Rubber in Malaya
Development of Malaya: Agriculture
Workers in a rubber estate (RRI)
The Malay population remained in their villages where they pursued rice cultivation and other forms of agriculture. Every able-bodied man and woman helped in the planting of rice. Fruit trees and spices were for own consumption. Surplus rice was sold to others. Malay agricultural production remained the same as before the British. The plan of Swettenham to introduce Chinese rice farmers failed to materialize. The administrators wanted to increase rice production and improve the economy of the Malays.
The Krian Scheme
At the insistence of the British Resident, E. W. Birch, the Government got an irrigation expert from India for the Krian irrigation scheme. It was proposed to irrigate 50,000 acres. The scheme was implemented in 1906 at the cost of 1,600,000. The reservoir was 10 square miles. It could discharge six-and-three-quarter million cubit feet of water per minute. The main irrigation canal was 21 miles long. The town water supply also improved. Krian thus become the rice bowl of the country. The Krian Scheme served as example for the Sungei Manik and Tanjong Karang Schemes. After independence, the same principles were used for the Kemugu Scheme and the Muda Scheme.
After 1890, coconut growing by farmers became popular. The coconut tree needs very little care. As assisted by a German from Singapore, R. Angler. Mr. Angler bought some land in Port Dickson and planted it with coconuts and introduced oil manufacture. He established his factory in Kuala Selangor. In 1909, the FMS had 215,000 acres of coconut plantations valued at 85 million dollars. Copra export became an important source of revenue. Indian labourers in lower Perak also worked on coconut estates.
Sitiawan Methodist Scheme
The Chinese immigrants proved to be versatile and supplied much needed labour of all kinds. The Methodist Mission started a scheme in Sitiawan. Jungle land was cleared. Though some left for better jobs, particularly tin mining, the scheme was a success. Lifestock was reared, especially pigs. Rubber was also planted.
As townships grew, the Chinese squatters cleared the land and started market gardening. They produced fresh vegetables, reared pigs and poultry, and produced eggs. The Government though aware that the squatters were using the land illegally, did not take any action as they were satisfying a much-needed service. Indians also moved into Cameron Highlands and began producing vegetables for export. Flowers were also available in Cameron Highlands, Frasers Hill, Maxwell Hill and Penang Hill. During the Japanese occupation, some Indians from the estates took to market gardening.
St. Joseph Tamil Settlement
St. Joseph Tamil Settlement, sponsored by the Christian Missionaries, was established in Bagan Serai, Perak in 1882. Settlers were given eight acres each, and land was planted with paddy, coconuts and other crops.
Indians were also settled in Chua, Negri Sembilan. They were assisted by the Government Veterinary Department to obtain the TOL (or Temporary Occupation License), where they could get title for a payment of 10 dollars. Quit rent was fixed at two dollars per annum. In the lower Perak district, 100 Indian families were sponsored for various schemes. Indians also benefitted from the Tanjong Karang Project.
Ceylon coffee planters came to Malaya and tried their hand at coffee planting. insect pests destroyed The coffee plants were by. They were convinced by Ridley, the director of the Botanical gardens in Singapore, of the commercial prospects of rubber. The rubber, hevea brasiliensis, is a native of South America. A few saplings were smuggled into the Kew Gardens in England and some were sent to the Botanical Gardens in Singapore. They were experimented on by Ridley. Seeds were also planted at the residency at Kuala Kangsar. Many coffee planters turned to rubber planting.
H. N. Ridley and rubber tree (National Archives of Singapore)
In the 20th century, rubber became an important raw material for industries. Rubber was used for the manufacture of bicycle tyres, in addition to the earlier uses of the manufacture of rubber foot ware, various types of rubber hoses, hot water bottles and waterproof clothing. The price of rubber kept increasing. In 1915, the price rose fro two shillings and six pence per pound to three shillings per pound. Between 1892 and 1905, 50,000 acres were planted with rubber. In the 20th century, 100,000 acres were planted. By 1916, rubber had become a big revenue earner for Malaya. Plantations were not able to get sufficient workers from south India. Earlier, the indenture system was used, as in the sugar and gambiar plantations. The worker had to work for a certain period, normally five years, until his debts are cleared. Then the Kangani system was implemented. Under the Kangani system, the employer would name the number of workers required. The Kangani went to his village in south India to recruit his own people. The Kangani was reimbursed the charges for passage and other expenses. The Kangani got a commission. In 1907, as a result of representation by the United Planting Association of Malaya, an Indian Immigration Committee was set up. There were three official members, five from the planting industry and one from Singapore. The Immigration Committee was to import labourers for the Government, for the rubber industry and for private employers. The rubber planters were required to pay for the importation of labour. The Government benefitted. Government required labourers for the PWD, the Sanitary Boards and the Railways.
The Government provided accommodation for its workers in lines, like the estates. The workers had to work for one year. It was the intention of the Malayan Government to encourage free labour. The Government required intending immigrants to present themselves at the depots in south India. Assisted immigration came to an end in 1935 with the Government of India banning all assisted immigration.
In 1937, 237,300 Indian labourers were working in Malaya. A typical European estate was managed by a European manager (Periathorai) planting assistants were referred to a Sinnathorai. Dressers, clerks and conductors assisted them. The early ones were Ceylon Tamils. By 1920s, they were being replaced by the Malayalees. In every estate, there was a toddy shop and a temple controlled by the manager. The labour lines provided were filthy. There was over-crowding. One room was given for each family. Water supply was erratic. Latrines were communal. Workers were treated worse than animals. After 1935, with the intervention of the Labour Department, cottage type houses with four rooms were built. The labour code of 1927 provided for estate labourers entitled to one acre of land for part-time gardening. This was not implemented. The estates would not part with any land. The estate management was more interested n the high dividends for the British shareholders. After the war, labour conditions were further improved. Medical attention with doctors and dispensaries were implemented. Maternity benefits were added. Sanitary conditions were improved. Creches were also provided. It was intended to make estate labourers part-time agriculturalists.
The plant which is a native of Africa, elaies guineensis was first introduced in 1850. In 1917, it began to be planted on a commercial basis. Its uses are for the manufacture of soap, candles, margarine, vegetable oils, grease and as an alternative fuel. Rubber prices fell after the First World War. In 1924, the Guthrie Group began planting oil palm. It flourished in the country. In Malaya, it could be planted throughout the year. In 1930, 3350 tonnes were produced. At the outbreak of the Second World War, 36,000 hectares were planted. In 1939, 58,300 tonnes was produced. After the war, natural rubber faced competition from synthetic rubber and prices fell. It started the process of converting rubber estates to palm oil estates. Today, Malaysia, the successor of Malaya, is the world’s leading producer of palm oil. Estate Tamil labourers and their families drifted to urban areas and lived as squatters. Other races, particularly the Indonesians, became oil palm plantation workers. Today in Malaysia, 57 per cent of oil palm workers are of Indian descent and the country leads in pal oil production.