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Women Workers and Ethnicity

status as colonial documents such as official letters or journal reports.39 However, the largest number of photographs are found under ‘miscellaneous’ in the archive and cannot be classified as ‘official’ photographs since their origins are in question. Nevertheless, many are a record of the nation’s history, which is shown by the fact that they have been reproduced as postcards in recent years celebrating the nation of Malaysia.

Malay women workers were rarely mentioned in the records because Malays’ work efforts in general were ignored and because non-waged work in the subsistence economy was not documented in the same way as waged work in the capitalist economy.40 This was a persistent theme in the archive from the 1890s to the 1940s. According to the reports, the Malays were only involved in the subsistence economy and ‘wage labour problems are accordingly here of slight importance as employment is generally limited to the family’.41 In the Labour Reports the following statement was repeated exactly, year after year:

Malay labour is of very little importance. No large estates depend to any great extent on Malays and the total number engaged at any one time on estates in the FMS is roughly about three thousand persons. The reason why more Malays are not employed is that they are unwilling to work regularly on such employment. They merely use the estates as a convenience to supplement whatever livelihood can be made out of their kampongs and cannot be relied on to remain on the estates when their services are most urgently required. They are not as a rule desirous of earning any more money than is sufficient to support them.42

Comments concerning Malays’ unwillingness to work continued to appear throughout the colonial period and were constantly reproduced in further reports. According to Major Orde Browne, the Secretary for the Colonies:

The Malays, who were the original inhabitants, were peasant farmers and fishers who showed little alacrity in undertaking new forms of employment when

39 Colonial Office, "Annual Report Federation of Malaya 1950," (Kuala Lumpur: 1951).

40 These reports were and continue to be utilised as historical evidence when charting labour history.

41 "Labour Conditions in British Malaya," 15.

42 Controller of Labour, "Federated Malay States: Annual Report of the Labour Department for the Year 1927," (Kuala Lumpur: 1928), 18.

development started to take place in plantations and mining. As in similar circumstances in other countries, therefore, immigrants were attracted from neighbouring territories, and a large Tamil labour force was imported to develop the rubber plantations while the Chinese workers have for many centuries exploited the tin mines.43

However, in the same report Browne noted that ‘the work involves long and arduous hours during the busy periods’, a fact which tends to refute the view that the Malay is not prepared to exert himself.44 Otherwise, only occasional references to the colonial representations of lazy Malays, especially the males, continued in official discourse and (even after Independence) were reproduced by ex-colonial officers who wrote Malayan history.45 For instance Vaughan, a retired colonial officer, writing in the 1960s continued to draw on the lazy native discourse:

As far as their occupations are concerned, we found them fisherman and paddy planters when we came amongst them and they remain so to the present day. Not a single Malay can be pointed out as having raised himself by perseverance and diligence, as a merchant or otherwise, to a prominent position in the Colony.46 Alatas argued the myth of the lazy native was merely a ‘veiled resentment against Malay unwillingness to become a tool for enriching colonial planters’.47 Similarly Jomo argued that the British government had difficulty getting Malays to work for them because

43 Major J Orde Browne, Labour Conditions in Ceylon, Mauritius, and Malaya, 1942 (London: His Majesty's Stationary Office, 1943), 93.

44 Ibid., 106.

45 W L Blythe, The Impact of Chinese Secret Societies in Malaya (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1969). Lennox Mills, Malaysia (London: Oxford University Press, 1958); Lennox Mills, British Malaya 1824-67 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1966). Victor Purcell, Malaya Outline of a Colony (London: Thomas Neilson and Sons Ltd, 1946); Victor Purcell, The Chinese in Malaya (London: Oxford University Press, 1948). Jonas Vaughan, Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1971).

46 Vaughan, Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements, 1. Likewise, Purcell asserted that ‘the Malay is lazy. That is to say, that he has no special regard for that feverish activity we Europeans call “work”.’ Purcell, Malaya Outline of a Colony. For further views on Malays by ex-colonial officers see Purcell, The Chinese in Malaya. John Gullick, Malay Society in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Beginnings of Change (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1987).

47 According to Alatas, the lazy native construction originated with colonial objections to the ruling classes’ unwillingness to work as they thought they should, yet after a period all Malays were given the

‘lazy native’ status. Hussein Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native (London: Frank Cass, 1977), 204-05.

