Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 November 2020
In Malaya, improved transport was introduced to meet international rather than domestic needs. The economy was geared to the extraction of tin and the cultivation of rubber for export, neither of which provided a stimulus for the establishment of domestic heavy industry. The railways were essentially part of a system of colonial economic penetration; connected to Europe by way of the ports, they made possible the rapid carriage of goods. Thus they had practically no multiplier effect on the local economy; almost all the materials, skills, and labor (and to some extent the fuel) necessary for railway construction and operation were imported from abroad.—Amarjit Kaur
THE LOT OF the labour immigrant is seldom a happy one, today or a century ago. For many of those who travelled from China and India to work in the tin mines or rubber estates in British Malaya, life was far from easy in the period between the two world wars.
To be sure, the whole peninsula underwent tremendous changes in political, economic, demographic and ethnic dimensions during those years. The tin industry that had brought so many to Malaya's shores with its promises of wealth experienced its share of booms and busts, as did the rubber industry. As a whole, the urban population in Malaya grew from 22.7 per cent before the First World War to 35.1 per cent after the Second. This made it the most urbanized place in Asia outside of Japan.
While British interest in the Malay Peninsula had been strategic in the beginning, by the twentieth century, use of land for rubber production and the mining of tin had become their major economic concerns. These industries formed the basis of the colonial Malayan economy, governed by an administrative system created to provide it with stability and profit. Where labour was concerned, adjustability to shifts in demand as well as sustained low and stable wages were key considerations for the authorities as well as the employers.
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