Development of Malaya: Transport

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The environment of Malaya plays a very important role in its development. The main geographical feature is a series of mountain ranges. There was heavy rainfall. From it arose the rivers. The Malay people settled on the lowlands and coastal areas. Rivers were first used as means of communication and trade. Rice cultivation drew settlers to flood land with convenient sources of irrigation. Malay kingdoms were cited and the capital was at a point near river mouths. All goods were taxed from areas watered by the main and subsidiary rivers. Land transport was very difficult. The jungle was difficult to penetrate. The carriage of goods using bridle paths was by elephant and human porters. The houses were built on stilts on riverbanks above the ground level to avoid floods.

In the 19th century, there was a rivalry between the European powers for control of the tin deposits in Malaya. Tin was becoming an important raw material for the industrial revolution. Earlier in the 1840s, large tin deposits were discovered in Larut in Perak and in the valleys of Klang River and at Sungei Ujong. In the early days, mining was by the Malays. Later the Chinese came in. In 1874, the British came in to control the unrest in the tin-producing areas. The residential system was established in Perak, Selangor and Sungei Ujong.


From “The Graphic” newsmagazine (March 14, 1925)

There was a need to connect the mines to the ports. Bullock carts were used. A gradient of 1:20 was maintained to allow for a smooth ride. Later, better rods were built and metaled if possible. Townships developed along the roads. In the townships, utilities were provided and other infrastructure arose. The government built accommodation for its workers. Accommodation was also provided for workers in the private sector. Individuals began building shophouses and houses for their own use or rent. Towns like Taiping, Ipoh, Seremban and Kuala Lumpur came into being. Later, as time passed, settlements began to move further inland.


There appeared a further need for transport improvement. Road building methods were improved. Most of the towns were connected to the mining areas and principal ports. In 1874, there were already 13 miles of road in Perak. One was from Kota Klian to Ujong Tempoh on the Larut River. There was one road from Simpang to Bukit Gantang. Matang was also connected to Taiping. In 1875, the rich tin fields of Kamunting were also connected. The road was also extended to Province Wellesley through Krian. There as a thorough road to Penang. In 1876, Telok Kertang on the Larut River was connected to Taiping.

In Selangor, the mining lands were much to the interior. The Klang River and the port at its mouth were the only outlets. Yap Ah Loy built roads from Kuala Lumpur to the mining areas. A road was built by Sultan Abdul samad connecting the mining areas with the Klang and Langat Rivers. In 1886, a road was built connecting Kuala Lumpurt to Damansara, about 16 miles long. Damansara lay on the Klang River. Later, a trunk road connecting the northern and southern parts of the mining areas was completed.


Shophouses built by Yap Ah Loy

In Sungei Ujong, a cart road linking Seremban to Pengkalan Kempas was completed in 1882. Later, roads were extended to Pantai and the valley of Sungei Ujong. Public works departments were established in all the protected states. By the end of the 19th century, the British also established in Pahang. PWD labourers were Indian. Engineers and Assistant Engineers were British. Technical Assistants and Overseers were mainly Ceylon Tamils. By 1902, there was a road linking Pahang to Selangor. Mecadamised road building was introduced. Labourers were housed in lines. Better accommodation was provided for the higher grades. Engineers were given bungalows. Kuala Lipis was connected by cart road to Kuala Kubu Bahru. A road from Benta in Pahang was connected to Selangor.

In 1908, a road linking Kulim to Province Wellesley was built. In 1909, Kangar in Perlis was linked to Alor Setar. In the Unfederated State of Johor, the development of the railway led to road building. In Kelantan, roads were built to connect all the agricultural areas. Finally, Kuala Terengganu in Terengganu was linked by road to Kota Bahru in Kelantan.



Kuala Lumpur Railway Station (from an old postcard)

At the same time, the British administrators also planned a programme of railway development. Rail traffic was cheap and it was ideal for the transport of tin. Roads alone were not able to handle the increasing traffic. The first railway was built in 1885 from Taiping to Port Weld and this was followed by one from Kuala Lumpur to Klang in 1886and. IN 1892 The railway was built from Seremban to Port Dickson and then there was a line from Ipoh to Telok Anson. Telok Anson was joined to Tapah road. In 1886 a second line was built linking Kuala Lumpur and Bukit Kuda through the Connaught bridge.