British ‘intervention’ into Perak was a conquest48 and the British established colonial rule by negotiating with the ruling Sultans (especially those with little power).49 Once involved in the politics of the Malay rulers, the British administrators set one Malay ruling faction against the others until a treaty, the Pangkor Engagement (1874), was devised.50 Under the treaty it was essential for Malay rulers to accept and act upon British advice except on matters concerning Malay religion and custom (Article 6).51 Most Malay rulers saw this as an invasion of their territory and as a result the first British resident, James Wheeler Birch, was murdered.52 The British government eliminated the Malay rulers they considered responsible for Birch’s murder and those who posed a threat to British colonisation.53 After the demise of the ruling class, the British replaced the ruling class system with a ‘resident’ system in each state.54 This was not a democratic system as the ruling class was stripped of power except for cultural and religious events

48 Jomo K S, Growth and Structural Change in the Malaysian Economy (London: MacMillan Press Ltd, 1990), 1-8. Others argue that the masterminds of British intervention into Perak were the locals in Singapore and Penang, including the Singapore businessmen W H Read and his Hokkien partner Tan Kim Cheung a member of the Ghee Hin Society, (a powerful Chinese Secret Society). Robert Heussler, British Rule in Malaya: The Malayan Civil Service and Its Predecessors, 1867-1942 (London: Oxford University Press, 1981), 147. See also Wong Lin Ken, The Malayan Tin Industry to 1914 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1965).

49 Jackson discusses how the British government in Penang had discussions with both the Chinese leaders (Ghee Hin and Hai San) in Singapore and the Sultans in Perak until they found a Sultan who would allow a British resident into Perak. According to Pickering, Governor Ord made the decision to move into Perak to stop the fighting between Chinese factions ‘once and for all’. R N Jackson, Pickering: Protector of Chinese (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), 200.

50 However, colonial officers argued that the Malay ruling class invited the British into Perak to settle ruling class rivalry and to stop the violent clashes between the Chinese secret societies in the tin mining towns in Perak. Purcell, The Chinese in Malaya. Mills, British Malaya 1824-67. John Bastin and R W Winks, Malaysia: Selected Historical Readings (London: Oxford University Press, 1966).

51 Sakda, ed., The Journal of Sir Hugh Low, Perak, 1877. For further information see Jomo K S, Growth and Structural Change in the Malaysian Economy, 1-8.

52 Cheah Boon Kheng, "Malay Politics and the Murder of J W W Birch, British Resident in Perak in 1875:

The Humiliation and Revenge of the Maharaja Lela," JMBRAS LXXI, Part 1 (1998); Mallal Munir Ahmad,

"J W W Birch: Causes of his Assasination" (Masters thesis, University of Singapore, 1952).

53 Low refers to specific violent acts by the army against the Malays and Chinese living in Perak. See especially Sakda, ed., The Journal of Sir Hugh Low, Perak, 1877, 41.

54 Colonial administrators such as Hugh Low (resident of Perak after Birch was murdered) argued that the rudimentary nature of the administration at the time of the establishment of the residential system meant that ‘we must first create the government to be advised’. Cited in Simon Smith, "Hugh Clifford and the Malay Rulers," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 11, no. 3 (2001): 364.

and had no real say in the running of their territories.55 Under these circumstances, the British could not be assured of ruling-class support in the exploitation and mobilisation of the peasant population, nor of the peasant’s enthusiasm to work for them.56 Conversely, the British were unable to employ coercive measures to force the local population into working for them because they had been so critical of the Malay ruling class system of slave labour enforcement (debt bondage), especially female slaves.57

The British had to guarantee adequate rice supplies to feed both Malays and the expanding immigrant population. In government reports there were numerous references to the necessity to produce rice and other foodstuffs.58 In 1927, for instance, it was reported that ‘rice is the chief native crop and yet it is not grown in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of the population’. In the same report it was noted that labourers in the UMS often worked overtime to cultivate their own foodstuffs because there was very little food available. This shortage meant that it was essential that Malay peasants remain in the subsistence economy. In order to ensure the viability of the subsistence economy, the British government discouraged Malay shifting cultivation, called dry padi or ladang (clearing) and created a less mobile, and more easily managed population.59 The colonial

55 Ahmad, "J W W Birch: Causes of his Assasination".

56 See Jomo K S, A Question of Class: Capital, the State, and Uneven Development in Malaya (New York:

Monthly Review Press, 1988), 55-83.

57 After colonial intervention into Peninsula Malaya the British government outlawed the Malay ruling class system of debt bondage in 1883. See Sakda, ed., The Journal of Sir Hugh Low, Perak, 1877. J F McNair, Perak and the Malays (Singapore: Oxford University Press [1st edition published 1878], 1972).

Patrick Sullivan, Social Relations of Dependence in a Malay State: Nineteenth Century Perak (Kuala Lumpur: MBRAS, 1982).

58 "Labour Conditions in British Malaya." As Malaya did not produce enough rice to cover the dietary needs of both Malays and the increasingly large immigrant workforce so rice had to be imported from Burma and Thailand to feed the immigrant labour force. According to Nonini, colonial policies did little to change the situation. While the government invested money in irrigation and drainage and supported peasants in padi production, these policies were more pronounced during the times when the prices of tin and rubber fell. Donald M Nonini, British Colonial Rule and the Resistance of the Malay Peasantry, 1900-1957 (New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1992), 96-102.

