Bibliographic data

Jin-Bee, Ooi:. Geographies for Advanced Study. London; Harlow: Longmans, Green & Co., 4th impr. [4. Druck] ed., 1969 [1963], 376–378.

Malaya in Southeast Asia

[p. 376]



In less than two centuries Malaya has emerged from obscurity to occupy an outstanding place among the new nations of South-East Asia. For most of this period it was a colony, a small part of the British Empire. The revolutionary changes that have occurred in this country were by-products of colonialism: the development of an economy based on agriculture, mining and trade, and the transformation of a homogeneous society into a multi-racial one were the fruits of a policy which delegated to Malaya, as indeed to the other British colonies, a role as a source of raw materials and a market for British manufactured goods. In fulfilling this role, Malaya started with two natural advantages. Its western coastline adjoins the narrow Straits of Malacca, one of the great trade routes of the world along which pass the ships plying between Western Europe and the Far East. From the earliest times Malaya has been in a position to take advantage of the opportunities for trade afforded by this international highway crowded with traffic. Malacca, of historic fame, and, more recently, Penang, Singapore and Port Swettenham served as convenient refuelling stations and as points of entry and exit for goods and people.

The other natural advantage was in possessing some of the richest tin resources of the world in an easily accessible and easily mined form. The revenue derived from the development of these resources paved the way for the early establishment of modern land transport which in turn was one of the main factors contributing to the remarkable rise of the rubber industry. Tin was the magnet which drew in thousands of Chinese miners, just as much as rubber was later to draw in further thousands of Indian labourers. The material results of the development of the tin and rubber industries are striking. Physically, it led to the opening up of large expanses of once unproductive land. A country which less than a century ago had only about half a million acres under crops now has more than five and a half million cultivated acres, and a further half-million acres alienated for mining. In addition one-quarter of the total land area of the Peninsula

[p. 377]

is under productive and protective forest reserves. The attendant benefits of prosperity have permeated into all phases of life, in the forms of modern health and medical facilities, roads, railways, schools and universities, and social services. Equally striking was the parallel expansion of population following upon the influx of great numbers of immigrants from China, India and Indonesia.

In the early days of the colonial era the major problem was the comparatively straightforward one of locating the natural resources of the country, assessing their potentialities and developing them. Development was along laissez faire lines. The colonial government regulated many, and established some, of the economic and social institutions necessary for such development to take place. Likewise it brought stability to a land once racked by internal strife, and ensured that the returns of production were not seized upon by the exercise of arbitrary right. In an atmosphere which saw everyone preoccupied with making a living, and some with accumulating a fortune, it was not surprising that politics were relegated to the background. There was little friction among the different peoples not only because there was plenty of land and room for expansion, but also because they did not compete for the same jobs. This divergence of economic interests among the races also meant that their settlements were physically separate. The Malays and the immigrant Indonesians continued growing padi along river and coast. The other immigrants, on the other hand, were drawn to the towns, villages, tin-mines and estates along what later came to be known as the Tin and Rubber Belt of western Malaya, between the coast and the Main Range.

The present level of economic development was not attained without many mistakes and failures caused through lack of understanding of and adaptation to the environmental conditions of the Peninsula. Many thousands of acres of land were destroyed by the 'landmining' techniques adopted by the early planters in their search for quick profits. The top-soil from further thousands of acres of rubber land was stripped off by erosion because the planters kept the estates clean-weeded in the manner of orchards in Europe. During the earlier and extremely destructive phase of tin-mining, whole countrysides were exposed to severe erosion because of the removal of the protective forest cover, while the natural regime of many of the rivers of west central Malaya was permanently disrupted through the uncontrolled discharge of mining effluent into the river beds.

[p. 378]

The European as well as Asian pioneers were also confronted from the onset with the problem of health maintenance in a country rife with many deadly endemic and epidemic diseases. The hot, wet climate of Malaya is highly favourable to the development of a large number of diseases as well as of the vectors which transmit them. Vector-borne diseases are especially dangerous because the physical conditions are ideal for the year-round propagation of many of the vectors, notably insects. Perhaps the most deadly and certainly the most notorious of the disease-carrying insects is the anopheline mosquito which transmits malaria. Climatic conditions are continuously favourable to mosquito life, and malaria took a heavy toll of life before effective measures were discovered to control the disease. The extensive clearing of forested land for tin-mining, rubber cultivation, fuel, for the construction of roads and railways and other forms of land-use inevitably disturbed the ecological balance of nature, and where such clearing took place on hilly and undulating land drained by swift-flowing streams, led to the rapid multiplication of Anopheles maculatus. Since the most suitable locations for rubber are the free-draining foothills of western Malaya, the rubber estates suffered heavily from malaria transmitted by A. maculatus, with mortality rates reaching 63 per thousand in 1911.


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