumers. all this requires additional funding. and, and that’s that. And then I’ve invited potential investors to come and share the, the, the project in a participatory manner. and we are looking at various structures how to lift Lexmin into the next level.

Kalani Scarrott (45:04): So, big question. Looking back on your career, what’s your favorite memory?

Robert Chelliah (45:09):  my favorite memory is a challenge that I took it up when I was re resettling the Christmas Islanders they were brought to work in Christmas Island, and when they became invalid or unable, they were sent back with nothing. You know, they were absolutely exploited. And, and when I was put in charge to resettle these islanders, and, and there were about 20 cents for each ton of Phosphate that went into the welfare of the workers, where the money went, nobody knew, you know? And, and, and my understanding was somebody was sitting on it, you know? So my first program was we must identify all those people were sent back to Malaysia to bring them back and compensate them for what they should have been entitled to. Among them was one old man, very blind male gentlemen. He, he was somewhere near Malacca and I, after great pain, somebody told me there’s a man in absolute poverty who had worked in Christmas Island for 40 years due to diabetes.

(46:24): He lost his eyesight in the island, and he was sent back without any compensation. so that really struck a line in my mind and my heart. So I went all over Malaysia to look for him and identified him with the help. And I said, We will take him into Australia. Now, the Australian Migration Act says if a person is sightless, he cannot enter Australia, cannot be given a resident status. Yes, that was a law. sightless person cannot. So I forgot that I was a public servant, you know, And I stood the sheet and I said, That guy needs to be brought back into Australia. And the guys in Canberra at the federal level say, Robert, don’t forget, you’re a public servant. I say, I don’t care whether I’m a public servant or not, He’s going to come into Australia. And I had his passport, all arranged.

(47:29): And there, there was system, not then I told the Australian minister, I will have the international media stand by to say how this man was exploited by the farmers in Australia for their phosphate. And, and, and you are now denying him. He’s right. And that became a serious complaint against me some days, federal level to the state level. And luckily meaning the, the minister was Reverend Keith Wilson. He’s a good Christian, you know, and e empathize with me. He understood where I’m coming from, and I’m grateful to him. He was very supportive of me. So was Bishop Challen and I won. I won. they allowed, in the end, they relented. He came, they gave us housing, commission, house, settle. Very well. His son grew up. That time was one, two years old. And last month he came to Malacca to look for me.

(48:36): And, and the family that helped him, I went and saw them Malacca last, last month. They gave me a VIP treatment, you know, I mean their relatives. I mean, those are instances that sticks in your mind. Is there, what do you call it? Calls for extraordinary strength of bravery to challenge a state that I was young, I nothing to lose because I’m used to it. I can be in a five star hotel in the moment, next moment I can be sleeping under the bridge at that time. So to me, all that is not materially important. What is important is through the right thing. I mean, there are many, many instances like that, you know in the early days in the seventies, you cannot go near the Department of Immigration. Any foreigner going, you are considered a threat to the system.

(49:38):  there was one incident. ASIO had a thick file on me, and there was an incident where the union and the right wing guys were going to come and bash up people like me in and, and ASIO guy was there, you know, And I happened to be there. The file was within, and I saw my name was wrongly spelled. I told him, my friend, you have written, spelled my name wrongly. Can you please change? I mean, this are the instances of your adventure in life. You know I, I have both my distractors, detractors, and friends at the high level. some admired my courage. Some called me a shitstirrer. and, and then those are the things that as community worker, social change, agent provocateur has to face. I had my heart attack at the age of 38. I almost died.

(50:46): And, and, and because of the pressure of the work nature of the work, but I, I, I overcome that, overcame that thing. So Lexmin is my major project. It has got lot of needs. we are looking for infusion of funds. and, and I’ve been talking to my friend Murray, and we think that it should take a certain structure. I, because I have no, no one to take over the project. So I accept Murray, why we should form a trust and put the whole project into a trust form so that the, the beneficiaries will be there and it can only grow and grow. I expect the project to become a 30 million in in the next five to eight years. The dietary supplement in the world last year traded at 70 billion dietary supplement trading. The, the people are beginning to be more and more administering themselves their own preventive care healthcare.

(52:07): They’re no more going to the doctor to synthetic medicine and dietary supplement. A plant-based, especially plant based supplement is growing very rapidly because of this demand. So I have every basis to base my view that my Lexmin product and the food crop will expand and grow to become minimum 30 million in the next five to eight years given the world trend on supplements. And then, and to do that, we need funding. We need, right? Human resource. We, we are, I’m short of human resource. although I have friends like Murray to come and help me that is not the end of the story. I need younger people with vision, with commitment with same level of passion to take the company forward. Because I’m 83 my level of energy is eroding. and I’ve got my own limitation in that sense. So I have to take planned action to mitigate that, that gap, possible gap.

Kalani Scarrott (53:37): Last question, Maybe any advice for young people? Like what’s your life skill or experience you think they need?

Robert Chelliah (53:44): My life experiences, all I can say is everybody has got inner strength, untapped inner energy. That inner energy and that inner strength has got to be cultivated to come to the forefront. When the situation calls human beings, naturally, when they’re faced with a crisis, they are daunted, they are frightened, they subjugate themselves. They think one should be trained. University doesn’t give that sort of training. It, it doesn’t give you the strength of character to stand up to challenges and only your inner strength in a level of energy, your intuitive vision. You have to learn how to tap into that and, and use that to overcome the crisis. That is a very valuable skill that youngsters should be taught.

Kalani Scarrott (54:50): Awesome. Robert, thank you so much for coming on today. Anything else or ?

Robert Chelliah (54:53): it’s okay. I thank you for giving us this opportunity. and then I welcome anyone from anywhere to come and visit us in the farm. Our farm is open and all my knowledge is open. I don’t consider my knowledge to be any proprietary secret or anything, and I’m happy to share my experiences.

Kalani Scarrott (55:22): Awesome. I love it. Thank you so much, Robert. That was, Yeah, that’s great.