The British felt that building a railway with local labour was impossible. Appeal was made to Ceylon and the Ceylon government sent the pioneer corps. They included British engineers, Ceylonese subordinate staff and Indian labourers. The first core was 200 member strong and headed by John Trump. The difficult Bukit Berapit in Perak was tackled. They had to go through the jungle including building a tunnel under the hill. Everything was done by hand and later a second division of the pioneer core arrived.

The traffic manager and his subordinates handled traffic and they prepared specifications and estimates assisted by locals consisting of tracers and draughtmans. Labour was provided by Indian labourers and the accounts department headed by a Britisher assisted by locals mainly Ceylon Tamils handled revenue expenditure and statistics.

The Selangor railway had its compliment of station masters, drivers, guards, clerks, porters, watchmen and unskilled workers. In 1930 the FMS  railway took over the Selangor state railway. There were 189 British mainly technical and administrative staff, 1899 Indian and Ceylonese and others to fill the subordinate positions. Labourers were Indians and later the Sungai Ujong railway, the Johore railway and the Singapore railway was taken over by the FMSR.

The Federated States railway set up the Sentul Workshop equipped with modern machinery. The need for technical staff was met by introducing a five year course in the evening. It was mainly Ceylon Tamils and Indians who benefited. Rolling stock was manufactured locally. Locomotives were imported from England and assembled locally.


Malayan Railway locomotive (1938) (KTM Archives)

By 1920 Malaya had 959 miles of rail road and later train services to the east coast states from Gemas in Negri Sembilan was introduced. The train stations in Tanjong Pagar in Singapore, the Kuala Lumpur railway station and the railway administrative building and the Ipoh railway station became architectural masterpieces based on Moghul architecture.

Various stages in the development of the railway


  1. Taiping to Port Weld (1885) to Ulu Setatang (1892) to Pondok Tanjung (1889)
  2. Taiping to Bukit Gantang (1902) to Padang Renggas (1903)
  3. Krian River to Bagan Serai (1899) to Alor Bongsu (1901) to Pondok Tanjung (1902)
  4. Teluk Anson to Tapah Road (1893) to Talam and Kampar (1895) to Kota Baru (1895)
  5. Tapah Road to Bidor (1902) to Sunkai (1903) to Slim River (1903) to Tanjong Mail (1903)
  6. Perak boundary to Tanjong Malim (1900)
  7. Teluk Anson to Wharves (1909)
  8. Ipoh to Batu Gajah (1893) to Kota Baru (1894)
  9. Ipoh to Taiping (1896) to Chemor (1896) to Sungei Siput (1897) to Enggor (1898) to Kuala Kangsar (1890) to Padang Renggas (1901)


  1. Kuala Lumpur to Klang (1886) to Port Swettenham (1899)
  2. Connaught Bridge to Kapar (1913) to Jeram (1913) to Kuala Selangor (1914)
  3. Kuala Kubu to Kalumpang (1890) to Tanjong Malim (1890)
  4. Kuala Lumpur to Rawang (1892) to Serendah (1893) to Kuala Kubu (1894)
  5. Kuala Lumpur to Pudu (1893) to Sungei Besi (1895) to Kepong (1897)
  6. Batu Junction to Batu Road (1893) to Batu Caves (1905)
  7. Ampang Junction to Ampang (1914)
  8. Kuang to batu Arang (1915)

Negri Sembilan & Johor

  1. Seremban to Port Dickson (1891)
  2. Seremban to Tampin and Gemas (1906) to Johor Bahru (1909)
  3. Gemas To Bahau (1910) to Kuala Pilah (1910)
  4. Johor Bahru to Woodlands, Singapore (1923)

Northwestern States

  1. Bukit Mertajam to Nibong Tebal (1890) to Krian River (1902)
  2. Prai to Bukit Mertajam (1899)
  3. Pengkalan Tunggal to Gurun (1915) to Alor Setar (1915) to Kuala Kitil (1915) to Padang Besar (1918)

East Coast States

  1. Bahau to Triang (1910) to Semanta (1911) to Kuala Kerau (1902) to Kuala Jeli (1911) to Lembing (1913) to Kuala Lipis (1917) to Padang Tungku (1921)
  2. Tumpat to Tanah Merah (1914) to Pasir Mas (1920) to Rantau Panjang (1920)

In 1923, the Johor Causeway was built.

Development of Malaya: Agriculture

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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.

Market Gardening 

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.

Oil Palm

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.