59 Gullick, Malay Society in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Beginnings of Change, 51.

government succeeded in undermining shifting cultivation by confining Malay men and women to land specified for rice cultivation.60

The British hid their motivations for relegating Malays to village production by claiming that they were protecting the ‘lazy’ local peoples from the forces of capitalism of which they had no knowledge. The Malay Reserve Land Act (1913) allowed Malays to cultivate their land but prevented them from selling it, except to other Malays.61 However, they could and did plant rubber trees on their land and were able to enter the market economy selling latex to the rubber corporations.62 By the 1920s, Malay peasant smallholders had planted increasing numbers of rubber trees on ‘reservation land’ to sell to Chinese and European traders and in 1921 there were 415,799 acres of peasant rubber smallholdings in the FMS. The colonial government began to fear Malay economic competition and legislated the Rice Lands Act (The Padi Enactment Act) to ‘prohibit the cultivation of any cash crop other than rice on reservation land’.63 From here onwards land was divided into land for rubber cultivation and land for rice growing.64 In the 1920s, the Stevenson Rubber Restriction Act placed further pressure on Malays to remain in the subsistence

60 According to Nonini, this did not eventuate until after the 1920s because Malays resisted British intentions to confine them to padi growing by squatting on land and planting rubber trees. The small numbers of civil servants in many of the villages and towns made the control of peasants difficult and many officials were not aware of the numbers of peasants squatting on land and growing rubber. But Nonini argues that, by the 1920s, the government pushed the peasants away from capitalist ventures into reservation areas. Nonini refers to this period as the dark period in peasant history. Peasants were pushed into areas away from the main roads and transport. Roads and railways were constructed around the European plantation needs and not peasant landholdings. Nonini, British Colonial Rule and the Resistance of the Malay Peasantry, 1900-1957, 73-76.

61 There were nevertheless instances where Malays engaged in land speculation and made money selling their land to developers. For further information see Lim Teck Ghee, Peasants and Their Agricultural Economy in Colonial Malaya 1874-1941 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1977). Nonini, British Colonial Rule and the Resistance of the Malay Peasantry, 1900-1957.

62 John Drabble, Rubber in Malaya 1876 -1922 (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1973). Nonini, British Colonial Rule and the Resistance of the Malay Peasantry, 1900-1957.

63 Nonini, British Colonial Rule and the Resistance of the Malay Peasantry, 1900-1957, 73-74.

64 Stivens comments that even in Negeri Sembilan where colonial policies ensured the protection of women’s land rights, Malay land was increasingly concentrated into land for capitalist development, and land for ‘customary rights’, which was less valuable. Maila Stivens, Matriliny and Modernity: Sexual Politics and Social Change in Rural Malaysia (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1996), 96. Ong has also pointed out that land reserved for Malays in Selangor was ‘established in remnant, unsettled areas, the choicest lands were claimed by plantation and mining interests’. Aihwa Ong, Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline, Factory Women in Malaysia (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), 20.

economy as the colonial government prohibited any new rubber planting outside land reserved for rubber growing, which did not include Malay lands.65 Although many Malay peasants engaging in waged work started growing rubber in order to pay taxes set out under British rule, throughout the colonial period Malays were represented as lazy compared to other ‘races’.66 According to one colonial officer, Frank Swettenham, the government had no option but to utilise a non-Malay workforce in order to establish the British tin mining and rubber industry. Swettenham, justifying the government’s divide and rule policy, pointed out that ‘while the government’s first object was to benefit the Malays and make their lives easier and happier, they recognised that they must look to the Chinese as the workers and revenue producers’.67 Colonial laws and policies enacted to keep Malay men and women in subsistence agriculture, although not always successful, prevented many rural Malays from becoming a class of capitalist farmers. 68 Yet colonial officers blamed Malays for their failure to engage in the capitalist economy.

Women workers were occasionally represented as hard workers in order to highlight the laziness of the Malay males. In some reports, colonial officers mentioned women’s resilient attitude to hard work in agricultural smallholdings when discussing Malay family labour.69 However this was usually portrayed as the victimisation of women rather than women’s independent work status. According to many colonial officers, Malay men were too lazy to exert themselves and instead exploited family labour.70

65 See Lim Teck Ghee, Peasants and Their Agricultural Economy in Colonial Malaya 1874-1941. Nonini, British Colonial Rule and the Resistance of the Malay Peasantry, 1900-1957.

66 In Frank Swettenham’s anthropological study ‘The Real Malay’ he redeems the Malay male to some extent by stressing that while the Malay has no stomach for really hard and continuous work, either of the brain or the hands, if you let him take his own time he can produce most beautiful and artistic things. Frank Swettenham, British Malaya (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head [revised editions published by Allen &

Unwin in 1929 and 1948], 1906), 138.

67 Sir Frank Swettenham, Footprints in Malaya (London: Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1942), 72.

68 As Jomo has pointed out, colonial policies and practices clearly discriminated against peasant interests in favour of plantation interests. Jomo K S, A Question of Class: Capital, the State, and Uneven Development in Malaya, 51.

69 "Report of the Colonial Labour Committee Concerning the Recruitment of Labour."

70 Frank Swettenham, The Real Malay: Pen Pictures (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1900).

Swettenham, British Malaya. Clifford, An Expedition to Trengganu & Kelantan 1895. These colonial views